Poets Online Talking About Coffee: XXIV-XXXII
by Russell Bennetts
Have you ever written a short poem?
Nope. Number of hours that elapsed before my will sagged and I let myself add more than just that one word, which would have been so perfect: 8. What came to mind right away: Ben Franklin’s I-didn’t-have-time-to-write-you-a-short-letter-so-I-wrote-you-a-long-letter adage. My mind is always racing with things– jobs, money, books, stamps, family hoopla, scheming, beratements galore, green pacifiers. Some people say to me “you’re busy” and other times I say “I’m busy” to other people, but I always feel awful being perceived like that or admitting that sometimes I see it that way too because it feels like the defeat of a would-be creative life, which would ideally be busy with a lot of nothing… And if I were a more grounded, sedate, meditative person who had arranged her life so that jobs and creatures [really want to resist here saying “kids” which to me isn’t a timesuck in the way that it should be but i wouldn’t want people to think i was saying “damn kids take all my brain space”– i wish they’d take more– it’s the stupid jobs thing that takes my writing brainspace] & such were not a part of it, I think maybe I wouldn’t be a better poet but maybe I’d be a shorter poet. Poem. Writer of shorter poems. Then again! I love the mind at work, I love Nausea and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Virginia Woolf and it feels false (to me) to commit to one mood, one line, 25 words. You have to have the utterance and the observance of the utterance and all the undercutting pinwheel thoughts in between. Yeah, I’m realizing all of those people are novelists. I moved to Providence and found the work of Kate Colby and Kate Schapira, both of whom can write beautifully, lyrically, with tremendous compression, but I found they weren’t writing poems, much less short ones– they were writing books. I still write poems and not book-length ones, but I am grateful to this small coven of poets because it’s such a freedom to think that the small, perfect poem that made one first fall in love with poetry might serve after all only as a gateway drug and that the real stuff that could kill you is a book that reads like a poem. Even when I have a book of poems with me, I look for the long ones. In Chika Sagawa’s book (new trans by Sawako Nakayasu) there are many lovely blue & green short poems but I keep looking at the long messy prose in the back. Short poems… there are a lot of great ones. But Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poems are never short, and she to me is the greatest.
Have you ever drunk an espresso late at night?
Are Topeka dreams the lullaby of lurve?
A portmanteau of learning curve.
Hit me with your best downvotes.
I’ve been eleven and in lurve
and I know what the word denotes.
The way a larva spells its name,
knowing the preferred nomenclature
is nymph. Cicadas have no shame.
for the new neighbors whose lives are porn,
drone metal and unlicensed flying.
Mine would be too if I’d been born
seventeen and dying.
The maples were so loud this year
Topeka had to sit up streaming
Netflix because it couldn’t hear
univocal as a choir,
tell me this about the bough:
if you do or don’t allow
that its object is to break,
how long will it wait to make
you a prophet or a liar,
A sluggish coffee or a glowing tea?
Oh gawd, probably sluggish tea? Coffee gives me heartburn. I brew my own tea, but always forget about it steeping and come back to a lukewarm tooth squeaker potion. That I then have to warm up in the microwave. My tea tends to be very tar-like.
Jade crockery or ghostly cardboard?
Jade crockery! I just googled it, to see if it’s A Thing, and was reminded of my terrible wedding registry. No one wants to buy us books or dog food (my chief expenses), they want to buy us household experiences. If you’d like to give a poet a gift, please give some cold hard cash-monies–please! We get object-as-perk plenty during our writing lives.
Lonely bean or sodden leaf?
Bean is the loneliest number, so I choose leaf.
Hello. I am more of a tea drinker, though I drink a lot of tea in coffee shops. Does that disqualify me?
Does too much coffee sicken you?
Let me put it this way. I am in Yellowstone Park, and I would rather drink the boiling sulphurous mud pot I just saw than drink a cup of coffee.
Were you out walking?
