All About the World of Wanda

Living With A White Girl

WA N D A   P H I P P S 
In t e r v i e w e d   b y   M e r r y   F o r t u n e   f r o m    L i v i n g    W i t h   A    W h i t e    G i r l / 1 9 9 3      

Photo: Vivian Selbo
Wanda in still from Yvonne Rainer’s film Privilege

Merry: You know, usually we’re talking our heads off. Suddenly we make it official with a machine and –

Wanda: What’s weird about interviews is that, when we are just talking and having a conversation, you are giving as much input into it, and I am getting as much feedback, and it’s a back and forth thing. Sometimes in an interview, where there’s just one person asking the questions so that you will just spill your guts and open up your brain, you don’t have as much to say because you’re not getting equal feedback.

M: Well, I try to give a little, but I know that I am interviewing so I kind of –

W: Oh let’s just talk! I think we should just talk. Subvert the –

M: – medium…O.K.., I’m into subversion!

W: Subvert the medium and just have a conversation!

M: O.K.. So, we will pretend we know each other!

W: Pretend we know each other!

M: You never really know a person…

W: That’s true.

M: Should we gossip! Should we trash everybody!

W: Is that what we do?!

M: Let’s start with uh…The Poetry Project!

W: O.K.. What do you want to know?

M: Maybe instead of acting like we know each other, we should act like we don’t!

W: O.K.!

M: There are going to be new things happening at The Project on Monday Nights, right? You were telling me about some exciting new ideas; so tell us more.

W: New things happening there?

M: Yeah…remember we were – Wanda!?

W: Well we haven’t really solidified any ideas about what’s actually going to happen…I want to book more performance artists and to change the atmosphere a bit. There is room for other things. I would like to make it more congenial and a nicer place to be, to just hang out, and cultivate more of a community of people who come regularly.

M: Tell me about when you first came to The Project and how it was for you when you wrote that letter –

W: What letter?!

M: The letter to Ed Friedman – the letter begging him for the job! 

W: Oh that. Well, that was after I had already been around the Project for four years, volunteering and attending events. I had read at the New Year’s benefit for about four years, and I had already done a Monday night. Actually, the first job I applied for was Newsletter Editor but I didn’t get it, and I was upset. So, I didn’t want to apply for the Monday Night job when it was open, but friends encouraged me to do it – so I did!   M: When I first went to The Poetry Project I was so excited about all these alternative individuals/artists hanging around. For the most part they were an open and receptive bunch. I thought all the real rebels had uh – dried up or something…. How long have you worked there?

W: Coming up in September will be my third season. When I first heard about it, I was in college at Columbia. I had friends who lived down here [the East Village] and they kept telling me to go, and I didn’t listen. Then I ran into this person (who I fell in love with) and he was telling me that it was a very exciting, cool place to hang out. I had never been to a poetry reading, ever. So I went to hear people he had told me about – Eileen Myles, and I think Alice Notley at The Basement Workshop. I was sort of blown away, and I loved their work. Right after that I moved to San Francisco and I ran into Anne Waldman who was reading at The San Francisco Art Institute. She told me about Naropa, which this person I had fallen in love with had also told me about. He said it was a wonderful place, a gathering of interesting writers. I went there that summer, and I was excited. I had never seen so many writers in one place before, so many poets. It was fun and stimulating. It was very inspiring for my writing. That summer they had an amazing faculty – Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, Jack Collom, Gregory Corso, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Philip Whalen, Bernadette Mayer and others.     

M: Who are the writers who have influenced you the most?

W: There, or in my whole life?

M: In your whole life. Who did you feel most drawn to?

W: I’ve been writing poetry since I was in the third grade, but in high school, I guess I started being influenced a lot by Ntozake Shange. I really loved her work because I was also interested in theater, and she utilized poetry and performance, and her use of language is very interesting. So a lot of my early poems are imitations of Ntozake Shange. Then I grew out of that phase, and after Naropa I think I became inspired by more experimental writers such as Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley. I love them a lot, and what they do.

