Poets Online Talking About Coffee: XXXVII - XLII
by Russell Bennetts
Where does your poetry and philosophy intersect?
In words, quite literally: i write what i attempt to write by writing it.
Do you see a tension between tea and coffee?
mmm as a drink not so much: that is only between the ones who drink them. Neither tend to stop banging on about which one is better, and – perhaps even worse – how the way they drink it is the best. Drink supremacists: all of whom, i’m convinced the drink itself has nothing but scorn for. And perhaps, that scorn is returned: after all, the fact that they talk about the drink more than they drink it suggests a certain disdain for the drink itself (this probably applies to so-called wine and whiskey ‘connoisseurs’ — or really, anyone who calls themselves an ‘expert’ at anything)
Between themselves though, i suspect they exist in a Manichean duality. And bring about a balance whilst maintaining their absolute singularity: thus, always in a relation whilst being wholly other to each other. For, one rarely finds something that is called pretty much by the same name (in the case of tea really only 2 variations, one from the Cantonese, the other from the Hokkien — but both from the same base language really), around the world. Even the gods tend to have more names.
So, perhaps they are of the divine. And occasionally allow us to catch a glimpse of beauty with a sip. Which might also be why devotees rarely cross over.
Unless you wear a cape, mmm like me 🙂
Where did you fly to celebrate fifty years of Singapore?
And, i was watching most of the parade on television really. After all, as John Paul II (Saint) says, “if it doesn’t happen on television, it didn’t happen at all.” Which, i suspect, is more than just a valourisation of the medium, or a great awareness of it’s power: he opened a very important point which everyone seems to have missed — something only happens when it happens at a distance, which is then brought to you. And it is this bringing to you that somehow writes itself onto you, explodes in your somatic being as it were: as my old friend Kenny Png likes to say, “television sutures itself into you.”
One could then say — without meaning to sound glib — that it was letting the celebrations fly into me. Perhaps in time i’ll be able to read what has been written, but in the meantime, i’ll have to wait and see how it plays out in my body.
How does your country of birth compare to Disneyland?
William Gibson’s notion of “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” should not be read so much as a critique—that would be too obvious, too banal—but instead as a challenge to think the possibility that the death penalty is precisely Disneyland. For, it is precisely absurdity that opens the relationality between the two—despite and perhaps in spite of the impossibility of doing so—keeping in mind that every duality brings with it an echo of a duel, if not by necessity, at least its possibility. After all, as Hannah Arendt continues to teach us, “the greatest enemy of authority is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.”
How did you celebrate SG50?
8th/9th august, two of my best friends came over after dark, i hadn’t seen either of them in a few months and we ended up hanging out till 4am, then we decided to stay up a little longer to watch the sun rise over the shard and london bridge. at 4:30am the light made the skyscrapers soft and beautiful. i remember turning to see my boyfriend alone on the balcony, happily watching the sky open into morning – feel like it’s rare to catch someone absorbed in a single motion/the way they are when they aren’t conscious that anyone else is around – and when he turned around i remembered it was 9th august now and said “happy 50th birthday singapore”. later, after waking up in the aftenoon, i watched videos of the sg50 parade and snaps my sister sent me of my family reciting the national pledge together and cried some. homesick isn’t the right word – but i felt something like that
How much coffee did you drink to stay awake that late/early?
none at all
What’s the vibe at your local coffeehouse?
We have three coffeehouses in the neighborhood, but I don’t spend a lot of time at them, honestly. We have our own espresso machine at home, and I drink a big Americano (espresso with boiling water) before breakfast, and then another espresso in the late afternoon.
Is dusk, like, the cut-off point in a day for drinking more coffee?
It really depends on the time of year. In the winter, when dusk is 4:30pm or so here in Chicagoland, yes! Dusk would be my cut-off point, or a little later. In June or July, when “dusk” would be 8:30pm or so, that would be too late for me. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I were drinking coffee then.
How about gardening?
That one took me a minute! Nobody’s mentioned my ancient chapbook to me for ages now (Gardening at Dusk). It’s more likely you’d find me drinking coffee than gardening at dusk, though. My husband Rick is the gardener.
What makes coffee American?
What makes it American? Well, given how much we collectively enjoy being nervy and jangly, how hopped up by nature, it’s a fossil fuel for us. And it’s brilliantly legal. I mean, coke is the Platonic American drug, don’t you think? The one that represents our personality as a nation most, I’d say. But it’s hard to find an eight ball just sitting around in front of the secretary’s desk at the office.
