a magazine of poetics
Issue #4, Spring/Summer 2001
[This interview began by email in the summer of 2000. At some point, frustrated with the slowness of the exchange, we decided to meet up at a café in Brooklyn and continue the interview verbally. Following this dialogue, Wanda sent along a few more emails in clarification of some of her verbal answers, and these have been incorporated into the present piece.]
Issue #4, Spring/Summer 2001
Gary Sullivan: Let’s start with the series of yours I’m most familiar with, the “Morning Poems.” The collection of these you’ve sent along goes from “Morning Poem #1 – 9/15” to “Morning Poem #66 – 11/16.” I’m assuming, given that, that this is one of those Bernadette Mayer-type of extended-period experiments, where you’ve set up a series of parameters (write something each day, right after you’ve woken up, or maybe prior to 12:00 noon, etc.), and what we have, now, is the result of that? I’m wondering if you could talk about the process of putting these poems together, how they were generated, and what you discovered, what was revealed to you, as you
Wanda Phipps: Although I have been greatly influenced by Bernadette Mayer’s work and have studied with her, the “Morning Poems” series wasn’t inspired by a Bernadette Mayer experiment at all but by some of Mitch Highfill’s poems in his book Liquid Affairs. I’d heard him read them before they were published in the United Artists edition and thought his writing method seemed like fun. It would definitely be an interesting way to keep me writing every day. Maybe Mitch’s were inspired by a Bernadette Mayer experiment but I’m not sure if that’s true. I was also inspired by the title of the book Hypnogogic Sonnets by Charles Borkhuis.
But I have always been interested in writing from dreams or finding ways of transcribing dreams and turning them into poems. I’ve always loved the way Bernadette Mayer does that in her work, particularly in one of my favorite books of hers, Midwinter Day. So the idea of writing every day upon waking gave a promise of lots of fresh dream material and the challenge of turning it into poetry.
When I began writing the poems (not at the same time every day, by the way, but whenever I’d wake up each day and whenever I was able to start putting pen to paper) I found that of course there was much more there to work with than the remnants of dreams from the night before. Sometimes that state between dreaming/sleeping and fully waking was full of conflicting emotions, battling thoughts and images without identifiable origin.
My head was a lot more hectic than usual then since I was in the process of moving during those couple of months. So all of the details that entailed: lists of lists of lists of lists, to do lists, to pack lists, scheduling and sorting through old stuff to make room for the new brought back a lot of memories that sifted their way into the poems. And then after the move happened, the transitional period of being in a new place brought a whole new series of questions: What is home? How is a home made? Do I ever really feel at home? They all came into play in my life and in the “Morning Poems” The concept of identification or non-identification with place brought up issues of identity in general and the random ways in which an idea of self can be constructed.
GS: I wanted to ask you how you initially got involved in translating Ukranian literature with Virlana Tkacz? Are you still continuing to do theater/translation work together? What has that experience been like for you?
WP: Well, this seems to be a long story. I’ve known Virlana Tkacz since college. I was studying English with a Program in the Arts Theater Concentration at Barnard College (undergrad) and she was in the Graduate Director’s Program at Columbia University across the street.
I met her while we were both working on a summer festival of political plays at Columbia called “Muck” (pretty funny, huh?) directed by George Ferencz. I did so much theater then, sometimes six shows a semester, usually acting.
On this production I was an assistant stage manager, I think, and Virlana was the assistant to the director. That’s how we met. I remember she read my palm once during a break in rehearsals and I liked her instantly. I think she said she learned how to read palms from a Ukrainian relative.
Later, she cast me as a part of the acting ensemble in her graduate thesis project. She was directing a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.”
After that, or maybe it was before that, I can’t remember which, I worked as an intern at the American Place Theater, at the Women’s Project which was housed there then. I read and evaluated scripts and assisted the casting director. I would sneak into the rehearsals of the show George Ferencz was directing there at the time and so he had me do some work for the show. It was a strange but interesting musical called “Paris Lights” about American ex-patriot writers in Paris in the Twenties. It had great songs like one made from the Alice B. Tolkless recipe for hashish fudge and one called “Lifting Belly” based on a Gertrude Stein text. This all must have been before the political plays at Columbia because that’s where I first met George and how I found out that he was teaching at Columbia and affiliated with the University.
But a while after that I filled in for Virlana while she was interning in Europe with Andrei Serban. I assisted George Ferencz in casting an Amiri Baraka play he was about to direct called “Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing” at New Federal Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side. And later I was production assistant on another Baraka play George directed called “Jazz Opera” at La Mama E.T.C. (which was the first show I ever worked on at La Mama.) George had directed another Baraka play “Slaveship” as a part of the festival of political plays at Columbia. That’s where I first met Baraka (later, when I was at Naropa he actually critiqued my work, which was a great experience).
After finishing at Barnard I studied acting for a year at the Advanced Training Program for Actors at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Annette Benning was there around the same time I was, funny huh? She was really nice though and we lived near each other in Cole Valley, near the Haight. And we would have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together in the student lounge at A.C.T. and I remember a long conversation we had while sitting on the stoop in front of my apartment in Cole Valley when she was just trying to get into films and she was complaining about how difficult it was.
