Thursday, June 25, 2009

Interview: K. Lorraine Graham

Special feature! I interviewed the lovely K. Lorraine Graham about her new book, Terminal Humming, and her "poetics" in general. She's so lovely, in fact, that earlier this year we were sitting outdoors having happy hour cocktails when a woman at a nearby table, who was nearsighted, I hope, and had an ill-behaved dog, told K. Lorraine Graham she was lovely and asked me if she was my daughter.

Enough about me. You can order Terminal Humming directly from Edge here. Lorraine does yoga, is the owner of a parrotlet named Lester and lives by the sea.

I once read a bit of advice quoted in one of Kate Greenstreet’s first book interviews, something along the lines of: You already know the person who is going to publish your first book. That’s always stuck with me. How did you go about assembling your first book manuscript and sending it out? Did you enter contests?

Almost all of my publications have been the direct result of my involvement with various writing and art communities, and that’s especially true of Terminal Humming. So, the short answer is that I didn’t enter any contests or query presses. However, I did publish individual poems from the manuscript and give a lot of readings.

After a reading I gave in Washington, DC, sometime in 2002, Rod Smith, the editor of Edge Books, told me that I should do a book with Edge. Although I’d already written the bulk of the poems in Terminal Humming, the manuscript didn’t exist as a manuscript. Maybe it was the isolation of living in San Diego county, but after I moved here, I realized that I really did want to publish a book. Terminal Humming is two serial poems. I put the poems together in one document, and that was the first draft of the manuscript. I sent the manuscript to some friends, and also put out a call for readers on my blog. After all the feedback I received, I did extensive revisions on the manuscript—a lot of tightening and reorganizing. Then, I got in touch with Rod and told him that I was ready. I’m ambivalent about contests. When I lived in DC and had regular social contact with east coast writing communities, I didn’t feel the need to send out unsolicited work. In San Diego, I’m much more isolated, so I now grudgingly see the value of sending out unsolicited work and entering contests. Even here, though, most of my publishing opportunities continue to be the result of social contact with other writers, publishers, and artists.

Many of your poems have a found text feel to them, or can be reminiscent of machine-generated language. Can you talk a little about your writing process? Do you incorporate text from borrowed sources?

Terminal Humming attempts to investigate social and linguistic assumptions about money and love. I used a variety of procedural techniques and worked with found texts—so, not necessarily machine-generated, but a lot of language games using found texts. However, at least half of the book doesn’t use any procedures or found language at all.

I collect language, sounds, and images, so most of what goes into any poem I write is something I’ve heard, seen, or read. I wrote most of the poems in Terminal Humming after I graduated from college while I was working for a public policy organization focused on international security. The first sequence, “If this isn’t an interview I don’t know what to say,” was written during work hours. I wrote during staff meetings, used notes from meetings with Department of Defense bureaucrats and lifted words from professional documents.

At the same time, I was also interested in exploring lyric forms and incorporating not just the languages of work and bureaucracy, but also the languages of sex, love and gender. I did a lot of poetic research on the ways people describe lovers, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, etc. I’d eavesdrop on people in the park or on public transportation, for example, or I’d lurk in online discussion forums. I also read the classifieds and looked at a lot of online dating sites. Not really an exact form of research, but research nonetheless.

As a sometimes practitioner of visual poetry, how would you describe visual poetry (AKA vispo or vizpo) to someone unfamiliar with it? How did you get interested in the form? Is it misunderstood?

Visual poetry is probably as misunderstood as any other kind of poetry. Poetry is material. In other words, it is made from something—from shapes, letters, words, paper, rhythm, space, sound, line breaks, information, connotation, etc. All poems have this kind of materiality, they just don’t necessarily emphasize it. Visual poetry is a type of concrete poetry. Concrete poetry is poetry that emphasizes the materials from which it is made while using some combination of language and non-linguistic elements. Visual poetry is especially interested in the visual elements of its materiality and how those elements are related to language.

DC is known for politics, not art, but in fact when I lived there I had a lot of opportunities to see some amazing shows. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I’m especially drawn to art that uses words or language in some way: Ed Ruscha and Xu Bing, for example. I didn’t start actually making visual poems until I was teaching at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Teaching at an art school helped me see poetry as part of larger, more complicated, cultural, historical and multi-disciplinary frameworks.

Since moving to San Diego, I’ve been spending as much time in LA as possible. Most of the writers I know up there are also involved in the art world, and both the writers and many of the artists do a lot of interdisciplinary work. I did a dialog with Joseph Mosconi about this very issue—working with multiple artistic traditions, forms, and cultural context.

I’m interested in visual poetry, and more recently, in movement and gesture, because I think it’s important to take risks and push my own comfort level. Sometimes exploring boundaries requires doing something formally different or working in a different medium, and sometimes it require a different subject matter or vocabulary. I feel like I’m getting somewhere when my work starts to freak me out.

You somewhat recently moved from Washington, D.C., to the San Diego area. How do the cities’ poetry communities compare? Has your writing changed, either formally or in content, since you switched coasts?

