Category Archives: experimental poetry

A Virtual Interview with Ashley Smith Keyfitz

Poets Desiree Morales and Ashley Smith Keyfitz  will be the featured readers on Thursday, February 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).


Ashley Smith Keyfitz is the author of various chapbooks & the forthcoming collection Park of Unwired Asking from Xexoxial Editions (2017). She was a founding editor of the press Little Red Leaves & lives in Austin where steps on many legos, ferments anything, and designs websites for the government.

The Interview

CH: What first got you interested in poetry? What is your first memory of poetry?

ASK: In first grade, I had a poem about an autumn tree being like fire published in Highlights Magazine. So that was basically my breakthrough publication. And it’s easy to like anything you’re recognized for. But even then, I really loved poems — as if they were these mysterious, incandescent launching pads for something. You weren’t trapped in poems they way you were stories — rather they pitched you into this incantatory, deeper field. At least I thought, and I sort of still do. I like novels, but when I read them there is a tiny part of me that resents that the story is trying to trick me into its narrative — as if the narrative wants to smooth over other possibilities and act like this were the only way. I remember also having the Random House anthology of poetry and really loving it. The first poem in it is Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” But I was also fond of some really great poems by Christina Rossetti in that anthology. I’ll copy one here because who reads Rossetti these days?–and so good. The poet Elizabeth Willis has a fascinating essay about the noir Kiss Me Deadly and Christina Rossetti’s poems against the atomic age (who wouldn’t want to remember now that that movie begins with the recently belated, but at that time gloriously young, Cloris Leachman running in front of the protagonist’s car wearing nothing but a trench coat and telling him she is named after Christina Rossetti), but I feel like many of Rossetti’s poems are protest poems:


An emerald is as green as grass, 
    A ruby red as blood:
A sapphire lies as blue as heaven:
    But flint lies in the mud. 

A diamond is a brilliant stone, 
    To catch the world’s desire:
An opal holds a fiery spark:
    But flint holds fire. 

Before that though, I remember my mom singing songs to my sister and me to put us to sleep & I really liked puzzle songs like “I Gave My Love A Cherry.” I also grew up close to a dance hall &  I would spend a lot of time, while my mom was working at a pottery shop, writing songs I thought I could sell to, like, Lyle Lovett or Robert Earl Keen. I don’t remember if they bought any. But later, in middle school, I did sell “seductive” or “romantic” poems to people to give to the objects of their affections.

CH: When did you first begin to identify as a writer? as a poet?

ASK: The answer to this seems to be something between — I never have or I never stopped. Because I don’t have day job that gives me an official writer title, I feel somewhat outside that moniker. But I also remember at one point when I was a teenager looking at the many notebooks I had filled over the years and thinking, these are basically me. And also, what am I supposed to do with all these notebooks? In this way, writing can sort of externalize what feels like the   immensity of an inner life — and I had this sense growing up that women, like women in real life, weren’t known to have inner lives. I don’t know why.

But writing was a kind of evidence against this — like material evidence of a fuller, more complex existence than would fit in the snapshot of femininity I felt like I was going to be forced to step into and was sad about. To write then, is in many ways a resistance of erasure — resistance of being tucked quietly into bed. Returning to Kiss Me Deadly for a second —  in Cloris Leachman’s exchange with the protagonist Mike Hammer she alludes to a poem by her namesake, Rossetti:

Christina: “If we don’t make it … ”
Hammer: “We will.”
Christina: “If we don’t …. remember me.”

The poem she alludes to is–surprise!–Rossetti’s “Remember Me” — which is itself a weird meditation between burial and disclosure, departure and endurance — which is memorable in its resistance to giving up any options. A really great contemporary corollary to this is Taylor’s Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”– the chorus of which goes “Say you’ll remember me.” But there’s a sort of sci-fi implosion of time that happens in as much as the ground she’s requesting to be remembered in is not on the ground of what happened — but in the feral, potential-infused ground of “your wildest dreams.” This juncture between presence, remembrance and holding open the door toward something more is where writing lives for me. So I guess my answer then to when I began to identify as a poet is — in my wildest dreams.

CH: How did decide to embark on getting an MFA? What made you choose Texas State?

