The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Brendan Lorber
Brendan Lorber’s first full-length book of poetry, If this is paradise why are we still driving?, will be published this spring by Subpress. His work has appeared in journals including American Poetry Review, Fence, and McSweeney’s. He is the editor and publisher of Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature that publishes rough drafts alongside contributors’ final work.
1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?
Someone just spilled an entire bowl of the chili I made for them into the chair that, before the chili, was mostly occupied by just me. This is happening right now. It is going down my pantleg and now there is SO MUCH CHILI in my boot. They said it was an accident, but whether or not you believe in accidents, there is an equal amount of foot and chili in my boot right now. But you had a question which, like my boot, the chili does not belong in. But here we are.
The person who spilled the chili is nine. When I was nine I got in trouble for writing really mean things about my family and saucy things about other people. In trouble mostly because I wrote it on the furniture. My parents got me a desk-sized pad of paper so I could keep it up but they wouldn’t have to sand it off or even look at it. That was good start, but for the really unspeakable explorations of pre-teen perversity and death-ray comeuppance, I used scraps of paper that I hid behind my desk. Without knowing it, I was preparing for being a poet through a choreographed descent from overt writing, to clandestine writing on the back pages of the pad, to full self-erasure in the form of writing that nobody knew was even there. Once invisible, I could really make it up as I went.
But what I was making wasn’t poetry. Neither was what I did a few years later, at peak young oafhood, when I was wholly uncomfortable in my body and unspeakably terrified of everyone else’s. Through my four years at Stuyvesant High School, every new wave of unbearable hormones was no match for my copy of the Associated Press Style Guide, my well-worn handbook of extreme sublimation through journalism. Except of course the veiled subject of everything I wrote for the school newspaper was precisely the thing I was not supposed to think about. Rising deficits? Snicker. Staff cuts? Ha! Even the structure of journalism was provocative. The weird news article spelling of the word lede made me giggle for reasons because it existed to me as a repressed correlate to the weirdly-spelled word cum. I wrote a series of articles about teenage sexuality for the school newspaper based on questionnaires I handed out. I got in trouble for that too, but not much, because nobody told me their real secrets and I flatlined the remaining filth with a doofus teen sociologist sensibility that wasn’t sure how babies were made, except that it was scary.
I was the most uptight kid in Greenwich Village, more into Indiana Jones’ whip-for-idol trade in the Andes than the Velvet Underground around the corner from my house with their Venus in Furs bullwhip, or Devo’s whip it good encomiums around the other corner, or all the nitrogen backroom burn-to-shine whipits in between. This was fine, because I was going to be a newsperson, like my father before me, and my grandparents before him. But I also had very long hair and wore a tweed suit with bowties which was less future anchorman than unhinged time traveler. Some people say I had a cane, but that was only one winter when my knee was all janked. I slipped on the ice. And it was cold, which is why a cape too, but only very rarely with the cape, because you have to draw the line somewhere.
Then, in that last winter of being a teenager, I met a poet at the Reggio Café on Macdougal Street. She was only a couple years older but she was getting her doctorate in early 19th century Germanic language and literature which gave her the air of someone who’d been in the neighborhood since Greenwich Village really was a village. She was also forming a utopian conclave in Hastings-on-Hudson in an old house with a printing press and vanilla candles. Aesthesia was part Walden, part Temporary Autonomous Zone, part Yates’ bee loud glade. It was also far away so we wrote many letters to each other. She sent 13th century Walther von der Vogelweide spruchdictung poems which I read with the German dictionary I’d already used to fail my two years of first year German (I am now an expert in first year German.) And I’d write poems back, mostly Keats meets Blake in a caffeinated butterchurner. They announced themselves as poems but didn’t say much else and I knew it. She quoted Oscar Wilde to me: “Being beautiful is its own form of genius.” There’s probably a Middle High German word that means simultaneously flattered by the charity and demolished by the truth. Chili-gefültestiefel maybe? I was not beautiful, but I was definitely less smart.
Yet the secret space of even these flawed poems was a solution — not the problem-solving kind of solution, but the opposite, alchemical kind. A solution in which all linear ambitions are dissolved. How could journalism compete with Rimbaud’s sinewy revelations and what Richard Hell referred to as lightning striking itself? All the messy contradictions were less issues to be fixed but rather fuel for ever onwardedness through broken-keeled derangement of the senses. I wasn’t sure what to call that space or how reliably to inhabit it, but it seemed more real than everything else that I did understand.
Not long after that I fell in with people at ABC No Rio on Rivington Street during the Matthew Courtney era, poets who were happy to point out that I might want to look at some developments in poetry in the 800 years since von der Vogelweide. For about a year I devoted Friday nights to Steve Canon’s Stoop til 10pm then over to the Nuyorican Poet’s Café for the readings that routinely went until 4am. Keith Roach invited me to be the featured reader on Friday around midnight and I was super terrified, as though I’d been strutting around saying I’m a surgeon and someone just handed me a scalpel and told me to get to work.