Comedians In Cars Snorting Coke? Seinfeld should make that show.
Yeah, Seinfeld would have a much bigger career if he’d listened to me more.
Thanks again for your contribution to the Corbyn book. It’s quite unusual for Americans to get involved in the politics of other nations…
It is. But it interests me. I’ve studied up recently. And before I started teaching poetry for my living, I was a field staffer and advance team member for a couple of national political campaigns, a presidential campaign, here in the states in the late 80s and early 90s. That sort of work was how I figured I’d support myself, but then, against all odds, the poetry publications allowed me to make a life with my first devotion. So I’ve always been an actively political person. I mean, clearly, I can’t pretend or assume the stakes for an outcome that affects the people actually voting in your country. That would be wildly impertinent. So I think, as you and I discussed elsewhere, it’s important to see “Poem Of Philosophical And Parental Conundrums Written In An Election Year” more as a commentary on that old notion of how the personal and the political are fundamentally indivisible. I think many of us would do better to recognize just how small and particular, therefore human, are politics really are. We’d be nicer to one another if we did.
You co-founded VIDA in 2009. Why did you recently decide it was time to step back from its daily leadership?
The poets Cate Marvin, Ann Townsend and I, who are the original founders of VIDA, had put six very gratifying years into building VIDA, along with a wonderful group of generous woman and men who came on board to help us immeasurably with that work soon after.
But the thing is, Cate, Ann and I are writers, full time professors, and two of us are single mothers. VIDA was and is no small amount of effort. Some years it was a full time job on top of our full time jobs.
So we felt it was a good time to step back and let other’s work more directly to shape the organization’s future vision, while giving ourselves the chance to enact what VIDA espouses—writers who happen to be women pursuing their art and careers in literature in the most dedicated ways. Cate and I both have new books out that need our full attention, and Ann has one on the way. We’d done what we needed to do, ethically and politically.
Also, in many respects, the VIDA Count has done its job, too.It’s hard to find anyone serious in literature—readers or writers– who doesn’t know about the necessary conversation VIDA: Women in Literary Arts helped to start. The VIDA Count will continue to be important to keeping an eye on what’s actually going on in literary publishing culture, and in helping to bring awareness to those important intersectionalities—race, issues of difference and disability, sexual preference and identification, etc.—that deeply impact women writers’ opportunities and outcomes professionally. Because these tedious old bigotries and assumptions people make about one another have a tendency to keep creeping back like noxious vines if you don’t keep the hoe handy to give it a chop regularly. But now Cate, Ann and I have the chance in our advisory capacity to pursue other projects to support what we believe specifically about literary feminism in a manner that’s manageable for our lives personally. It had always been our intention to hand over the ball someday.
See you in France and LA!
That is the most absurdly glamorous parting phrase that will ever be directed at me. Au revoir, mon petit pamplemousse!
How much coffee is too much coffee?
Sometimes, coffee accommodates lucidity and discipline, but sometimes it is a force of chaos. It really depends on your constitution. Drinking coffee is a bold act. It’s best to create an occasion for such things, and never get addicted. I like coffee best in the winter, at home, after a meal. One should drink it out of an attractive vessel whenever possible. One sip of coffee could be too much coffee. Do not abuse it. Fall in love and do not abuse that love. Love should be revered! Reverence is a delicate thing… As an experiment, I had an espresso this morning on an empty stomach. I went to the roof and read a scroll I’d written in the tenuous glory of June and it seemed ancient, a testament to a lost life built on faith and determination: easily dismantled with a swoop of darkness. Today, coffee is a force of chaos. The jets fly too low overhead, repeating their goodbyes like an addled mantra. Tomorrow I’ll have dandelion tea instead.
How much poetry is too much poetry?
When you read the first line of a poem and then stop suddenly as if stepping on glass and you stop suddenly because you would rather do something else, anything else, even walk several blocks to the laundromat barefoot in a blizzard with slippery plastic bags full of wet blankets and wet towels and soggy drippy diapers only to find that the laundromat is closed, when even that sounds better than reading the rest of the poem, then you know you have too much poetry. Too much poetry is when your eyes roll back in your head and you think the world is too much with us hell is other people what fresh hell is this human voices wake us and we drown etc etc THAT is too much poetry and I had that experience recently so I am speaking from recent experience. When it’s your own poetry you know it’s too much poetry when you start writing stories, which I do often. Too much poetry also is when there is a bullfrog in the pond, pigging out on all the lovely tree frogs, eating them ALL UP and then sitting there immobile and corpulent with his gorging and then all you get to hear is bull frog poetry because it ate all the poetry of the tree frogs, THAT is too much poetry. I recommend taking triphala, probiotics, and/or a good digestive enzyme, and eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables.