M: Yeah. What do you think about all these forms of poetry? The New York school of poetry, performance poetry, language poetry – how would you describe language poetry? You obviously know more about poetry than most people. If you had to explain to a child, for instance, what language poetry is, what would you say?

W: I don’t think I would be able to explain it to a child, because so much of language poetry is complex, abstract theory. So it would be really difficult.

M: Don’t you think children are sort of natural language poets? They explore sounds and are not hindered by subjective self-consciousness.

W: That’s true, but my understanding of it is that there’s this very political agenda behind language poetry. I guess it’s the idea of subverting the language of those in power. Using language differently, therefore trying to break that down. I’m not sure if that really works. In a way it’s the same thing that the Dadaists did. I’m not sure that’s anything really new – that it might in any way affect the way people behave in the world, or affect the power structure. I like what the language poets do, sometimes. The really good poets make interesting work. It’s funny and unusual, and sort of strange – surprising and playful! I really like the work of Aaron Shurin, Christopher Dewdney and Leslie Scalapino.

M: Sometimes theoretical and structural “obligations/confines” obscure the artist. Personally I think language poetry, or for that matter any kind of art is at its best when it reveals the condition of the person creating it, and not just a chosen aesthetic which they might be momentarily partial, or prone to.

W: A child would just think it’s word play, and free association. Most of it is based on specific methodology. For each poem the poet invents a method, and this varies. Sometimes they do it through mathematical calculations, for instance, or by counting every third word in the dictionary under a specific letter, and that would be the poem. So in some ways, it’s very disconnected from the idea of individual expression. Sometimes they do come up with interesting work. I like to do that sometimes, as an experiment.

M: Concentrating on craft/structure can free you, and sometimes letting go of it produces the same effect. It depends on what mode you become stuck in, in those moments when you become stuck. I guess I am saying that change is good.

W: Being a language poet and only having that one mode of expression, relying on a method, would be really boring to me. I don’t think it works in freeing others of their usual connections to the words, because people add their own background and experiences, their own personal associations, their mass associations with the culture – particularly pop culture – to whatever they read, and that’s all still going to be there no matter what you put on the page. The language poets claim it rips the normal boring meanings from these words, and I don’t see that it actually really does that.

M: Is it your feeling that it alienates people?

W: I think people are alienated by more abstract work and experimentation, because they feel they can’t identify with it; it’s not linear, so they don’t want to put in the amount of effort it might take to find anything in it, or get anything out of it. So they just let it go, and they don’t pay any attention to it, and then they say they hate it.

M: They feel threatened by it. Hate is often a substitute for understanding. We feel threatened by things, poems, other people, situations – so there is a lack of understanding. So rather than understand – people hate. Are you of the school of thought poets and other artists must somehow try to change things?

W: No. There’s a place for all kinds of art – artistic expression. Art with a political agenda, with the idea of changing the world, is just one form of art and there is a place for it, and it is very important, but it is only one kind of artistic expression. There should be room for all kinds, as many kinds as there are individuals.

M: So expression for the sake of expression is just fine. People who just need to express and do not necessarily have anything to say–

W: Well, I don’t think that’s really true. People who have a need to express, which is almost everyone, if they do express themselves I think it is because they have an individual vision and perception of the world, which affects other people. We are all connected and if we become aware of the way another person lives their life, if we become aware of, for instance, the problems they have in their life, it makes people more sensitive and aware, and perhaps we can then do something about things. I think each person’s individual life is important, so each person’s individual expression is also important.

M: What do you think of the Nuyorican? I know you like performance poetry.

W: Yeah, I do. I love performance poetry. Do you mean, what do I think about the slams?

M: Well, the being at invisible odds, sort of thing. Sometimes you talk to poets and it’s – the Nuyorican does this, and St. Mark’s does that, and they got these set ideas, and sometimes it would seem, in the minds of certain individuals, that the two venues are at odds.

W: Well, I definitely don’t think they’re at odds.

M: Is it a myth?

W: Yes! It is! It is a myth – you know that!!

M: Well I know that!