And I still feel that way, except now I’m totally down with being the novice doctor who skipped that day in med school. Or the lost explorer at either the South Pole or South Park Slope. Or the cup you put down at a party and then can’t remember which is yours. To be a poet is to be picking the wrong cup, ready to learn from the wet cigarette butt in your mouth. And if I’m wrong about that, it only just proves me right (win/win (actually lose/lose)).
And we’re up to this exploration together, each in each our own ways. Listen, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I can’t do it without you. You who are reading the conversation between me and Maureen, a fellow practitioner of this weird religion in which we are gods who don’t believe in ourselves. I still don’t know what life is, or America, or memory, or where babies really come from, and not knowing is the best reason to keep going. It’s like when they stopped Indiana Jones to ask how he, with nothing but a stolen horse and a whip, could get the lost arc of the covenant back from the Nazis. “How? I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?
–Everything in Ted Berrigan’s On the Level Every Day is good advice, and so whoever suggested I read it needs to be thanked. It might’ve been Lou Asekoff, brilliant teacher of so many brilliant poets who is adept at identifying where you were headed and with a single phrase he makes it like when Han Solo said punch it Chewie and you’re making the Kessel run in 12 parsecs.
–Filip Marinovich, one freezing, windy Occupy Wall Street night about 3am said, “We are the ancients.” “What?” “For our descendents: we are the ancients. They’ll look back at everything we do and write right now the way we look back at O’Hara, Niedecker, Rumi, Notley, Ovid. All those guys. Every moment is history if you want it. So we should act that way. We are the ancients!” That’s not an exact quote, but the inaccuracy of legends comes out of necessity. Unless you really commit to some Sex Pistols belief that the world’s about to end, it’s a big responsibility and it places each poem of yours squarely in the infinite.
— Frank McCourt told me to never write about the subway because he was sick of reading New York writers going on about the subway. This was good advice because at the time I really wanted to just write about the subway, how it is awful and magic. But I obeyed, which was miserable and great. Writing with extreme confinements like not writing about the subway is equivalent to being on the subway at rush hour where your discomfort makes you extremely aware of the extremities of awareness.
–Learn to write with chili in your boot, because there will always be chili in your boot figuratively, if not podiatristically. That’s some good advice, maybe the best, because it applies to this very moment.
— The quickest way to clobber a good vibe is when you say, hey poet why don’t you write about whatever this good conversation was about before I said that. The problem is that poems aren’t about things, things are about poems. It happens to comedians too when people misunderstand comedy as coming from something other than pain. And musicians when people believe that they should talk about something other than how they’re going to buy a drink for the bass player. If people keep telling poets what to write about, they should commit to all professions: “You’re a doctor? You should totally start a blackmarket organ business in one of those fancy townhouses where St. Vincent’s Hospital used to be.” “You’re a cop? You should reflect on your desire for total control over people with the least amount of self-determination or recourse to your abuse of power.” “You’re a pilot? Why don’t you fly me to the moon. I want to play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. In other words (continue until you have recited the entire Ella Fitzgerald songbooks).”
— Over lunch at KK’s diner on 1st Avenue with Allen Ginsberg. It was the coffee shop I’d gone to a lot in high school which that wasn’t many tuna melts before this one. He held a cup of tea in one hand and a pencil in the other. There was some terrible poem of mine between us. It was about something, despite what I said a minute ago. A deli on east 4th Street had caught fire and everything was charred except for the bright oranges and mangos outside. It made you really wish you’d been there to see it, or anywhere really, other than reading this poem. He took a sip of the tea and very slowly hesitated over the page with his pencil. It was really a selfless act, figuring out how to salvage this poem from the cluttered, slightly post-adolescent mind that had created it. He crossed out each word, slowly and one at a time. He explained why each phrase was failing to do anything surprising or vivid. Then he wrote out how the poem ought to go in between each line. It was like having delicious chili poured right into your boot. By then end he had converted my poem into a jewel-centered Allen Ginsberg sonnet which was excellent to see, but dangerous to emulate lest I become a milquetoast echo of a barbaric yawp.
3. How did your new book come into being?
My new book is also my first book. I’ve been working on it for over 20 years. It’s called If this is paradise why are we still driving? and it didn’t want to be a book at all until about a year ago when the Subpress Collective required that it be made. I’m talking to you in the uneasy time after the book is ready but before it’s been printed. What if it all goes to hell? I don’t want to jinx anything. But all poetry books self-jinx. Artaud said poems should be read once and then destroyed to make way for the next ones. Or maybe it was someone else while I was thinking about Artaud. Such are the distractions of 2018.
You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes what you want gets you, which is a lot kinkier. Kink as in you and the universe reshaping around the unsolvable — less like a tree growing through a fence and more like when the angel and devil on your shoulder fall in love and the only thing keeping them apart is your big head. It’s like Todd Colby reminded me that Eileen Myles once said “everyone has a missing part and all the world’s about it.” In most cases, our missing part is the empty space where we fail to get out of the way.