I was out walking, running, hiking, and even playing a laughable round of golf. I didn’t write much on this trip, other than the odd snippet or line here and there, but I was in serious sponge mode, taking everything about my new surroundings in, letting it percolate, begin to be the stuff of poetry, collecting sensory data to recollect in solitude upon my return and maybe make something interesting. I saw a lot of remarkable geology out west, stuff that has long been washed away and buried beneath the foliage here on the east coast. A ton of wildlife, too: bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs, egrets, herons, songbirds, even a hawk flying off with a snake. Combine all of that with the voices of people in restaurants, the smell of a coming rainstorm, the music on the car radio, the slight sting of the summer’s first sunburn, a fish taco and a cold beer after a trail run, and you end up with a heady synesthetic stew. Add the motion of walking or running or driving for hours through landscapes empty of people or buildings, the rhythms of covering different terrains at different speeds-mostly under one’s own power-and with any luck, from this jumble of sensation something useful, something meaningful and interesting emerges and finds its way to the page. And of course, associations and meaning will begin to stick to this sensory stuff, like bugs splattered on a windshield. And getting out and moving-running in particular-has always been important to my work. Not just the rhythms of it, but that magical sensation of finding the stillness at the heart of motion, a clarity that is impossible for me to find elsewhere. The brain being awash in exercise-induced opiates and cannabinoids may well have something to do with it as well! Whatever the reason, I arrived home today awash in stuff that may just become poems.
I agree. Plus one can be super-restless at the writing desk without a walk or run beforehand.
It is much better to get a few miles in on the roads or trails before sitting down to write than pacing grooves in the floor during writing time! 4.And coffee (to a lesser extent, tea) simulates the mind and spirit but, again, makes one restless! I think the right combination of stimulation and restlessness suits the writer almost perfectly.
It was fun to meet you in Minneapolis during AWP. But when are we gonna hit club Zoo from your poem Travelogue: Cinema Exotique?
Travelogue: Cinema Exotique
I wouldn’t sleep with you, the Swiss girl slurs,
for all the ampersands in Amsterdam—where Reece,
btw, texts of red-light-blue, between gawking
the Vermeers & pub-crawling zones
of enlightened licentiousness, her bedspun visions
of Dutch Masters tastefully windowframed
& shadowboxing transgender hookers on long, white
walls in a time-lapsed museum of the mind—the Swiss
being vicious drunks, like Buddhists, but still
Sammy Starstruck struts his stuff with the spinning girls
of Warsaw, cutting a rug in a club called Zoo
in a city where next-morning’s footprints sprint behind him,
hither & yawning through urban woods hushed
& hung-over, snowscaped & dotted with Poles
gaping him mad, him dashing all merry, hell-bent for wodka,
running toward/away from precisely nothing,
not death certainly, nor that taxi smoldering curbside,
when love or something like it depends on
getting in your miles/getting over the subway
sausage that laid your guts to waste, on kisses
so expert/unexpected, they unzip the duffel
in your chest, fill you up with something that tastes
a little like Chopin, a little like chocolate,
like Champagne on the talented tongue of the woman
who goes off with you to Rome despite the fact
that you aren’t even French. & what wonders await
in Firenze, one might reasonably ask,
with its favorable exchange rate, its Byronic ghosts,
the torsos of the exquisitely tailored adorning its piazzi?
Will Abigail depart, addicted to ices,
singing Here Comes the Sun, & will Dan & Karen
stumble hand-holdingly upon the lost adverbs of Verona
shimmying iambic in Shakespearian bodices,
box-canyoned in back alleys & cooing
down the centuries, versifying saucily, never having known
of Dolce & Gabanna, acid-trip Ginsbergs, Little Steven
or rolling naked with starlets on piles of Euros,
those bastard children of dollars & yen,
& will Chris write the sun setting on knockoff Oakleys
& The West in flames, pen Raffaelite cherubs
sizzling hiss & pop, plummeting toward Pittsburgh,
far over the sea, fat & doomed as barbecue hogs?
Dunno, but here in Phoenix I stagger to rise
from the flames I’ve been shot down in,
study to solve the Swiss women at the bar,
like the pole-vaulter searching for a cure
for gravity in Lausanne on TV, where the announcers
all have British accents & the track meet runs like clockwork.