ASK: When I was in high school, I started working at a native plant propagation house during the day & taking community college classes at night.  I had 4 particularly great teachers. The first was a math teacher who was really insistent that I was great at math. Somehow that was important to my poetics, but it’s hard to explain. The second, Kimberly Saunders, was also a poetry student in the MFA program at Tx State. She was such a fantastic teacher, an amazing, statuesque angel of encouragement and intelligence, and still is. I remember complaining when reading a Hawthorne story once that it took forever to wade through his super floral prose — and her saying that maybe we are just so attached to the sound bite of the moment that we’ve lost to ability to stay with the language, to hold complexity, to let it teach us what it’s trying to say. That changed the way I read.

When I transferred to Tx State later, I was lucky enough to take a class with Austin’s own Annie Hartnett. At the time she was an MFA fiction student and dancer. She’s now a dancer and activist and badass. I love her. In her class, when she got to the end of James Joyce’s The Dead, she cried. That gesture of showing students that it’s okay to love the work you’re studying — to be moved by it is a huge gift. Both teachers were women I admired — so that’s how I was introduced to the idea that an MFA existed. Later I took classes with Kathleen Peirce. That seemed essential to me. Kathleen is such an intense thinker and teacher. She would say things in her classes about how we live in a world that is always trying to get us to become harder, less sensitive, tougher — but the object of her class was to increase tenderness, sensitivity, vulnerability as an act of resistance. These are still ideas essential to my politics and poetics and sense of self.

After college I moved to the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico and worked at a coffee roasting house and with the World Birding Centers. I loved that, but I came to a point where I just wanted time to read & learn more and an MFA seemed like a possible way to do that. I applied to a bunch of schools — but in the end Tx State made the most financial sense. I only hesitated to go back because I had already been there. And there is part of me that regrets not expanding my Alma Mater — but I’ve come to realize that the quality of education that was open to me at a state school was really as good as what is available at the most prestigious or ivy league programs. So I thought — poetry is not about getting rich; I can go to Tx State, learn, and get my cognate in Tech Comm as backup. I guess it turned out to be an okay idea as I have fended off living in a ditch eating berries by working in IT since then.

CH: Looking back, what was the greatest gift of the MFA? Its greatest drawback?

ASK: Time / time.

CH: How did you decide become a founding editor for Little Red Leaves press? How has that experience shaped your own work?

ASK: So one of my first roommates in college was the poet CJ (Chris) Martin. I was riding a tram to school one day and he was wearing this very brightly colored crocheted hat. Tx State is full of bros — so it was unusual to see a regular guy wearing this humble but intense thing. When we got off the bus I said something like — I like your hat, and he said “Thanks, my Grandma made it.” Later when I moved up for my MFA, Chris had moved to Buffalo with the poet Julia Drescher to pursue a PhD. He quit and they both moved back to central Texas and started a double-sided book arts press and online journal. I basically asked if I could build the web journal as a way of fulfilling class project requirements toward my degree and they said yes.

Later, when we would solicit work, sometimes poets would send us entire chapbooks. Sometimes books that had gone out of print. Suddenly it made sense to start an online imprint for these works & we settled on a distribution model where you could download a PDF for free or order a print-on-demand copy of the book at cost. Each of the books we printed were intensely important to me. I learned so much. An element of the book I’m working on now was stolen from an LRLe-edition– Susan Gevirtz’s Prosthesis::Cesarea. The first section of Gevirtz’s book deals with the idea of art as prosthetic memory & ventriloquism & eighteenth century concepts of witchcraft. Here’s a quote:

Led to the definition of engastriloque:
   a. 1728, Hutchinson, Witchcraft: There are also many that can form Words and
   Voices in their Stomach, which shall seem to come from others rather than the
   Person that speaks them. Such people are called Engastriloques. ... There was a
   compact between the engastriloque and the exorcist…
   b. To cast the voice
   c. A wench, practicing her diabolical witchcraft. Some have questioned whether it
   can be done lawfully or no. Speaking from the bottom of the belly is a thing as
   strange as anything in witchcraft.

Gevirtz’s book questions these ideas of proper form, writing as memory, the voice that exists outside the body — and pushes against concepts of what’s natural. One of the ways she does this is by scattering these cast voices — basically backwards printed text on the page opposing the poem. The way a sort of residue of the poem is left on the opposite page, and yet exceeds it, is fascinating to me. So I’m stealing this idea and expanding it for the book I’m working on now where a majority of the poems will have something I’m calling transposition erasures on the opposite page (from the original poem). This makes the book so much more spatial to me — or understands the poems as migratory — signalling what can’t be moved or fully put down. It witches it.