I was at A.C.T. for around a year and then stayed on in San Francisco for another year and decided to give up acting and the theater period, or so I thought at the time.
While I was in San Francisco that second year though I became more involved in poetry as a public act. Before then I had rarely done poetry readings of my own work or gone to poetry readings or tried to get my work published. But that second year in San Francisco I started submitting my poems to litzines a lot and went to Naropa for the summer and saw more poets together in one place than I had ever seen in my life (not to mention some of my poetic heroes). That summer and the couple of summers I attended in the years after that I met Anne Waldman, Michael Brownstein, Allen Ginsberg, Bernadette Mayer, Gregory Corso, Andy Clausen, Andrei Codrescu, Robert Creeley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, William Burroughs, Leslie Scalapino, Diane di Prima, Nathaniel Mackey and the younger poets who were students then: Lee Ann Brown, Mitch Highfill, Michael Rothenberg, Sharon Shively, India Hixon, Eleni Sikelianos, Chris Funkhouser, Katy Lederer, John Wright and the list could go on and on. It was an overwhelmingly awesome experience for me.
And when I got back to San Francisco after that first summer at Naropa I began doing a lot of readings and actually helped to run a reading series that my then boyfriend ran at Larry Blake’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.
This is so strange, every time I start answering questions about my poetry it turns into some kind of memoir in miniature!
Okay. So alright, I got side tracked. Let’s just say after my second year in San Francisco (around 1996 or 1997) I left after deciding to give up theater. Plus I missed New York. So I came back here.
Shortly after returning to New York I resumed my friendship with Virlana and she came to see me read up at the old Postcrypt reading series at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia. And she asked me to help her with the text of a Polish Play she was directing called “An Altar to Himself.” She did a staged reading of it at The Henry Street Settlement and then a workshop presentation and a full production at La Mama, E.T.C.
That was in 1988 or 1989, I think. After that show we talked about wanting to work more with staging poetic texts and she had a dream of starting her own theater company of young actors to create collaborative experimental theater. I love the concept of experimental work but every time I use the term I’m reminded of the great actress and director Ruth Malazcech (of Mabou Mines fame) who once said something like “never call it experimental, they’ll think you don’t know what you’re doing.” But I like the idea of experimenting like scientists with the dynamic theatrical elements and being able to play and explore. Maybe I should call it exploratory work? But then that sounds too much like something to do with surgery.
Anyway, soon after the Polish play Virlana started her theater company Yara Arts Group (a resident theater company at La Mama, E.T.C.) And I’ve been working with her in some capacity ever since, either as a dramaturg, co-translator, co-writer or text consultant.
We do a piece a year. Usually a workshop production first and then at some point a full production in Ukraine or Buryatia and always at La Mama E.T.C. here in New York. That means I’ve worked on eight or nine Yara shows (as well as smaller staged readings and workshop productions). I also worked on translating poems Virlana used each summer to stage theater workshops at the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard for around ten years. And we later compiled a chapbook of these poems.
The last Yara piece “Circle” was the only piece I hadn’t worked on with them in ten or twelve years, since the beginning of the company.
But to answer the rest of your question: we seem to always be in the process of working on some translation or other and we are now. We’ve just started up again after taking a break this summer while Virlana’s spent a couple of months in Ukraine and Siberia. Right now we’re working on another long Buryat shaman’s chant (this time from the Ust Orda Region of Buryatia) and also on some traditional Ukrainian carols, not Christmas carols because there’s actually a lot of pre-Christian pagan content. They’re more like songs celebrating the new year, fertility and harvest. Some of these will probably end up being used in the next Yara theater piece.
And recently we were commissioned to translate the lyrics of traditional Ukrainian folksongs to be included as part of a folksinger’s CD package. That was a little bit easier job because we were translating for meaning mostly and the English lyrics didn’t have to fit the original music (but they do with lyrics we translate to be sung in the Yara shows).
We haven’t only been working on Ukrainian literature though, it’s shifted over time. We’ve also been working on Buryat folksongs and shaman chants with artists from Buryatia (a Republic of the Russian Federation in Siberia named for it’s indigenous people — the Buryats). We’ve been working with Sayan and Erzhena Zhambolov. They’re performers who’ve been awarded the title Honored Artists of the Republic and are members of the Buryat National Theatre.
They’ve led us to the people we recorded on trips to the villages of Buryatia for material used later in some of the shows. And artists from Buryatia and Mongolia have performed in the productions with members of Yara’s American company there in Buryatia (using more of the original language texts) as well as in the U.S. with joint Buryat/American casts.
What has the experience been like for me? Well it’s been quite various since it’s been going on over such a long period of time. I love collaborative work and I love dealing with theatrical elements and having a good actor delivering lines I wrote or rewrote or translated can be a real kick.
But, the translation process itself can be difficult since it sometimes involves maybe three levels or stages of translating by different people. Also, I speak none of the original languages, although I’ve picked up a word or two here or there.