W: Everybody who’s doing interesting work, and has read at the Nuyorican, has also read at The Poetry Project. Almost anybody you can think of. I found many of the Monday Night people at the Nuyorican. I thought they were doing interesting work, so I would give them a reading at St. Marks, and probably vice-versa. 

M: What about the slams?

W: Well…

M: I didn’t see you at the slams!

W: No, I did a slam once…

M: Oh did you!

W: Yes! I did!

M: When did you do this – slam?!

W: It was a long time ago. It must have been two years, three years ago.

M: How did you feel? I was a judge!

W: Yeah, I’ve been a judge too. I’ve been a judge, and I have been a contestant, or whatever you call it.

M: A poetry contestant! The poetry Gong Show, yes!

W: Well, as a judge I think I had more fun than as a slammer. I felt, in a way, my work was being minimized, because if I wasn’t providing the audience with some kind of broad entertainment, then I knew I wouldn’t win. So whoever was the broader “entertainer” ends up being the winner. I don’t think it necessarily means they are the best poet. It’s like a game show.

M: Mob mentality. The energy is what is important. In a mob, the energy rises and things get out of control and it becomes less and less about communication – more about sheer reactionary energy accelerating as fast as it can. Of course there isn’t any violence at the slams. The slams – it just becomes spectacle sometimes.

W: Spectacle, that’s it. “Society of the Spectacle” at the Nuyorican!

M: But Wanda – you like it!

W: I like the energy that’s generated, and I like the interest that’s generated for poetry and poets. But that shouldn’t be the only thing that happens, and it isn’t the only thing that happens at the Nuyorican.

M: Lewis Warsh dislikes when people memorize their poetry. I think he thinks somehow it isn’t really poetry unless it’s read off of a page.

W: What is it then?

M: I don’t know. Ask Lewis.

W: Performance?

M: Yeah, I guess.

W: Then what’s a play reading? What’s that? Is that really a performance? If they don’t really memorize things and they’re reading it from the page – but they are still actors who are performing in a sense.

M: I’m not sure that it matters what you call it.

W: I don’t think it really matters. It’s this grey area, as far as definitions and labels are concerned – which I hate. I hate definitions and labels and classifications.

M: I remember once you and I were having a conversation, and I had asked you if you could express what it is, analytically, you do in creating your poetry –

W: (Something like elevated quarter tones.) No! No! No!

M: So you can’t do that. So could you explain to me what your feelings are about how you can’t explain what you do, but that you do it anyway?

W: Uh?! Well, it’s like the workings of the body. Not very many people know all the intricate workings of the body, not anyone. I don’t think anyone really knows that, but they do go on living. People breathe everyday, even though they don’t know the exact biology involved. You do it, and it sustains you.

M: Like people have hands, even though they don’t really know how to have hands, people have tongues and they don’t really know how to have tongues – you could go on like that! That’s very Buddhist, no? 

W: Is it?

M: I think so. Feels like it. So what are your feelings about Buddhism and sex?

W: (Feigns shock.) What?!

M: Not necessarily in that order.

W: Buddhism and sex…you mean like tantric sex or something?

M: Whatever you want.

W: I think sexual energy is a very important energy. It’s a life giving force. It’s one of the main places that creativity comes from, creative expression. I think it’s the same kind of energy as sexual energy. It’s just channeled in a different direction. I don’t know if I really thought that much about sex and poetry.

M: It’s just so much a part of your work. Maybe for you it comes so naturally, that you never think about it. But for a lot of people it’s not so easy to deal with.

W: I guess I’m very interested in interconnectedness between people and nature and the different elements of life, and I guess it comes out in my writing. I’m also interested in the details of perception, and as I was saying about each individual expression being of importance because each individual is important – I think in a way I deal a lot with my own individual perception, in expressing that, in hopes it will inspire people to see things in a new way. I’m not necessarily saying that my way is the right way. Attempting to see, to perceive things in a different way is an important thing to do. It breaks you out of your experience, your rut, and makes you more aware of things which you may overlook. 