Here’s a link to Gevirtz’s book:

So yeah — I dropped working on the journal after my son was born for various reasons. But editing is pretty much one of the best things I’ve done. I would like to get back to it. So grateful to all the people who carry the work of publishing forward.

CH: I understand you have a manuscript in progress that should be forthcoming from Xexoxial Editions this year. Tell us a little about Park of Unwired Asking.

ASK: I started the book when my son was a baby and his father left. I was driving into the next town to work each day and driving back to pick up the baby in the dark after work. It seemed impossible to have time to write. But then, the cards seemed so stacked against being able to write from the space I was in — I became really interested in trying to find a form that might make it possible. Like if I could find a way to go on writing, I could find a way to go on. So I gave up the end of the line — or rather, I started using a spaced period as a way of preserving what the line does, but in a responsive format. This seemed necessary to me, b/c if I was going to be able to write into digital space, it was going to require a form with the flexibility to be accessed from my phone & my work computer or a laptop or the computer at the library — and typed in stolen moments between editing projects and while a baby slept on one arm and while feeding the dog and while washing diapers and while waiting for my car at the worst mechanics or bailing someone out of jail. And it would need to be able to move from a cloud doc to a blog post to a print format to a digital journal (that would be accessed by a person on a phone or a tablet or an ancient PC) and somehow survive.

So what is the lyric of that? I don’t think of the poems in the book as prose poems (which people sometimes refer to them as) but I think of them as lyrics in a form capable of migration, and responsiveness, and survival. In this process, I latched onto the figure of the pigeon as corollary inspiration — as a creature capable of adapting to the environment it finds itself in and exceeding that space. At the beginning of this project, when I was trying to write each day in April, one day I could only come up with the phrase “pigeon of tears” — that was it. “No one wants to read about the pigeon of tears.” I wrote. But I was wrong. Pigeons have a huge fan club. I would say Pattie McCarthy, Danielle Pafunda, Jessica Smith, Sarah Campbell, and Michelle Detorie were really encouraging to me at this time & I hugely appreciate that as well as the inspiration their writing gives me. And working in a group with you and Lisa Moore and Desiree Morales and Tina Posner has made everything since then possible. Other than that the book is also about money and survival and edible plants.

CH: What was your process in selecting the poems for this manuscript? How did you find a publisher?

ASK: My process for selecting poems for the manuscript was just to put all the poems I had that didn’t suck into the manuscript. And then the try to arrange them into some kind way that felt alive.

I was extremely lucky in that mEIKAL aND had edited a special issue of Truck I got to be a part of and I had shown him what I had of a manuscript at that time and he said he would be interested in publishing it through Xexoxial Editions. That was huge for me. Xexoxial has such a deep experimental catalog– it feels amazing to think of being a part of that. Like, I get to have the same publisher as Rachel Blau DuPlessis — who’s been so central to my work since like . . .forever. And mEIKAL has also been really patient and helpful in letting me do weird things.

CH: How do you find time to write amid your full-time employment and your role as a parent? How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

ASK: I don’t. That’s why these interview questions are late 😉

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?

By way of answering that I want to turn back a second to a point Willis brings up in talking about the Rossetti poem: “Kiss Me Deadly figures poetry generally and Rossetti’s poetry specifically as a hermetic field of information in danger of disappearing unless someone (whether the implausible Hammer or the incredulous viewer) is called upon to remember it –or, as Ruskin writes, ‘to learn it by heart.’”

There is an essay by Cole Swensen where she talks about the free verse line emerging as the chosen line of the city’s flaneur — and how as the urban perambulator would not know what was behind the increasingly tall downtown buildings — that each corner turned was a surprise — so too did the modern poetic line mimic this state of wandering and discovery. But in shedding rhyme, the poem lost a bit of the memorability rhyme adds to verse. And yet, free verse maintained an edge — a sense of something behind where each line ended. One might say back then there was a sense of the depth behind things, and idea that an unconscious controlled our real actions. And that slowly as technology changed, this sense of depth dissolved until now we can look into the vast digitized space of the internet as an externalized unconscious we gaze upon to know ourselves.