For the Ukrainian translations Virlana (who is a Ukrainian American born in New Jersey) does the rough translation. She of course chooses the pieces we translate because she can read them in the original language and then she shows her rough or usually a fairly literal translation to me and together we work on it and try and make it clear while making sure it still reads as poetry in English. Sometimes they are modified later by the input of the actors or others involved in the shows or because of the needs of the production but we try to keep them as true to the spirit of the original as possible.
With the Buryat translations there’s a more complicated process. The song lyrics and chants are gathered, in the field, I guess you could say (recorded in the villages of Buryatia or from the Native speakers visiting here in the U.S.). Then Sayan or Erzhena (who speak Buryat and Russian) translate the Buryat into a Ukrainian/Russian combination that Virlana understands (because she doesn’t speak Buryat) and then she translates them into the fairly literal rough English translation stage and then again at that point I work with her to get a workable, energized and poetic English version that we can use.
The most intense experiences for me was participating in a 36-hour shaman’s ritual in the Aginsk Region of Buryatia and also hearing these beautiful old women in the villages singing thier folksongs for us. It’s been challenging and difficult for me but also fun and enlightening.
So, I’m really grateful for the once in a lifetime opportunities I’ve had to visit Siberia and Ukraine and to meet the people there, be welcomed into their homes and be able to collaborate and make art with them.
GS: I wonder how working in the theater has changed, if it has changed at all, the way you think about poetry? Obviously, it might change the way you approach reading poetry aloud, but has it at all offered you any insights with respect to writing poetry? Given you other possibilities of approach?
WP: As you can tell from my answer to the previous question I had been working in the theater (mostly as a performer) for a long while before starting to work with Virlana and Yara. So, the dynamic elements of theater have always informed my writing.
When I was in High School for instance my artistic heroes switched from Eliot and Yeats to Ntozake Shange. Then in college to Antonin Artaud, Peter Brook, and the actors and directors of the Open Theater, The Living Theater, Mabou Mines, and the Wooster Group.
I’ve always been interested in the use of poetry as theatrical texts and it’s uses in ritual performances. I don’t know if it has changed the way I think about poetry or not. I’ve always been interested in the musicality of language, the oral aspects of poetry, the power of incantations, spells, chants, prayers and the idiosyncratic individual drama of a poem, telling stories in the broadest sense, whether healing, educational or simply entertaining. I’m turned on by the way words can create a brief bond — a bridge between the poet and the reader/listener. I like the simple alchemy of that, turning experience (painful or joyful) into art or bringing strangers together as my mother used to say “on one accord” for at least some brief moments of understanding.
I’ve always been drawn by the beginnings of theater in the spoken word, the poetry of Greek Theater, the chorus, etc. … and the role of words in tribal rituals and sacred ceremonies, sacraments and processions.
At Barnard for a class exercise I helped stage a Shakespearean monologue as a Druid ritual. Unfortunately my own readings have seldom been as participatory. I do remember a few readings I did in Oakland and San Francisco where I cut-up lines from my poems and had the audience draw them from a hat and then they read them out loud creating a new poem — an audience cut-up poem. For a Karen Finley workshop I led a group to repeat lines in unison while I spoke over them in the manner of a preacher leading a Sunday service and used props treating ordinary objects as sacred objects. I haven’t done anything like that myself in a while, but It was fun.
I also performed in two Leslie Scalapino plays for the now defunct Eye and Ear Theater. It was the theater of Ada Katz, the painter Alex Katz’s wife. For the shows the texts were by poets and all the design elements: lights, sets, etc. by painters. Ada and Alex’ son poet Vincent Katz did the music. It was fun. I also performed in a couple of the plays put on by the Poet’s Theater festival that Bob Holman used to do at La Mama and at the Poetry Project. There the casts were made up of these odd but fun combinations of real actors and poets. I was in a Robert Duncan play I think it was with poets Lee Ann Brown, Euphrosyne Bloom and the now deceased poet and filmmaker Piero Heliczer. And then I replaced someone in a play where I was the wife of Martin Luther. That whole festival was a blast.
I guess even though I had decided to give up theater back in San Francisco it didn’t last. I performed in those shows after moving back to New York and I also played one of the leads in a production of “Twelfth Night” at Westbeth.
I’ve also worked with a wide variety of musicians over the years and I’m still doing that. It always ups the theatrical ante when I read poetry with music and it’s also capable of communicating on a level way beyond language — a more visceral level. So, I like combining the two. I’ve worked with guitar heroes Vernon Reid, Gary Lucas and a host of other wonderful musicians and with a variety of instruments from tablas to the pencillina (played and invented by Bradford Reed) and the typeoclavecin (played and created by Joel Schlemowitz). Recently, I’ve been performing with a band. I’ve started writing songs and singing them, throwing them in there between the poems with the band backing me. I like it a lot. I hope to soon have a quality recording to document what we’ve been doing.