How much coffee do you need in the morning before you feel ready to write poetry?
I almost never write in the mornings, actually—I find that my productive times for writing are flipped from my productive times for All Other Things (teaching, grading, exercise-things). So I usually write in the evenings after I’ve returned from campus, and for that, I apply a reasonable dose of Campari.
How much before you’re ready to teach?
A giant to-go mug, iced in the summer, hot in the winter. I make it at home and drink it in the car like a good American commuter.
Say you’re commuting and you think of a line or two. Do you stop and write it down? Or can you remember? I tend to forget if I don’t write stuff down.
This usually leads to me scrambling in my purse for a pen (at a red light, promise) and scrawling what I can manage onto a piece of scrap paper. I still haven’t mastered the art of leaving myself a voice mail, or any other phone-recording wizardry, in an instant when it’s needed. But I absolutely also forget if I don’t somehow write down what’s bouncing around in my head.
Who are M and V in your book No Silence in the Fields?
They’re imaginary friends of mine, in a way, and people I know from real life, in a way—they’re a couple in love (maybe married? maybe not?) who’ve suffered a traumatic loss, and that loss enters into each of them differently, and takes hold of them differently. It spins them away from each other, in the end.
I’ve witnessed a few of the women I love experience miscarriages, and I started writing this chapbook after one friend’s loss in particular. I found myself orbiting around her pain—I became unable to stop thinking about it, and I started writing into those thoughts from there—and that’s the origin story of V.
How does The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards relate to your experience of religion?
I became a secular Jew (as opposed to a practicing Jew, which I was up until the end of high school) right around the time I started developing/interrogating my identity as a woman and as a feminist. I don’t think these two events are directly related, especially since the Jewish tradition I grew up in was fairly liberal and progressive; I just couldn’t reconcile the version of God that tradition showed me with how I, as a young adult, was beginning to understand the world, especially in the context of my own family history as it related to the Holocaust. The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards starts at that moment of religious change, and looks back through versions of my family’s history and forward through a teen girl’s coming of age (based largely on my own) in order to consider these paradoxes and tensions in full view.
How Will You Raise Your Children?
Abraham or Abraham, spring
feast or spring fast? In what tongue
must you pray, Hebrew
or Latin? Do your holy men
anoint babies with water
or knives? Do you bless the wine
for the prophet coming or the prophet
gone? Where is the sun when
you bless the wine for the prophet
coming or the prophet gone?
Which fetish did your great-great-
grandfathers teach your great-
grandfathers, to sign
the cross or to pin
the yarmulke? Whose fetish
will live on in their tiny hands; who
will guide them through the air?
Will you lead down
the path of your certainty
with the left foot of day
or the left foot of night? And what
of us? The ones who mourn
a change, then change;
the ones who must.
I’ve just been reading about D2 in Retro Gamer magazine. They say:
Survival horror has been done better on the Dreamcast, but D2‘s mix of gameplay styles and outstanding visuals make it an adventure worth tracking down.
Will you be tracking it down?
Great question–thanks for the question (I’m rarely asked about anything these days). So despite what the word on your mind streets might be, I don’t have experience with the D-Series–I never have, really. But I got the gold in the eyes and, after having sought out with a great white foam fountain of a mouth some pertinent background information on this sequel, it clearly will be a game I do not under any circumstances track down. The short: it’s too personally intrusive, that subject matter. The long: They gutted the pregnancy demon abortion plot line for something a little bit more tolerable due to some hardware shift? What kind of world are we living in, and don’t they know what the masses wanted? Also, what’s wrong with all this Dreamcast hipster retrograde, anyway? And how does that tie into horror, and what’s true horror, and isn’t most horror about some kind of survival? And when survival meets bad gameplay and potential waste of time, I remember just how frail my physical form is and how soon my demise will arrive. Speaking of slow, clock-ticking gameplay, I just finished watching a YouTube recording of Silent Hill 2. Survival Horror to me? What happens when my narrating friend goes away at the end of the series of videos? Also, remember that pizza guy, and the young girl, and the footsteps, and there’s something mystically un-Freudian about pizza-pyramid cultural mashups.