These layers are external and crack in the digital fragile. I think my own work probably reflects the realities of this (whether I like it or not). While country music, in particular, is a huge influence on my work, I think of my poems as more collaged, pixilated, carrying moments of infrasound & resisting recitation. A sort of hillbilly glitch work. But idk recently I’ve heard people saying, during the turn to globalized technological present, poetry became more forgettable. It’s definitely become less memorized, less ‘learned by heart.’ But last night at a reading I heard Sequoia Maner perform her poems for Muhammad Ali from memory and it was so impressive, so electric — how she was able to link through her voice the freestyle poetry of  Muhammad Ali’s own past, voices cracking through “the prismatic grey radio,” our cellphone cameras turned to cops, a poetic lineage traceable through hiphop to here & the fragility of the body. So, yeah, while children aren’t required to recite Frost or poetic battle hymns in the classroom any longer, and while rhyme has often dissolved into the tiniest folds of the poem, there’s a pretty badass tradition preserved elsewhere –in the recursive grooves of the slam circuit and hiphop and the in poets who put their bodies on the line in presenting their work without a screen — as if what exists on a piece of paper can be taken away, but what is known by heart goes with you, as vulnerably as the body does. I feel like my own work comes from such a different place, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Which is to say there is so much great poetry right now, it’s redic & amazing.

Some writers other than the ones I already mentioned throughout I’ve been really into recently are Susan Briante, erica lewis (who has a new book), Layli Long Soldier, Allison Cobb, Raquel Salas-Rivera, Rob Stanton, Wendy Trevino, Jeff Sirkin, Sarah Mangold, and Rosa Alcala, whose new book I’m especially looking forward to.

  1. What is the last book of poetry you’ve read?

It’s been a sadly long time since I read a book from cover to cover. I think the last book I read the whole thing of was josé felipe alvergue’s GIST : RIFT : DRIFT : BLOOM from Further Other Book Works. It’s a gorgeous book.

A Virtual Interview with Kimberly Lambright

Poet Kimberly Lambright will be the featured reader on Thursday, January 12, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).


Kimberly Lambright’s debut poetry collection, Ultra-Cabin, won the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, and was published October 2016. She is a MacDowell fellow, and her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Wicked Alice, The Burnside Review, Bone Bouquet, Columbia Poetry Review, ZYZZYVA, Sink Review, and The Boiler. She holds an MA in humanities from NYU and an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University. She lives in Austin and is at work on her second book: Doom Glove.

The Interview

CH: Your book, Ultra-Cabin, begins with a quote from Gertrude Stein: “All this
and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is
spreading.” How has Stein’s work influenced your own? Why this quote to
open Ultra-Cabin?

KL: Stein is this powerhouse figure of the avant garde—the eccentric, mannered
texture of her work reads to me as personal revolt against hierarchy and
commodification. The epigraph that opens Ultra-Cabin is in her typical
style—she’s working with language’s fabric, its orbit, instead of its
meaning. Conceptually that’s the apex of cool to me these days, so the nod
seemed a natural opener for Ultra, which is concerned with similar themes
of deconstruction, tension, linguistic corruption, etc.

CH: There are so many elements in the poems of Ultra-Cabin that make them
striking: the playfulness of their soundscapes, their deft context
switches, the fragmentation inside so many of them that pushes as if a
motive force. Would you talk a little about your process of composition?

KL: Thanks for saying that! My composition process really centers on a twisty
sense of nuance/vocab. I’m also very interested in the concept of the
unusual, confession, atmosphere/flavor, and the materiality of the
signifier, so those are forces at play when I’m writing.

In Ultra-Cabin I think there are a few different projects going on, since
the work emerged during a span of my more formative years. The more recent
project seems to be about lexical complexity and sonorous integration, but
I can also see a more narrative impulse to get down aspects of grungy,
uneven situations, and low-fi loneliness.

CH: How long did it take you to find a publisher for Ultra-Cabin? How did you
decide to send the manuscript to the 42 Miles Press contest?

KL: I sent Ultra-Cabin to about 15 first-book contests over a period of about 2
years; the book was a finalist/semifinalist for a few contests, so that was
encouraging. 42 Miles is a small shop out of Indiana University—they
started in 2010 and put out one book a year, the poetry contest winner. I
found them via the Poets & Writers’ website. I was floored when I won and
feel really lucky to belong to the 42 Miles line—Betsy Andrews’ eerie and
beautiful The Bottom won the contest in 2013, for example, so I feel in
very good company.

CH: What are you working on now? Can you tell us a bit about Doom Glove?