As far as being involved in theater giving me insight into the way I write poetry, I guess I can say that I’ve always written informed by my love of theater and have always been concerned with an aspect of direct communication while maintaining complex sound and rhythm in the language. I’ve very rarely written poetry using conventions of the theater such as character or plot because those don’t interest me that much.
I don’t know if that’s all really an answer to your question of theater’s influence on my poetry …
GS: “Your Last Illusion, or Break Up Sonnets” is an intensely moving series, and I wonder if you might talk about writing it, but keeping a line from another of your poems in mind while doing so: “people are essentially/ ambiguous …”
WP: About writing “Your Last Illusion or Break Up Sonnets”: It’s interesting that you ask me to keep in mind “people are essentially ambiguous” because I wrote this particular series at a rather ambiguous period in my life.
I guess it had to be around 1992-93. I was still working at the Poetry Project then, as the Program Assistant in the office and also coordinating and hosting the Monday Night Reading/Performance Series. For around 4 years I think I’d been living really far out in Brooklyn in the Kensington area around Cortelyou Road and East 17th Street on the D-train line. Really far out — almost to Brooklyn College or Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island but not quite.
But towards the end of writing “Your Last Illusion or Break Up Sonnets” I moved to the Lower East Side in Manhattan — to East 7th Street between Aves. C & D down the block from Elliott Sharp and I used to run into Herbert Huncke a lot and Paula Igliori (who ran In & Out Press) and it was great to be close to my job and to feel more apart of the artistic community down there.
But it was also a pretty traumatic time for me. For 6 months or so before moving to the Lower Eastside I has a sublet in Park Slope on Flatbush Avenue between right below 8th Avenue. That’s where I started the series I think. The French Restaurant “Bistot La Marseillaise,” mentioned in the poems, was right below my apartment. I think it’s a Blockbutster Video now. During that time I also lived briefly in an apartment on East 6th St. and First Ave.on Indian Restaurant Row.
So, the poem series encompasses those physical spaces — those 3 different places I lived while writing it and the mindsets they provoked. I know I wrote the first 17 rather quickly and then wrote the last 2 some time later. Now that I think of it — I wrote most of it in that 6 month sublet in park Slope and the rest during the summer on E. 7th Street (between C & D).
The first 17 of them were published by Bob Hershon in the journal Hanging Loose because I thought the series was finished then but discovered it really wasn’t.
So what is it about? As you can tell from the title it’s about loss and about the end of a particularly painful relationship. But part of the title “Your Last Illusion” I took from the Mahabarata, I think. I’d seen a stage adaptation of it by Peter Brook and I loved that phrase. It seemed to say a lot about the way we see things at the end of a relationship, the way hopes and expectations turn into disappointment and regret. The interesting way in which we see people through these faulty lenses of desire and then slowly a deeper truth is revealed about ourselves and our lovers.
I was also inspired by Ted Berrigan’s sonnets. His recycling of language throughout a sonnet series, the way colors and phrases kept repeating like obsessive thoughts about a lover. I liked writing the poems including fresh material from my daily life but then making them beautifully odd by adding these words or phrases from the earlier poems, haunting refrains like the way your past follows you, stays with you whether you like it or not.
There’s also a line of investigation in the piece struggling between being in a group and being alone or being alone within a group. I like that there’s no consistency regarding the use of “he” or “she” that it jumps from one gender to another, one sex to another. In other poems I’ve done that more, it kind of mirrors some mild malady I suffer from occasionally where I switch genders when I’m speaking, I’ll call a man “she” or a woman “he” or I’ll speak about someone’s “wife” when I mean their “husband” or “boyfriend” when I mean “girlfriend.” I’m not sure why that happens other than maybe I see those roles as more “ambiguous” or more fluid and changeable and less rigidly constructed than most people view them. I don’t know.
Anyway, the series has a definite arc, a linear story involving a working through this tremendous sense of loss, moving through a kind of mourning phase, a depression into acceptance and moving forward again. There’s a lot of sadness and anger in the piece but also a very sensual love of the language, seeing the beauty in the pain as a way of illuminating it and ultimately transcending it.
That’s all I can think of to say about them right now. Other than the fact that I like writing poem series, other than “Your Last Illusion or Break Up Sonnets” I’ve also written “Variations on the Blues for Jo Jo,” “temporary poems,” “Lunch Poems” and “morning poems.”
[This part of the interview took place at the Flying Saucer café in Brooklyn, and was transcribed a couple of months later.]
GS: Okay, you had mentioned something earlier about how in the breakup sonnets you were messing around with who you are, with gender —
WP: Yeah, I have a strange habit of sometimes switching gender when I’m talking about people, or thinking about them, saying “he” instead of “she” or “husband” instead of “wife.” [Laughter.] And I don’t know why. But, I think that sort of slipped into the breakup sonnets. Not that I wrote about male when I meant a female or anything like that, but I would sort of jump around talking about men and women but not really identifying who’s who or sort of making transitions or anything.