There’s a lot that’s not in this book because here’s how I made it: wrote every day since the mid 1990’s and then crossed out all but 100 poems. That’s like erasing all but the best four seconds of the past day. But absence, the missing part, is also a charged field. If this is paradise creates a field for things to happen, and then prevents them from happening, so that what you secretly desire can happen instead. It’s like reading your own diary, if you woke up next to your diary in a strange house you don’t remember falling asleep in, and it is 20 years later than when you last checked. And also if you were writing in your diary as the secret love child of Anne, Barney and Robert Frank, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Wright Brothers.
If this is paradise is also an extended, promiscuous love letter to a lot of people. I once got to teach a workshop at the St. Marks Poetry Project called “To Poems: poetry in dedication” in which poems get charged up and ready to go by being angled at a person. Here are some of the people who get called out by name (in order of appearance) Mark Lamoureux, Lorine Niedecker, Eileen Myles, Stacy Szymaszek, Matt Longabucco, Joe Elliot, Jenn McCreary, Lauren Ireland, Douglass Rothschild, Shafer Hall, Bernadette Mayer, Sharon Mesmer, David Borchart, Michael and Peter Gizzi, John Coletti, Tom Devaney, Spock, Rick Meyrowitz, Brenda Coultas, Marvin Lorber, Jakob Lorber, Noelle Kocot, Jim Behrle, Matvei Yankelevich, Tracey McTague, Edmund Berrigan, Adam DeGraff, Maren Ade, Milt Milton, Bill Kushner, Dale Sherrard, Giordano Bruno, Anselm Berrigan.
If this is paradise implicitly say a lot of things about a lot of people. I ought not to do this, but I’ll regret more not doing it. Here are what three of my favorite writers said about If this is paradise…
Wayne Koestenbaum: “Hearing the great Brendan Lorber anoint someone “the Ansel Adams of bathroom mirror selfies” gives me license to call this new book the Flow Chart of Midwinter Day, or the “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” of “Second Avenue”: Lorber—whose poetry is gregarious, profound, syntactically opulent, and emotionally generous—has assembled a fiesta of koans, flights, and moody amalgamations, all narrated with a bliss-oriented, rhythmically-propulsive, death-haunted insouciance.”
Edwin Torres: “Brendan Lorber sits at an ancient East Village window sill — a time traveler adept at the patterns of emotional cataclysm, a Cheshire Cat mediator between science and what air believes in… ‘the world’s, not flat, it’s bubbly.’ To eavesdrop in the petri dish of New York City, is to be presented with a million stories that want some privacy…‘the whatsit, and the hole, in the bag, it falls through.’ In these concise poems beamed into focus by wickedly honed undercurrents, Lorber captures our cities of concrete and happenstance in koan after koan, bundled by catchfalls we barely remember, there, at the turn of the page, containing keys to other portals. Lorber gives us continual nightfalls that keep us primed in the embers of morning. This book is a love song, to the timelessly urbane minutae and its gathered appendages masquerading as you, out there… ‘I see you humanity / and raise you.’ Indeed, shift your rise, paradise, and find me.”
Alice Notley: “I’m psyched on Brendan Lorber’s use of a line that’s broken into phrases/feet, leading to unexpected syntactical twists. You get set up for one meaning, then taken around another corner. One hears O’Hara across the spaces between phrases/feet and sometimes the Williams of the variable foot. Sometimes shorter phrases sculpt exact tone-of-voice and meaning, and the line is also great as a philosophical reasoning method. Technique aside, the poems are playful, pained, deep, erudite, vernacular of now, and funny. Lorber himself remains mysterious. What happened? you say, then, Maybe I don’t need to know. ‘We don’t address the origins The origins address us’. This is a really good book for thinking, which is probably what it’s about.”
4. Is there a generative prompt, practice or ritual that you find particularly helpful, or that you would recommend to students, friends, or other poets?
Languor takes time but our time got taken. There’s no limit to the limits on our nights and days, all the responsibilities imposed and chosen, that means one is free to live it up only in stenotic slivers between things that must be done. After hours of duty to economic gods you don’t believe in, or to kids who believe in you, you are suddenly released. It is difficult to find in those shadowy post-demand canyons what it is you really want, and even more so to find the time and energy for pursuit. There’s always moments to write choppy doodads — but not to pass into languor, to drift through open-ended tolerance of your own sweetly monstrous thoughts, their meandering vectors and inefficient pace, not unlike this very sentence, a journey that is the destination even if it doesn’t really go anywhere, but which is the prerequisite for real departure. I don’t have hours to engage in the slow-serve practice needed to take a seat within eternity. But I do have displacement techniques like when you stand between two mirrors and see yourself arcing away forever. Here’s what I do: I write whatever jacked up confinements pass for thoughts right after having been shot out of the day’s demands. Then I write the opposite/mirror of each word above the originals. Then the opposite of that. Sometimes I reverse the word/phrase/line order. You can’t immediately change what you’re thinking, but you can change/reverse its form and reflect it back. And if that doesn’t work, I put my feet up and eat the chili.