Oh God, how the twenty-eight year-old who still lives in me would love that! Unfortunately, the looks of horror on the faces of the actual twenty-somethings when they saw me might be a bit of a buzz-kill. I am sure you could pull it off, though. But what the hell, if we ever end up in Warsaw together, yeah, let’s do it. I am listening to music from my own clubbing days, Bronski Beat and Yaz, at this very moment. Wow, dangerous nostalgia! It’s funny, the Warsaw/Sammy Starstruck/Zoo section was the first part of the poem I wrote. I used to coach college track and cross country, and while having a few beers with some of my former athletes, one told this amazing story of a just-completed semester abroad in Warsaw, talking about how he rallied from food poisoning to heroically go out dancing with his new mates. He went on to demonstrate how the women would come “spinning” up to his group and dance off with one of them. He and one of the young women hit it off and are now husband and wife. Like a freaking movie, that! I knew it was poem material even as he was telling it, and literally wrote down what he was saying on beer and salsa stained napkin. It fermented (the idea, not the napkin) for awhile, then I blended it with bits and pieces of tales from other friends who were traveling in Europe at the time to come up with the poem. It’s part of a series of “Travelogue” poems, all of which make it quite apparent that most of my travelling is, alas, vicarious.
What do you look for in a coffee?
Those who know my Twitter name, @thetearooms, will not be surprised to hear that I have little to do with coffee. I even considered a career in tea at one point. (Thinking back, that was surely a sign that something was not right in my life.)
I tend to like Assams crammed with the heavy flavour and mouthfeel of the alluvial Brahmaputra and, alternatively, almost minty high-altitude Ceylons. That’s what I say, anyway, when I want to sound like a twonk. In practice, I find that any decent quality single-origin black tea that is brewed properly and served in a cup and saucer will get the job done. The ‘job’ of tea is to promote a general daytime well-being and to allow the drinker to be stylish. It’s not so different from a nice vase of nasturtiums or a crisp shirt. This is a noble mission, surely, but it’s quite a bit short of some sort of all-embracing philosophy or ‘Way of Tea.’ I know many people who maintain that there is a spiritual dimension to the leaf; I’m not even sure that there is a spiritual dimension to the spirit. When I consider people who think there is philosophy to be found in tea, I wonder if they’ve heard of art yet.
All that being said . . . New Zealand’s flat whites are, as I understand it, the envy of the coffee-drinking world. I probably have about one a month. What I look for in that one coffee is this: I like it in a fun, ridged takeaway cup.
What do you look for in your own writing?
I made a conscious decision a couple of years ago that I would try to only write poems that are actually enjoyable to read. I prioritise this over having a ‘message’ or trying to prove my cleverness, which is a constant temptation. On balance, I would argue that it is better to write a poem that, for example, tells the story of a panda that lost big on the Chinese stock market than to gift the world another poem about how sincerely you feel about something.
I am aware that this appears to be an arch conservative position. (Consider Horace: ‘Poets wish either to instruct or to delight, to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life.’ Or consider Jack Underwood’s ‘supermarket test.’) But is it really? I like to think that having respect for the reader’s time is an eternally radical gesture in a time when much poetry is a monologue delivered by the poet to the reader rather than one half of a dialogue between writer and audience.
Almost invariably, the lines that I think are my best are also the ones that I think are the most amusing. I don’t know if this attitude is getting me as far as some other attitudes might get me, but at least it’s a position I can justify to myself.
What do you look for in a submission to QMT?
Like obscenity, I know it when I see it.
You know all those things, those tricky little filigrees and grace notes, that you try to cram into your own work? And you know how it’s impossible for you, the poet, to tell if they’re working? ‘Is this working?’ you ask. ‘Who the fuck knows,’ you reply to yourself (worryingly).
Knowing whether things work or not is one of the great pleasures of reading other poets’ work. In someone else’s writing, those hard-sought-for effects either emerge like a breaching submarine or they remain wallowing beneath the surface, waterlogged.
This is a way of saying that when I encounter a poem that I really like, I usually know straight away that I like it, often only a few lines in. Now the effect that triggers this reflex reaction is not predictable. In other words, lots of different kinds of poems will attract me with their poem-pheromones, and the only thing they have in common is immediacy.
Anyway, that’s one possible answer, and the only one I have time and space to give during this coffee break. Which, I’d like to say, I have enjoyed immensely.
I paid £2.50 for a latte this morning. Isn’t that a rip-off? Although I can’t imagine your buddy Kanye West thinking as much.