Thanks for your answer. Great answer. I remember jumping when the wall of TVs in the shopping centre (mall) in the original Silent Hill all turned on at once.
Now, we’ve all seen you and Rauan Klassnik swimming in this video:
But what is a Chattahoochee?
I’m surprised that video still exists, though should I be? I remember Rauan held someone at metaphorical knifepoint a few days ago arguing something about blood this and copyright that and everything is on the hands of those who record it. I stayed silent, as usual. He had me on a Skype call in his pocket so all I saw was black but I felt that heat, that warmth emanating from his thigh, and the slight padding of the texture. Occasionally light, probably coming through from the floodlights Rauan keeps in his closet that he uses during his interrogations and intellectual property pursuits, would dash across the screen, creating a spark of pixels against the fabric. It was corduroy if I remember correctly, a rough tan mesh of softness, which is a rarity. I remember the heavenly, thick gentleness of corduroy as a glimmering things. Like gems being pushed out through borders in Myanmar.
As far as your questions goes, I’m going to have to defer the question the same way I defer my loans: indefinitely. I will, however, attempt to reference some groundbreaking new poem by some groundbreaking new poet out of some groundbreaking new neighborhood as my direct influence for knowing that “Chattahoochee” must mean something important to someone within 7 degrees of both you, dear editor, and myself.
How was Cambodia?
Re-entering the pineapple, feeling the whispers directed toward me but through me, blazing sun before the drop of cloud tear. You sit, you drink, and then you do. The now-ex-partner N. Marin who came to perform The Stones Are Awake with Scott Bywater, Warren Daly, and myself, where blood-red paint formed bands around our blind spots. A visit to a jungle of seized motos, captured from meth-stoned Cambodian teenagers working for lumber tycoons on the edge of Vietnam, pipes smoldered next to the morning calls of endangered gibbons. A moon walk and reprieve from chaos and psychosis on a remote beach of the ever-intoxicated Koh Rong, island of lost souls since found and turned drunken, loved to live, loved to love, the moon forcing us to become superhuman, soaked in adrenaline. Bong Tram. Soaked Brother. Street vendors selling frog, catfish, beef, egg, pork, and all other manner of greasy protein. The journey into the decayed French ruins of seaside Kep, where golden wings turned us and our lives into outsider fluctuation careful and tiptoe. Sighs and the ocean. The quiet like an American quiet, but always the zone of the moto rumble. In Russian Market there was always meat, and filth, and stench, and beauty. The brightest colors. The truest stares. No stairs. Further along, away from the heart of a beating metropolis, the wood carvers from Vietnam transformed into artisans of the machine. Later, poets Hailey Higdon and Tanya Holtland, spending their holiday following me into remote Koh Kong province, filled with dusty roads, sweating bellies, green sodas, cascading water, and howls of dog packs through the night but for what? And later: being carried along by older men on motor bikes, gently, like paintbrush stroking a forever unfinished landscape. Kirirom as the last outlet, the cold amidst the thick blanket of monsoon stick, cloud line netting us and picking us up to the surface, the lowest level of sky, and it was there the mushrooms ruptured and the monks showed no face, and I felt the bandanna loosen and slip into my pocket.
What are your top ten alternatives to coffee and poetry?
One, if you put chilies on everything, you forget what your world was and what it currently is, a sort of singularity for the tongue. Second, let me remind you that dumb video games were created around the time universities started teaching lang-po to its students and this fact is not a coincidence and it is also directly related to coffee. Third, northern Mexico, and I don’t mean it’s a good alternative. Fourth, solar-powered cell-phone chargers are both made to make you look sexier as geek chic accessory and made to enamor you with a endless spool of possibilities because, just think of it, now you only have to worry about being near the sun, so cave-dwellers need not apply. Fifth, when was the last time you wanted to drink a cup of brown or pen a villanelle while enduring the sterile wrath of a swig of mouthwash? Sixth, and this one’s simple, heat–just a dash of unbearably hot climate and you’re out for the count, and not even iced poems and iced coffee will bring a smile to your face. Seventh, LSD, without explanation, as we’ve been saying for decades. Eighth, fueling a campfire alone with back issues of Berfrois magazine. Ninth, volunteering at morgues. Tenth, attempting to sleep to and tempting sleep with a Merzbow album. Thank you for asking me these important questions.
About the Author
Russell Bennetts founded Berfrois in 2009.