GS: I was thinking about what you’re doing in light of Kathy Acker. You’re doing these things where you’ll take on these names, you’ll take on Sarah and David, and they’re writing these letters back and forth to each other in the middle of this piece, this dream sequence piece. And what I was feeling was that you’re actually quite empathetic, whereas Acker seems very much kind of like — she’s almost being sarcastic about identity. And she’s kind of hostile, and angry, but it’s also very distanced. But there’s almost no distance in yours. It’s very empathetic. Anyway, I wanted to talk about this because this keeps popping up in your work, these references to … well, to a kind of amorphousness … to a kind of blurring of various things … you write “I’m so fickle, my world-view” … much in your writing seems to be very blurred: Gender, world-view, etc. … and you seem to have this kind of Whitman-like empathy. Is that how you experience the world?
WP: I don’t know … I mean, I do feel that things are more ambiguous than, um, that edges are kind of more blurred for me than for a lot of people. I don’t know why. I’ve been interested in eastern philosophy and religion, and I’m interested in the interconnectedness and interdependency of everything, so maybe it’s about that.
GS: I guess I’ve just never seen it manifested quite this way. And in every level of your work. So that the theatrical elements, to go back to that, in your work, might not be so much character or story — although, wait, no, there is definitely story.
WP: Yeah, and in a lot of the poems there’s a sort of through-line, though it kind of meanders a little bit, it kind of wanders around. I remember that, when I was at Naropa a long time ago, Larry Fagin was saying “People don’t think like that!” Because he was saying that people think in this straight line and there’s always this kind of story —
GS: Whatever you say, Larry — [Laughter.]
WP: And, maybe he does, but I don’t, I really don’t. I mean, I’m very interested in how ideas and perceptions and all of that gets interrupted over and over, and ultimately colors the way you look at something or the way you feel about something.
GS: There’s this really great moment in one of your poems where you’re going to start the poem, and you can’t start the poem, and you’re kind of already talking about the poem in the poem. [Laughter.] Oh, what poem was that? [Shuffles through the manuscript.]
WP: Yeah, that was during this period where I had been in San Francisco and I’d just moved back to New York. And I was meeting with Bernadette Mayer, and I was asking her, “Bernadette, Bernadette, I have all these notes, what should I do, I can’t seem to edit anything, and I don’t want to edit anything, I don’t know what to do with it.” And she said “Well, put them all together and make them one poem.” So I did. “Returning.” That’s the poem. Because I was returning to New York from San Francisco.
GS: But, oh, wait — I think, looking at this now, we’re talking about different poems. But, since you’re talking about this one, let’s look at it. [Laughter.] Um. So this is the one where she was telling you to take several poems and run them all together.
WP: Well, just putting together all of the notes I had, all of the writing I’d been doing, all of the fragments. And she liked the idea that I was bouncing around from prose lines to poetry lines …
GS: Yes, and it begins, “what world would I write if I were to write today?”
WP: Mmmm, I’m not liking this … this part down here.
GS: What? What part?
WP: “held some excitement in the holding of/ regrets: a sign of age/ or innocence?”
GS: Why not? What’s happening when you’re reading this now? [Laughter.]
WP: I don’t know. I just think it’s a kind of really … boring statement, instead of … “art.”
GS: Yeah, but Bernadette’s kind of famous for boring statements instead of art, and that’s what makes her wonderful … to me.
WP: Yeah. I guess, people do think things like that all the time, even if they’re sort of silly or boring or hackneyed or whatever. But. So, it’s okay that it’s there, because it’s part of that whole thing I was going through, I guess.
GS: Well, but it seems like that’s the whole point. I mean, certainly with Bernadette: “I’m going to go ahead and allow everything in,” and if the point of poetry is a kind of perception and a kind of altered perception, wherein we’re seeing things “as they are” that we don’t normally see … then … I would think that this idea of opening up to anything would be crucial for that.
WP: It’s interesting. There are a lot of people who have the opposite idea, who would crystallize everything, edit down to this really sparse —
GS: And you don’t seem like you do that.
WP: Well, sometimes. Not mostly.
GS: I think the pieces that come closest to that sort of approach are the letters you were writing back and forth with David Cameron. They’re kind of these very precise things — although at the same time, they’re somewhat ambiguous as to what is quite going on.
WP: It’s funny, we performed those poems once in our pajamas … on a mattress. [Laughter.] And everyone assumed we were lovers.
GS: Why were you guys in pajamas?
WP: We wanted to do like a bed-in, like with Yoko and John. [Laughter.] We just liked the theatricality, the idea, you know, and we were both in separate beds, he was in Brooklyn and I was on the Lower East Side, and we were writing these poems to each other.
GS: But there’s also a lot of sexual references as well, so maybe that’s why people assumed …
WP: The gender switching thing happens in these poems, too.
GS: So, explain to me how this project was carried out. What would happen? Would you send an email and then the other person would respond to that?
WP: This was pre-email; they were post cards.
GS: I can’t even imagine that. [Laughter.]
WP: We mailed them to each other through the snail mail. He sent — it seems like he sent these longer pieces, and then I would do these shorter things kind of bouncing off them, more minimalist, maybe I had less time. I would use whatever he had written to me as inspiration, and maybe take a line or something and just go with it. It wasn’t very calculated; there was no particular method. Some of these were published in O.blek: Writers from the New Coast, and they published some of David’s poems too; one that was from his side of this project, and another that wasn’t.