KL: Doom Glove is the working title of my second collection. I’d say the poems
are spacey and sensate, less linear than ever but I think experientially
coherent via a styled immediacy. There’s a line I like by poet Olena
Kalytiak Davis: “You should bury more than the dead”—I think that theme
runs through Doom Glove, the chance to close the door on what no longer
serves. Regarding the collection’s glaze or mood, I’m leaning into a
feeling of gliding on a neon moonbeam: flowerrock, icelake, pineapple balm,
fairytale mouth, gap in the gape, windy vacuum of grass, etc.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What’s the most recent book of poetry
you’ve read?

KL: I recently read and loved Vanessa Jimenez Gabb’s important Images for
Radical Politics, hugely voiced and subliminally written around sleeper
themes like daily financial reality and civic slough. I’m probably most
affected these last few years by Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, which
registers with political hyper-intelligence the ongoing fall-out of living
and all that dark light. And also Sara Deniz Akant’s Babette blew me
away—it’s truly weird, it reads like a shadow hymn, a chant of air overfull
with ghost/gist.

A Virtual Interview with Anis Shivani

Anis Shivani will be the feature for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, May 12, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.


Anis Shivani is the author of several critically acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, including Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop (2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), Karachi Raj: A Novel (2015), Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems (2015), and Soraya: Sonnets (2016). Both Anatolia and Other Stories and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories were longlisted for the Frank O’Connor international short story award. Books forthcoming in 2016 include Both Sides of he Divide: Observing the Sublime and the Mundane in Contemporary Writing, Literature in an Age of Globalization, A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less, and The Moon Blooms in Occupied Hours: Poems. Books in progress or recently finished include Death is a Festival: Poems, Plastic Realism: Neoliberalism in Recent American Fiction, and the novels Abruzzi, 1936 and An Idiot’s Guide to America.

Anis’s work appears in the Yale Review, Georgia Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review, Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, Fence, Epoch, Boulevard, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Verse, Colorado Review, Quarterly West, New Letters, Subtropics, Times Literary Supplement, London Magazine, Meanjin, Fiddlehead, and other journals. His criticism appears widely in newspapers and magazines such as Salon, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Texas Observer, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Austin American-Statesman, Kansas City Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, St. Petersburg Times, Charlotte Observer, and other outlets. Anis is the winner of a 2012 Pushcart Prize, graduated from Harvard College, and lives in Houston, Texas.

The Interview

CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What drew you to writing?

AS: Although I’ve answered versions of this question many times before, it’s almost an impossible question to answer. I was always a reader, a reader not in the sense that people today like to claim they’re readers, but a reader in a sense that’s almost extinct. And that went back to earliest childhood, and has continued throughout life. One is a reader before one is a writer, one cannot be a writer without being a certain kind of persistent reader. When one reads so persistently it is not unreasonable to start thinking of oneself at some point along the line as someone who wants to write as well. In retrospect, a real reader is just learning to be a writer, even if the intention isn’t stated as such.

I became a writer because every other occupation seemed compromised and unsuitable to my character. Whatever job one takes on in the modern United States, besides creating art, only serves capitalism—and in fact most of writing and art only serves capitalism too. With writing there is at least the possibility that it allows one to develop one’s character to the fullest extent possible, that one can discover oneself through and in writing, so in fact deciding to become a writer takes enormous daring because that’s how one finds out what one is all about—if there’s any there there. Formal education, on the other hand, usually takes a person in the other direction, even if the education is in literature or the arts, it seeks to distance the art from real discovery.

CH: You’ve published books in poetry, fiction, and criticism, and you actively contribute to and the Huffington Post. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? If so, what would that be?

AS: The recent Salon and other articles are barely the tip of the iceberg. I have put together a gigantic book recently, Reflections on an Era of Terror, which is not the sum total but only selections from my political writings in many print and online journals over the last fifteen years. I have not done political writing consistently, because there are long periods of time when I have decided to disengage and take a break, such as in the middle Bush years or through much of Obama’s presidency, but there is little historical memory these days, people see the latest appearance of one’s opinions and don’t have a recollection of context and little desire to trace it. Immediately after 9/11, early in the Bush years, I was writing regularly for Counterpunch, for example, questioning from the get-go the whole narrative that was being established about the war, about terrorism, about civil liberties. It is the same skepticism toward “reality”—which is basically the insane world of slavery and commodification and loss of identity and enforced joylessness that is the sum of the bourgeois capitalist world—that propels me to take a distanced view toward politics, and also motivates me to write fiction and poetry.