I’ve already drafted two answers to this question. One that was very negative and one that was very bland. I’m going to try a third time. There are poets and artists in San Diego, good ones, but I don’t quite think there is a community.

Maybe there is, or maybe there could be—sometimes I’m optimistic. We organize as many parties as we can manage. James Meetze, and Sandra and Ben Doller started a reading series downtown that isn’t directly affiliated with any of the universities, and people do come and socialize and hang out afterwards. UCSD has started an MFA program. I probably have as many poetry and art related engagements now as I did in DC—but I go up to LA a lot. Socializing and creating any community anywhere requires effort, but in San Diego it requires a lot of effort. No more stopping by someone’s place or a bar at 9 pm for a drink on a Wednesday here. I don’t find driving home for 40 minutes on a seven-lane highway after having a few drinks to be relaxing. And of course it’s not safe.

The beach is beautiful, but it’s flanked by a combination of military bases and isolating, decentralized suburban sprawl. Without the beach, living here would be pretty intolerable. I’ve never really lived in the suburbs before, and I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable with it. The infrastructure of San Diego literally makes it difficult to interact with others. San Diego county, like many suburbs, is not pedestrian friendly, has horrible public transportation and is a pain in the ass to move through even in a car. I find it difficult to socialize in a casual way here, in part because getting from point A to point B is so difficult, and the distances are so far. As I’ve already suggested, you can’t really invite someone over at the last minute or drop by someone’s house because they live at least 10 miles from you, and probably even 20 or 30. I mean, we do anyway, it just doesn’t work as often.

But, living here has changed my work. Increased contact with visual art in LA has been important, as I’ve already mentioned, and living here has given me a lot of new fodder for my poetry. Most of the US is suburban. I’m experiencing a culture that is more pervasive throughout the US than the international and urban cultures I am more familiar with. I’ve spent most of my life in cities or small towns, and a substantial part of my life outside the US, so living here is helping me understand certain aspects of US culture and history. San Diego is a great place to investigate cultural fantasies.

Is there still a place for active feminism in poetry, or is everything pretty much “even” now?

I think there will always be a place for active Feminism in poetry. At its most basic, Feminism is a critique of power structures and a reminder to question and challenge cultural, social, and economic assumptions—and to consider the role that gender plays in supporting and undermining those assumptions. Poetry allows for a diverse and flexible investigation of life. I’ve always been interested in where cultural values come from and how they directly affect individual people. Gender plays a huge role in cultural values, so I find it impossible to ignore in my writing.

Since moving to San Diego, my relationship to Feminism has changed. I take less for granted. It is almost pre-Feminist here, and I suspect it’s not particularly unique in that way. Many young women here marry quite young and have children without really considering or being aware of doing things in a different way. When I first moved here, people kept on referring to me as Mark’s wife, even though he repeatedly told them that we weren’t married. People I don’t even know will often ask me point blank why Mark and I aren’t married, or why I’m not interested in having children. There are always people protesting in front of Planned Parenthood—the best sign I’ve seen so far said “sex partners lie,” implying that the only man you can really trust is your husband. When I was interviewing for an editorial and administrative position, again, not long after I moved here, the man interviewing me asked me directly if I were married and on my husband’s insurance. That never happened to me in DC. Cultural expectations about women remain traditional in many ways, especially when it comes to marriage, and the institution of marriage is directly connected to social and economic values I’m not interested in supporting. Feminism provides a language for approaching all of this, both in poetry and in everyday discourse.

It’s a weird moment for Feminism in US poetry, though. Although it isn’t easy for anyone to get a tenure-track academic poetry job, the majority of part-time, low-paid teachers across all disciplines are still women, according to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Departments interested in an experimental or avant-garde approach are probably more interested in hiring women. At the same time, poetry and literature magazines, even ones interested in experimental writing, still tend to publish more men than women (though that’s a complicated statistic, so I’ll refer you to all the conversations surrounding the “Numbers Trouble” [PDF] article by Stephanie Young and Juliana Spahr for more details). Writing that tackles the complexities of sex, gender, and power still freaks people out—regardless of the author’s gender. And this is especially true of writing that investigates what role language plays in the complexities of sex, gender and power. Kathy Acker, Nada Gordon, and Abigail Child, for example, are not going to be mainstream any time soon.

What are your poetry pet peeves – some form or move or even word that you hate seeing published?

As may be obvious by this point, I’m not really interested in poetry that doesn’t attempt to address the numerous cultural contexts and ways of speaking it’s caught up in. Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to do that in poetry. So, there’s no form or move or word that I hate seeing published. I am, I admit, irked by poetry that attempts to take on avant-garde forms without really being interested in the cultural implications of those forms. Enjambment or space on the page does not necessarily make a poem edgy. I’m interested in poems that create dynamic tension between their form and their content.

What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview? You can then answer it or not.

I wish someone would ask me something more interesting about my sex life than: “Why aren’t you married?” It would also be nice to talk about my interest in hula hooping, jumpsuits, and Vincent Price.