GS: How long ago did you do this collaboration?
WP: Well, it was when I was doing Monday nights at the Poetry Project, and David was my assistant then …
GS: Maybe 1992 or 1993 so?
WP: Maybe, yeah.
GS: Some of these, yours, seem to be almost self-contained units:
it up in
I stand on the edge
with flowers waiting
for his arms
WP: Well, he wrote a bunch of poems about — very romantic poems kind of idealizing certain women, very descriptive. What they looked like, how they made him feel. So, I was responding, in a way, to what that sort of provoked in me, the way I look at women, the way I look at men. That’s why it’s got all this sort of sexual energy. And it was kind of flirtatious.
GS: There’s also another thing in here — and it’s kind of related to this empathy idea. Is this your voice here?
WP: Hmm? Yes.
GS: “I want men to die of longing for me” …
WP: Well, this is one of the more performance-y kind of poems. So, it’s a bit dramatic, like a rant, although it’s not angry. It’s about opening, about being so happy you just want to embrace everyone. Which I would never actually do, because I’m a very shy person.
GS: And this preoccupation, with “opening,” is elsewhere in your work. “A need for the entrance visible.”
WP: That’s “Radical Doubt.” I play a lot with the gender thing there, too.
GS: “Radical Doubt” seems to come out of your dreams.
WP: There are mostly actual incidents. I had taken a workshop with Chris Tysh at Naropa, and this was kind of a response to some of the Freudian stuff she was throwing out.
GS: And what about the kind of set up here … it’s almost Beckett or something:
this is strange — what is strange — opening up a place — inventing sound to fill space — to begin again then again to say or echo a voice — a thought — mind slips — this odd configuration living this — several patterns submerged and then rising again — tight chest — too many faces — terrible time — fill in the C-spot — stand still — stop — I will stop here — this is time to stop — is disengagement the prelude to total implosion? — saturation point — scale the world down to where it fits
And I guess it reminds me a bit of Beckett because it’s abstract, yet clearly referring to some situation, maybe an existential situation, a figurative situation. But the second paragraph begins with the dreams, but the dreams are missing, it says … and it moves from that to this ideal —
WP: There are no dreams, but there are these sort of strange waking visions that I was having. Like maybe just having woken up from a nightmare, and the rest includes things people actually said.
GS: I’m curious about the form. Like, what happened when you sat down and started writing this?
WP: What happened? I was really disturbed. I was very emotionally upset. And I wanted to document what was going on.
GS: And this is a kind of short-hand way of doing that.
WP: Yeah. I mean, that’s — I don’t really know how to talk about my writing. Um, and this here, I was kind of playing around with the idea of male and female, polymorphousness —
GS: The ankles?
She says: does it, did it, did she, he, it move, touch you? well did she? would you tell me — loving minds and breasts — did it move — the earth — the mind — the lace curtains — did they? does it touch you — me — she — at all — being an introvert only my perception of his touch touches me and being an extrovert you adjust to the object — objectively rearranging matter — logistically planning placement of wrists, ankles
“I could never make love to a woman if I didn’t like her ankles” he said. I’ve never noticed ankles before as being particularly attactive or repulsive — similar motivations — intensity
WP: Yes, somebody actually told me that. I thought it was interesting, a way that this person was thinking about women. I never had really thought about ankles before. It was kind of odd, Victorian maybe. But, then, once — I have this therapist. And one day, his socks were kind of creeping down. [Laughter.] And I saw his ankles. And, “Oh, goodness!” Then, I sort of understood what this guy was saying about ankles. But, that has nothing to do with the poem, really.
GS: You end this first section talking about the need for openness, which could be a longing for empathy. And there’s a way in which I was seeing these two states of being or whatever, longing and empathy as kind of existing simultaneously, or reliant upon each other? Empathy relying on desire.
WP: I think in here, I maybe talk about being an introvert. Which may explain my obsession with connection and openness, because it’s so difficult for me. I’m a very shy person.
GS: Is that why you perform so much?
GS: I’m serious! [Laughter.] That’s actually sort of common. People who are intensely shy, and so they get involved in performing of some kind.
WP: I have huge stage fright. But I always agree to do things, and it does feel really good if it goes well. I don’t know if it’s about connection with the audience, or if it’s about effectively expressing what’s going on in the moment, really being there. It sometimes seems when you’re performing like everything’s really open, you’re perceiving everything and taking everything in, and that feels good.
GS: Now, I’d wanted to ask you about “Blues for Jo-Jo.” This really happened to somebody? You’ve got this line about the stitches
— “your stitched head is holding fine.”
WP: This was my boyfriend in San Francisco, George. He now lives in Hawai’i. When he lived in San Francisco he worked at Shambala Bookstore in Berkeley. And he also ran a series at Larry Blake’s. So, I met him, going to a reading there. Now, he’s a lawyer in Hawai’i. He’d had a concussion at one point. Anyway, I was bored with what I was doing, I felt like all of my poems were starting to sound the same, so in this one I started cutting things up, and use found material, and lines from TV and from flyers, and whatever. Cutting it up and seeing what would happen.