I guess whether it’s a rip off depends on how delicious it was. I have no idea if Kanye drinks coffee. That’s funny—I know so much about him but nothing about his coffee/tea preference.
It was more the culmination of my walk to Parkway. Which used to be full of indie record companies, but now it’s essentially one large fucking estate agent.
How did you research your recent book?
Listened to albums, watched videos, set up a google news alert and read about a million articles, read Donda West’s Raising Kanye, read his Glow in the Dark tour book, and a few other things I’m probably forgetting right now.
I saw his performance at Glastonbury Festival the other weekend. And I’m worried that your lyric biography has fed his ego.
Oh I’m jealous! I’ve never seen him in concert or in person or anything. I’m not sure he even knows about the book! But I hope that ego stays strong. I don’t know how anyone keeps it in the public eye.
In “Adventures” you talk about Katrina. Do you think that was Kanye’s most admirable moment (outside of his music)? Speaking out against Bush, I mean.
I hadn’t thought about it like that, but yes. It’s unusual because it came out of distress and tears and it surprised him and we usually think of admirable things as very planned and purposeful.
I take it fans of your book have been sending in their own Kanye haikus. Which have been your favourites so far?
No one has actually! All the haikus are from when I was publishing individual poems around the web. And the first few are just friends and family! Haha I like my friend Mark’s about how he went to Occupy Wall Street one day.
Kanye West, you have
Diamond teeth, and you came to
– Mark Berger
Is this us just chatting or is this an interview?
Would you rather drive a really fast car or drink a really strong coffee?
I’d rather stick a needle in my eye than drink a really strong coffee. Coffee is made when the devil passes water. Tea, however, is the true blood of the living God.
What’s the deal with police terror in the US at the moment? You’d never see anything like that in the UK (yeah, right).
I don’t think it’s changed much in the last several decades. The only difference is that black people walk around with high powered video cameras in their pockets these days. The police terror we’re seeing nearly every day is the same police terror KRS-1 rapped about on “Sound of Da Police” and “Black Cop” in the 1990s, the same police terror NWA rapped about on “Fuck the Police” in the ’80s, the same police terror Richard Pryor talked about in his act in the 70s and the same police terror James Baldwin wrote about in the 1960s. The situation is ongoing and has its roots in anti-blackness, which is worldwide so it pops up in various forms all over the world. According to The Independent, about 3,000 UK police officers are under investigation for assaults, mostly on blacks and Asians.
The attitudes that lead to racialized police brutality in the U.S. is absolutely connected to the attitudes that’s leaving Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless in the Dominican Republic and it’s absolutely connected to the struggles of Black Israelis, who have also been loudly protesting police violence in recent months. For the satire series I’m curating for this magazine I’d love to see writers from outside the U.S. delivering their takes on police terror. We have three slots left.
What’s the sweet spot for satire? As in, the best balance between humour and seriousness?
I’m not sure how to answer that. I think it depends on the effect each individual satirist is trying to achieve with a particular piece. Pryor’s routine “Bicentennial Nigger” is not filled with a whole a whole of laughs, but it’s incredibly profound. The best thing he ever did, in my opinion, is his bit in “Live From the Sunset Strip” where he’s discussing setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. There are actually a lot of laughs in that one, but when you think about it, he’s discussing a horrible personal calamity for which I imagine it must be hard to find laughter inside of. The material decides it’s approach. The pieces we have on tap for The Blue Blues series range from the hilarious to the quietly profound.
What can we expect from Wolf Tickets?
I can’t even function properly until I’ve had my first cup in the morning. And yet, I’ve much to do before that happens. How should we begin?
Perhaps with a flat white?
How many different coffee shops do you frequent?
Coffee shops? Oh, those were the days. I spent fourteen years writing mornings in a Second Cup downtown, watching the world float by. I haven’t even set foot in the place since my daughter Rose was born in November, 2013.
When I did frequent, it was singular; I went to one location, the same time every day. Routine is how I get work done.
How often do you write?
Daily, except for the rare days she doesn’t nap.
How long have you been running your On Writing series?
Every week or three (or so) since April, 2012.
And which have been some of your favourite essays?