Although I’ve written four poetry books in the last year alone, I would still consider my primary identity as a fiction writer, and within that a novelist first, and then as a poet, and then as a literary critic, and finally as an essayist on matters other than literary. That is the hierarchy for me. I have done too much literary criticism and other forms of nonfiction and would be happy to distance myself from this stuff almost completely. The novel is the most difficult form of writing, but poetry has its own sweet gratifications. You grow more aware of yourself in the world as a novelist, but you grow more like yourself as a poet.

CH: How has your background in economics influenced your writing?

AS: I am a hardcore historical materialist in the Marxist vein—not that I’m calling myself a Marxist by any means—but I do tend to interpret things from a rationalist understanding of socioeconomic forces. Personalities matter little to me, because historical forces have the upper hand. You can see easily how this would influence my reading of politics, because I’m not likely to be distracted by personalities, as journalists tend to be, and I take a long view of history, rooted in economics and other material forces like science and technology. I think this same ability to stay focused on what’s really going on historically—not the superficial aura of events and personalities, but the underlying material dynamics behind historical change—informs my fiction and poetry as well. It is not just the training in economics and the social sciences, but also a family background that is very worldly and not rooted in a single time and place, that allows me to remain  distanced from the immediate distractions that often sway people in writing.

I probably can’t ever be a sincere “confessionalist” because I know too much about the     hard realities of poverty and suffering, which are not destinies but choices, collective and   conscious choices, so it is difficult to take one’s own travails in isolation and take them too seriously, which I don’t. Someone like Hermann Broch, with his Sleepwalkers trilogy, and his business background, appeals greatly to me for similar reasons, as a model writer, and my favorite poet of all-time, the insurance executive otherwise known as Wallace Stevens, also has this combination of hardcore understanding of the world combined with a utopian imagination. If you take reality seriously, you can’t be imaginative, and therefore you can’t be utopian, and it is only in utopia where truth can be found.

CH: Your collection of essays, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies, offers a bracing critique of MFA programs. What first turned your critical attention to these programs?

AS: About fifteen years ago—or even longer now, in fact—I was studying very seriously everything that was being published in the quality literary journals, beginning to submit to them myself. I noticed the uniformity of writing, whether in poetry or short fiction or the then emerging genre of creative nonfiction, and it made me wonder about the similarity of tone. Also politics—by which I mean awareness of the world at large, outside one’s solipsistic self—was missing from nearly all this writing, published by MFA graduates, as is true even to this day. It was, and is, a very curious, hermetic, escapist writing, which seems on the surface to deploy the tropes of literary realism, but is not even realist in the reductionist sense that, say, nineteenth-century realism was. My own writing, produced in complete isolation, was like nothing I was seeing in the print journals.

I started making the connection between the MFA workshop and the kind of writing that was being produced, which seemed to be the “artistic” extension of a certain form of capitalism, neoliberal capitalism we would call it today. I did a lot of thinking, and writing, about how this branch of the media establishment—yes, I would call institutionalized creative writing just that, part of the media landscape—is nothing more than an ideological cover for capitalism. That’s it, that’s all it is, the academy is producing no real writing, it is just an outlet for a certain form of permitted “self-expression” that fits very well with capitalism’s aims.

CH: What alternatives do you see for writers who wish to better themselves in craft? How have you found community that has helped you grow as a writer?

AS: How about reading? What should be the proportion of hours of reading to hours of writing, when you start out? 100 to 1? Or what I am more likely to hear, astoundingly, 1 to 1?

I have started asking this question of students I’m encountering in “workshop.” I’m actually teaching, for the first time in my life, writing, starting at a local conference, and now at home, aka Monsoon Art Space in Houston. I was very curious if I could come up with an alternative model of teaching, distanced from the institutionalized model that I think has clearly failed, and this experiment has taught me a lot about the teaching of writing. I don’t teach what they teach in workshop, my model violates every single rule followed in a conventional workshop, but it works, it works phenomenally well, the progress students make from knowing almost nothing about a genre to producing publishable work in short order is mind-boggling. And yet my advice—not that in an era when people expect to pay for something and get what they want in return, this will mean anything—is that people don’t take workshop, any workshop, and people don’t seek community.

Community is the antithesis of writing. I am part of many different literary and artistic communities, some of which I have formed and promote, yet none of it has anything to do with writing. Community is typically a substitution for writing. You certainly shouldn’t be seeking community before you have formed yourself as a writer.