[End of side one.]
GS: Are you still doing the magazine? Big Bridge?
WP: Yes. I’m one of the contributing editors, yes. But, Michael Rothenberg does everything else.
GS: How did you hook up with Michael?
WP: I met him at Naropa the first time I went. I was still living in San Francisco then and he was living in Pacifica, and so we kept in touch after we left Naropa, and when I moved back to New York we kept in touch. We’ve been friends for a long time now, exchanging and reading each other’s work. Actually, he edited this manuscript [Field of Wanting], and then I did more work on it after he did the initial edit. When I first met him I really liked him, and we stayed friends.
GS: So when did he start the magazine? Or did you start it together?
WP: Yeah, he wanted to know if I would work on it with him.
GS: Had you had much experience on the web prior to that?
WP: Well, I had made my own website, Mindhoney, and I’d been doing proofreading for sonic.net, and I’d been doing all of that by email. But that’s about it.
GS: That’s pretty web-savvy, though.
WP: For the first issue, actually, I did a lot. I proofread the whole thing, and made all the corrections in HTML, and I contributed a lot of east coast writers. Basically that’s what he wanted me to do, to get good east coast writers. So I did that, and continue to do that. And now he’s doing Jack, too.
GS: Had you done editing before Big Bridge? Did you ever have your own magazine?
WP: When I was working at the Poetry Project I did one issue of a magazine called Xyloid, and I’m not even sure anymore what that means. [Laughter.] But I loved the sound of the word. I wanted to call the magazine Shift, but then I discovered that a lot of people had used that already. But, anyway, I did one issue, and it was mostly people I had booked for the Monday nights, a lot of performance people, and these were the texts from that. Oh, and I worked with this guy a long time ago, Etan Ben-ami. He did something called The Cheap Review, and I worked a little bit with him on that when I first came to New York back from San Francisco. What else. I was poetry editor for this paper called The Women’s Quarterly, but the issue I worked on never came out, they folded, after I did all this work. That was a disaster. [Laughter.] And I’ve been reading manuscripts and on the editorial board of Lungfull!. I worked on the New York City Poetry Calendar when it was just a broadside. I worked on that with two other people.
GS: Your boyfriend is Joel Schlemowitz, and he’s a filmmaker, right?
WP: He’s an experimental filmmaker, and he’s made a lot of 16 millimeter shorts. And also these beautiful objects, film boxes he calls them. He just finished one last night. He makes the actual box, covers it with material, and then he puts these objects in it. Then he puts a Super-8 viewer in it, with a film loop he’s shot, and they’re lovely. And he also does larger video installations.
GS: Have you collaborated with him?
WP: He did a short called “Film Poem for Wanda Phipps,” which is based on one of my poems, and which has his images in the beginning and then he sort of filmed the poem, scrolling down the page. And I was in one of his shorts, and a few of the loops in his boxes. He invented this instrument, the typeoclavecin, and he plays that or guitar with me while I read.
But Joel’s all over the morning poems, he’s in them a lot and in a lot of my more recent poems — here’s one totally about him:
today my baby made black wings
out of metal and rubber
and I carried the remote control
with me to the bathroom
don’t know why
today my baby made me
breakfast in bed
scrambled eggs and home fries
and I tried to resist the urge
to count the gray hairs
in my crotch
today my baby wrote
his 126th affirmation
and I played “House of the Rising Sun”
on guitar while watching
a biography of Doris Day
on tv and a movie called
“Hell Dolls” during the commercials
today I asked my baby
did he think I was “exotic”
when he met me
he said “no, just enchanting”
while his black cat curled
into a fat furry knot at the
foot of the bed
And there are others that probably specifically mention film and projectors and moving images. I definitely have seen a lot more experimental films since I’ve been with him and have expanded my circle of friends to include a slew of filmmakers. I’ve also spent time carrying heavy objects to different venues for his screenings and exhibits. I operated a hand-made dolly for him while he was shooting once and held the fire extinguisher off camera while he shot a bouquet of burning flowers. He’s had me in one or two films, shot my hands, made one film as I said based on one of my poems and he’s searching for another. I also read all of his screenplays and help him choose colors for his film boxes and help him decide on the packaging of his work (the business aspect of it). He does the same for me, helps me choose poems to read. We collaborate on designing my CD covers and cassette inserts. He updated the design of my webpage Mind Honey and takes all the headshots I need. But more real collaboration comes in with the music. He’s a wonder with that aspect of things. He has a really quirky and interesting sensibility that I really like. I think living with a filmmaker has seeped into my poems but at this point it’s hard to pinpoint just how. Other than the fact that everything in my life affects my poetry and he’s definitely a huge part of my life.
GS: You sent me a tape of your music and readings, at the Project and elsewhere, some studio stuff, but it seems like most of it is from live readings. So, you do an awful lot with music.