M: Do you think food is important, as we sit here eating your tamari nuts? 

W: Well, it keeps you alive. You have to eat. Everybody has to eat! I wish we didn’t have to eat. Actually, I don’t really enjoy eating because –

M: Do you think eating is a waste of time and you could be doing other things or something?

W: Yeah! (I laugh.) Really! I’m sorry! I’m sure if I didn’t have to eat, I wouldn’t sit down to a big meal, which I hardly do anyway. I would just nibble all day long.

M: Maybe you could just get food injections.

W: Ewe!

M: Ewe! Like in that song In the year 2525.

W: Really?! Do they talk about giving people injections instead of eating?

M: Yeah…I think somewhere.

W: What about on Star Trek where they have replicas of food, and it’s really just the vitamins and the nutrients, but it’s replicas of food you would normally eat. Nutrients in the form you like, such as pasta, lasagna, a cheeseburger – whatever, it would look like that. Maybe not exactly taste like it, because it would be a replication of it, but it would have all the nutrients and vitamins you need to live.

M: I must have missed that episode.

W: No, it’s in all of them. They say to this machine called a replicator, “Give me an Earl Grey Tea” and it gives them the tea, but it’s not really –

M: They actually say Earl Grey?

W: Yeah, sometimes.

M: Is this the new Star Trek, or the old one?

W: I think it’s the new one. They might do it in the old one, but I don’t remember.

M: Well if they do it in the old one, I must be terribly unobservant, because I don’t remember this.

W: Yeah, there are people from different planets and there’s this huge vocabulary of food. And the people say, I want this blah, blah, and they request this weird kind of dish, and the replicator would give it to them. Maybe – barbecued squid tentacles.

M: Umm…tasty.

W: And they’re always complaining that it’s not exactly the real thing, and it doesn’t taste exactly how they remember it.

M: Yeah, maybe I remember something like that.

W: I’m trying to change my diet. I’m trying to eat in a healthier way, so I can have more energy.

M: Yeah. There’s a lot of that going around. Food is central to existence.

W: Yeah, food is very central, but I enjoy tasting it and I don’t feel like stuffing myself and having a big, huge, meal. I like tasting it, and then when I taste it and I know what it tastes like, I don’t want it anymore. I want to taste something else!

M: Oh – that’s revealing!

W: Shut-up! 

M: Do you feel that way about…MEN!!

W: I don’t think so. I guess I feel that way about behavior and activities with anybody. I like things varied, and I don’t like to do the same old thing all the time. I’m a life taster! Which probably means that I have a short attention span or something.

M: Yeah. You are just totally deficient Wanda. Go back to the womb, recover and then come back and tell us about it. (Laughter, silence.) Actually you do so many things very well – singing, acting, poetry…

W: I try to do a lot of things I find interesting. I also like combining different media.

M: Did your mother encourage you as a little child? Or was it just in you – are you possessed ?! I am!

W: Yes. It was in me, and then sort of came out, and she appreciated it. Yes, she did encourage it, and that encouraged me to keep doing it, because mommy liked it!

M: And you wanted to be a poet when you were three years old?

W: I used to write my own nursery rhyme-type things.

M: Get them published! Wanda’s Nursery Rhymes! So, what is the most personal question I can ask you? What kind of sex do you have with “Mr. Right”?

W: We have passionate sex.

M: Well, that’s a good pat answer. What books are you reading?

W: The Madame Realism Complex, by Lynne Tillman. I like this book. She uses the persona of this character, Madame Realism who I think is an art critic – some of the pieces were published in Art in America. Lynne explores the process of writing, the idea of a writer’s voice – finding your voice, losing your voice, exploring the process of thought. She writes the way she thinks; she writes in this very circuitous, linear, no circulinear way.

M: That’s a good word, circulinear!

Wanda Phipps is the Monday Night Reading/Performance Series coordinator for the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church; editor of the literary publication Xyloid and dramaturg for the Yara Arts Group, a resident theater company of La Mama E.T.C. Her work is soon to appear in the anthology Oblek: Writers from the New Coast. 

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