I promise to cover sex and jumpsuits next time. Who are some of your old favorite poets? New favorites? What are your favorite journals? Blogs?

Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Jean Rhys, Colette, Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles, Bernadette Mayer, Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy and Nada Gordon are all important writers for me. She’s not a poet, but I have a long-running obsession with Sophie Calle’s work. Mark [Wallace] is one of my favorite poets, that’s part of why I continue to get along with him so well. Rod Smith, my publisher, is also one of my favorite poets. I am irritated and fascinated by the way Alice Notley uses archetypal feminine/masculine binaries in some of her recent work (I’m thinking of Alma). More recently, I’ve been enjoying reading Hannah Weiner and Lisa Robertson, and also the work of Stephanie Taylor, an LA-based artist. You’re one of my new favorite poets—am I allowed to say that?—and so are Lindsey Boldt and Ali Warren. I’m currently mulling over some of Danielle Pafunda and Lara Glenum’s work as well—it’s not hitting me in the gut, but I can’t stop thinking about it, so that means that I’ll probably need to try and write a review or an essay to try and articulate why I’m thinking about it so much. Colin Smith, a writer based in Winnipeg, has a fabulous book on Krupskaya called 8x8x7. Anne Boyer has a novel called Joan forthcoming from Bloof Books that I’m excited about.

My favorite favorite blogs are mostly food blogs. I’m especially fond of Almost Turkish Recipes and The Travelers Lunchbox. In terms of poetry blogs, I read Nada Gordon’s, Dodie Bellamy’s, Bhanu Kapil’s, Mark Wallace’s, and a bunch of others. The links on my own blog are a pretty accurate reflection of the poetry blogs that I read—I go on frequent blog fasts, though, especially when I’m teaching a lot because I get overloaded with information.

It’s harder for me to think about my favorite journals. Area Sneaks, edited by Joseph Mosconi and Rita Gonzalez, is an LA-based journal that is interested in interdisciplinary work and moments of intersection between visual and linguistic work. The most recent edition of Action, Yes was quite interesting, and it had work by Tina Darragh, an old and new favorite poet of mine! I like the ambition in terms of scope in magazines like Absent, Big Bridge, Drunken Boat and h-ngm-n. I never like everything in Tarpaulin Sky or Octopus, but there’s almost always at least one piece in every issue that I really, really like. I don’t think HOW2 has done a recent issue, but there’s enough in their archives to keep me interested for a long time. I also read Womb regularly and subscribe to Foursquare. I also subscribe to, ahem, Lucky and Food & Wine.

I subscribe to Lucky too! And Food & Wine is better than most journals. What have you been cooking lately? [Ed. note: This interview was conducted in spring.]

My mom cooked a lot of amazing Persian and middle eastern food for me when I was growing up, and I also like cooking it. My go-to preparations for fish, rice, chicken, etc. all come from this tradition. Lately I’ve been eating a lot of asparagus, beet greens, artichokes, and fresh strawberries, since they are all in season here. And fava beans have also started showing up in the markets—all of these spring vegetables lend themselves to various kinds of middle eastern food quite well. I recently made a lentil, eggplant and pomegranate molasses stew that was very tasty, and also a gratin with root vegetables. I also like to make pesto with arugula and put it in/on everything—omelets, fish, vegetables, bread…

Aside from all the spring vegetables and the middle eastern food, I’ve been making a lot of pizza and various types of flatbreads recently. I grilled a pizza that was pretty good, but the crust was too thick. My favorite so far was a foccacia with leeks and Emmental cheese. I love any and all cheese.


  1. Smart interview. Also, regarding the woman with the dog and the inability to gauge ages accurately: she was totally hammered and kind of a poor judge of anything at that point. She was correct about Lorraine's loveliness, though. Good story!

  2. Hooping! I'm sorry you didn't ask her about that (even while saying you'll cover sex and jumpsuits next time)!

    I'm lucky to have a custom built hoop, taped in swirly bright glow-in-the-dark colors.

    If you have the space, hooping is terrific exercise and can be very meditative.

    I can't do anything but the basic 'round-the-waist move, but am adept at something some aren't able to do, and which I highly recommend for symmetrical work-out purposes: hooping both to the right or left (or dominant and non-dominate) sides. For some, going to the "left side" (assuming that's not your dominant side) is difficult. It's akin to learning to take breathes to both sides while swimming freestyle/crawl.

    Yes, I am a hooper, and my name is Steve.

  3. Kathleen--yes, that's an important point. The woman was totally trashed, and very nearsighted : )

    Steven--that's great that you're a hooper, and that you've been practicing hooping on both sides. Hooping is indeed great exercise; and I also find it very meditative. I enjoy the reactions that I get from other people when I go to the beach here in Carlsbad and hoop. It's supposed to be something that only children do, so to see an adult doing it is always shocking/fascinating/fun.

  4. "When I was interviewing for an editorial and administrative position, again, not long after I moved here, the man interviewing me asked me directly if I were married and on my husband's insurance."

    Uh, that's totally illegal to ask about marital status in a job interview?

    Thanks for posting this interview, E. :)