WP: Yeah, a lot of times I’ll write a text and I’ll think, “Well, this isn’t a poem,” so maybe it will become a song. Usually if it’s simpler and more straightforward, direct. Though, I don’t know, that sounds strange.
GS: Oh, I don’t know; it makes sense. If you’re creating a poem, you’re creating the music for it, at least in your case, your work has a musical element to it. And maybe if the lyrics are too much like a poem in that way, you’d get this weird moiré effect. So, I can understand that. Have you found that it’s more difficult to take already existent poems and trying to make them work with music? Where you suddenly realize, wait a minute, this is too much!
WP: No. The people I work with come up with interesting ways to decorate and emphasize. I really like it. It’s this other language. I like it a lot. [Laughter.]
GS: We’ve only got a little time left on the tape, and I kind of want to go back to Field of Wanting, to “Zither Mood.” What is a zither mood?
WP: What is a zither mood. [Laughter.] I just like the sound of the words. It’s in the poem, the poem explains it. [Laughter.]
GS: Okay, so let’s read it.
WP: You read it.
you said “sometimes lap dancers wear pearls”
you said you’d “give me pearls”
found I was laughing in my sleep last night
don’t know what was moving through my sleep
I crave popcorn
“popcorn love” just like the boys
in Miranda Sex Garden
What’s Miranda Sex Garden?
WP: Oh, it’s a band. [Laughter.] Well, it’s a band of women who were singing madrigals, and then they added a rock band, but the guys in the band look like girls.
GS: Right, I see:
who look so much like girls
span style=”font-family:Arial;color:#008080;font-size:small;”>what was I thinking
only noticing the flood light through the window
and a wild fuzziness of sensation
WP: Oh, that’s … interesting … [Laughter.]
GS: And it continues:
perceptions juggling together
like the two vodka tonics and the sips
of McSorley’s dark in my tummy
I call up these emotions and they set
my neurotransmitters popping
in stereo — no polyrhythmic layering jamming
the system — lower back aching
my boyfriend says from too much Pepsi
affecting my kidneys
why don’t I find the Yugoslavian journalist attractive —
GS: Why don’t you find the Yugoslavian journalist attractive? [Laughter.]
WP: I don’t remember who he was! Oh, wait, no, I know — he was some guy at Sophie’s, do you know that bar, on 4th Street on the Lower East Side? It’s kind of a pick-up bar. A friend of mine liked it a lot, and so I used to have to go there. Anyway, I think that was a night we were bar-hopping and some Yugoslavian journalist …
GS: And the first part ends:
why ask why
when a silver moon smiles down
WP: Sliver moon.
GS: Sliver moon. There’s a second part to the poem, which ends:
I’ve felt this kind of lazy freedom
this is a journal like poem
a rattling off of minutia with
things of great import hiding
in the corners — I love
what hides in the secret
corners of poems like codes
begging to be broken
have to wake up (stop) my tea is cold
Do you send something into a poem, like that? To hide in the corners? I just thought of another line from another of your poems, where you say “Kick out the corners.” Like you have this idea of these nestled areas.
WP: I wrote that? “Kick out the corners”?
GS: You did, yeah. In this one I think to David. [Pages shuffling.] Oh, hey, wait a second! I just found the one I was talking about earlier! “Poem Coming.” Oh, let’s actually — this is the one I was trying to find when we first started talking. Can we talk about this one a bit? I wanted to begin with this poem, and now that the tape’s about to run out, I just found it.
I feelthis is the poem
stop now — must stop now
to record the poem
stop now and record
the poem —
You’re stopping to record the poem, and you’re telling us that you’re stopping to record the poem —
WP: I hadn’t written a poem in a really long time. And I was beginning to think I wasn’t a poet any more, and then this happened, and I was excited.
GS: Is this the literal — what happened?
WP: Well, it’s in there. I was on Crosby Street, near Spring Street. And I went into the bookstore, and I saw a friend’s poem in some magazine, and they were talking about someone that I knew, and I was kind of envious of my friend being published, but also envious of how my friend was writing about this person. [Laughter.] And, yeah, I was suddenly really, really happy. I was walking around I was starting to write this. And I started to think about this guy who I was obsessed with, and so this part down here is about him. And I combined this guy and my friend into this one experience of walking around Crosby Street, feeling celebratory because I was writing a poem again.
GS: And you started writing it with these words, “I feel this is the poem”?
GS: I would be afraid if I started writing that down that I would become too self conscious. But that seemed to trigger something for you. The sudden self consciousness.
WP: Yeah. Because it wasn’t like I didn’t have anything to write about all the time I hadn’t been writing. But, I wasn’t doing this, I wasn’t stopping. And that I guess was the realization.
GS: So this first part is an imperative, almost.
WP: Since I was a little girl, this is what would happen. I would hear the lines in my head, and then I’d write them down. So this was that coming back after a while of being dormant. I used to have whole, fully written poems come to me when I was younger. Sometimes I still get whole poems, but I think now I’m more critical, or feel the lack in them, so I fiddle around with them more now.