It’s really hard to select out of what has been, so far, a rather impressive array of pieces. Recently, I’ve re-read the essays by Gail Scott, Priscila Uppal and George Stanley, which do stand out, as do earlier essays by Adam Sol, Gary Barwin and Renee Saklikar. But there are so many. I would have to replicate the list of essays almost entirely.
What’s the story behind above/ground press? 22 years now!
Story? Well, I looked around me and saw the only small press publishing was historic, buried deep within the library shelves of the University of Ottawa, so I started self-producing small items. It was relatively easy, so I expanded into publishing works by others. The press has produced more than 750 items, including some half a dozen journals, such as Missing Jacket, drop and STANZAS magazine, as well as the current Touch the Donkey. Twenty-two years: I know, eh? Madness! Someone once suggested that the life-span of a small literary press is around five to seven years, and I feel no need to even slow down. There’s so much more to do!
It must be a record…
Well, I don’t know about that. But it sure is a long time, and super-fun…
What have been the ebbs and flows of the Canadian poetry scene over that time?
There have been plenty, as you can imagine. My first half-decade was focused far more on local than national, but we went through some hard-hits in the small press in the mid-1990s, including the Canada Post getting rid of “book rate,” the collapse of General Distribution (who nearly took a couple of dozen publishers along with it), the rise of Chapters (which took out numerous independent booksellers along the way), and the Canada Council for the Arts not following through on 20 million dollars in already-promised funding to Canadian publishers (resulting in books delayed and even cancelled, as well as the death of more than a couple of small presses). Every five years or so, I’ve seen articles talking about the resurgence of small press, which I always find hilarious, given that a number of us are still here, and have been for quite some time. I mean, I might be one of the few chapbook publishers still around, but there are plenty of small publishers/small presses that have been around equally as long, if not plenty longer. We’re pretty damned strong.
Is there a Canadian equivalent of AWP?
AWP happens in Canada too. Wasn’t it in Vancouver a few years ago? Not that I’ve ever been. Between it not happening close enough to my house, and that I’m not actually attached to either university or creative writing program, I simply haven’t had the opportunity to attend.
Excuse my ignorance! I was a last-minute attendee at last year’s Minneapolis event.
Are there any other small presses that you feel warrant more attention?
No worries. There are far too many things to keep track of, honestly. There are plenty of presses! Micro-presses such as Apt. 9 Press, Puddles of Sky, Room 302 Books and Baseline Press are producing amazing things, as are Canadian small (and less-small) publishers including BookThug, Nightwood Editions, Invisible Publishing,Mansfield Press and so many others. I think our Chaudiere Books is doing some pretty cool stuff as well (but I might be biased).
What’s your next book after The Uncertainty Principle? Another short story collection?
Possibly. I am attempting to complete another manuscript of short stories this year (as toddler allows). I’ve also another poetry manuscript currently making the rounds, as well as a memoir/creative non-fiction manuscript I’m hoping to return to, for the sake of getting it also out the door. Once all of those projects are off my plate, I can return to the big novel, hopefully before winter sets in. Although, this month also saw the appearance ofGuthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage (WLU Press), a book I helped see through, which includes a critical introduction by myself.
Can you give us a sneak preview of the big novel?
I’ve been working on Don Quixote since the end of 2007. Given that the entire novel is one of perception, I’ve been attempting to show as much of it from Quixote’s own perspective as possible, including the possibility of confusion and contradiction. Back in 2008, I posted a very early section of such on my blog and even wrote an essay on the project, that Rain Taxi was kind enough to post a couple of years later.
Honestly, I’ve barely looked at it for about two or three years. I’m very eager to re-enter the project, and see if a workable draft can emerge, either in 2016 or 2017.
I live in hope.
EXCERPT: DON QUIXOTE
A fire in his belly, Don Quixote in his basement suite, his suite, positioned against the strain of his own self. Positioned against the strain of her hands and his mouth dry, down the length of her spine. Is this Dulcinea? She is not Dulcinea, but she is. More than a distraction, but almost enough to make him forget. I forget, she says out loud. Have forgotten. Isn’t it?
Put her mouth in the rum and the rum around him and the rum was the skin and the silver between her soft mouth and his, her fingers on him working hard and then working, pushing deep into her, again and again. He tilted, pushing open what was ever asleep.
Heart knows what it knows, heart wants what it wants. Don Quixote knows, what it wants. When will these journeys end? But there is something missing, something else. Like a deck of game cards and the missing queen. How does one play incomplete?
Burnt almond her skin and the taste of it almond-salt-soft, the taste of her skin and her mouth, even before all the rum. She runs down his sheets. Is this love? Is this something like?
Stop talking, she says. He didn’t realize he was.
At the end she breathes hard, and deep and quick after the shudder of catch, release. Don Quixote knows. But a ways before dawn, she kisses him deep as the ocean floor, and dresses, back to her own bed and the man that then waits for her. Even his lovers have lovers.
Don Quixote looks for a way out but he can’t. It is never the same as the way he came in.
Don Quixote said swear, swear on her beauty. They listened. He said swear, swear on her beauty. They listened, they paused. He said swear, swear on her beauty. They listened. Dulcinea del Tobosa. He said swear, swear on her beauty. Her beauty. Paused. Spoke empty sounds. Dulcinea. Don Quixote said. Beauty. Swear by it. They listened. He said swear by it. Her. Don Quixote said. He screamed breath from his lungs. Don Quixote. They listened, paused. Said nothing. Their mouths silent shapes. They were mute. Said swear. Don Quixote said. Lifted his sword, or his lance. Listened. Don Quixote. Said swear. Brought down, his words, his sharp heart on their heads, the blade of it. Said. Down on their heads, he said swear, pounding down into dust. His heart, and his furious anger. Righteous. Quixote. They paused, listened. His anger, their heads. He said, swear. They tried to protect themselves. Cursing. His sword. He said, listen. Said. Swear.
Don Quixote, confused between furniture. Is this the night sky, or simply a ceiling? Is this a castle, an inn or a foul-smelling stable? Dreams plague his mind, even while awake.
And Sancho no help, shifting as though from the wind; he is dust or fine silk, flowing exactly where the wind takes, offering no resistance.
What is happening, Cervantes, Quixote asks. But the author long gone, so many years dead. Who or where is the author of this? Where has everyone disappeared to? Are you even there, reader, to make the song of these simple lines sing?
And who’s asking, you might respond. Rightly so.
The laws of relativity; this is all point of view. The veritable Quixote, master of the dim-witted Sancho. Master of nothing, of no-one, of none. He speaks out empty air, and off Sancho, all reflects back. Has Sancho become the pale mirror, the long hills echoing speech? Has he not even his own mind?
An empty vessel, perhaps, for Quixote to fill. He ponders. To mold, so to speak. He is muddled, mixing metaphors. He catches his wits in a quick motion of hands and contains them, captures. Reclaims. He is wit-made, no longer wit-less himself. Determined Quixote, to save Sancho from himself. So much better, somehow, than aiming to better himself, shift the focus to his feeble squire. He will save the poor lout, and like My Fair Lady, redeem him.
He will dain lift him up.
There is dust in the crux of the wheat-swollen fields. Don Quixote pauses his steed, feels the wind on his cheek. Feels the breeze sweep in soft through the grain. Even the few peasants are transfixed. Don Quixote holds; he breathes in the warmth of hot sun, and late summer’s breath. It’s warm kiss, a bit dry. The plateaus of season.
At Union Station, Don Quixote sat down and waited. And sighed. A trigger of clocks and diffuse light. Fluorescent, a path for no shadow. For once, Don Quixote is no longer followed, no longer shadowed. A relief, though a strange one. He flowers like petals, he fingers his hands. He singles, is singular. Sits there and breathes out his sameness.
Don Quixote. He lifts his right hand to his forehead, and covers his eyes. He lifts his slow hand, his eyes continue to white. Yellow sun an illusion. His eyes go to white. The hair on his chin circumvent, like a long jigsaw puzzle.
Don Quixote. His mind can be nothing else but pastiche. Some memories overlap, some connect and some don’t but they all still become. The sky fades to white. His head turns. Don Quixote. He turns. He turns and he tilts. Don Quixote, in spades. Sparks. Don Quixote rises, and falls. Don Quixote the bright white-light ceiling collides. He closes his eyes.
About the Author
Russell Bennetts founded Berfrois in 2009.