So my question to you, if you want to be a writer, is: Are you willing to shut yourself down and read, read like a writer, the ten or twenty thousand books you need to read before you can know anything about writing? Are you willing to give the best years of your life to reading and writing, are you willing to make writing the first and only priority in life, more than your family and the people you love or money or health or security or anything else? And all by yourself, in solitude? If yes, you can be a writer, if not, you can’t. Community is optional and dispensable. It’s something you do, perhaps, after you’ve established your identity as a writer, not before. But today the cart comes before the horse, it’s the opposite of what it should be.

CH: In My Tranquil War and Other Poems, I see form’s use as a container, as in the couplet poem “I Watched Executions Last Night with My Sister.” How do you arrive at the form a poem will take?

AS: I have ceased writing individual poems for some years now, I visualize only books, I see the form poems in a book are supposed to take, typically the same form throughout. So Soraya was 100 sonnets of the exact same style, then I wrote Death is a Festival, which is 70 sonnets in the Soraya style but more baroque and impenetrable. But Death is a Festival also has 70 pages of other kinds of “poetry” and of outright “prose,” mysterious reworkings of mythology and folklore. Then I wrote The Art of Love, which is 70 pages of four-line poems, identical in style and tone, with a middle fifteen pages of longer poems with long broken lines playing with a very open field. Then I wrote Confessions I, which is 100 poems of 7 lines each, though not true to any meter, and then finally, most recently, Confessions II, which is 100 poems of 10 lines each, all in exactly the same style, staying close to iambic pentameter, but very experimental. So I’m no longer thinking of a poem in a particular style, I tend to think in bunches, a hundred or so, so I can get more out of it by repetition, by varying on a theme, by telling a narrative, and staying focused on the arc of the story, having gotten the form out of the way.

As for earlier books like My Tranquil War, and the few that followed, that was a different thing. I was adapting a lot of conventional forms, pretty much the whole range available to a poet writing in English, for contemporary, even postmodern, uses. In My Tranquil War you have almost a bravado display of forms, which all excited me at the time, as vehicles I could rely on to express what the poems wanted to say in ways that far exceeded what I could have attained had I just written “formless” free verse—not that good free verse is ever formless.

It is more difficult, of course, when you are just writing random poems, one at a time—which I don’t do anymore and haven’t for a while—because you have to discover the form for each poem, whatever makes sense for it. A sestina pushes you in a certain direction, as does a ghazal, as does a villanelle, and likewise for all the variations of meter and rhythm, the form dictates its own sense, it takes control, or you push against it which is another form of control, so you give up certain forms of arbitrary authority in order to gain other kinds of authority.

“I Watched Executions” was a short poem, written a dozen years ago, and the few brief couplets, written without overt expressive emotion, seemed suited to the theme of observing executions in Afghanistan, in a way that hinted darkly at sadomasochistic oppression. There are a couple of abbreviated lines in the middle of the poem, which came about at the suggestion of David Hamilton, then the editor of Iowa Review. To this day I’m not sure if shortening those lines helped or hurt the poem!

CH: The thread of the sonnet runs through all of your books of poetry, most strongly, of course, in Soraya. My Tranquil War’s “To Djuna Barnes, on Nightwood,” with its Shakespearean structure, Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish’s “December 31,” with its appropriately Mayer-like form, and the experimental sonnets of Soraya seem to detail a movement in your own aesthetic. How has your approach to the sonnet shifted over time?

AS: This is true, the sonnet is a consistent strain, I enjoy discussing the sonnet with others who’ve used it to different effects, I enjoy teaching it, I enjoy the infinite variations possible. Early on I wanted to master all the traditional forms, I wanted to be in total control of traditional prosody, so that later when I varied from tradition it would be second-nature to me and it would be in my arsenal to do with as I wished. So the sonnets in My Tranquil War are relatively conventional, although there were even more conventional ones I wrote that never became part of that book. As my writing in general has moved in a consistently more experimental direction over fifteen or twenty years, my use of the sonnet has moved in a parallel direction.

I love the sonnet for being one of the most humanist forms—perhaps the paradigmatic humanist form in poetry—because it allows, or rather pushes toward, an internal dialectic, an exploration of the self, an argument with oneself that leads to understanding and compassion, as has been true from Shakespeare and Petrarch onward. The structure of the sonnet compels this conversation with oneself, this aroused skepticism, and this is suited to exploring, from a confessional-but-not-confessional standpoint, such difficult topics as love and death. I think of the 10-line poems in Confessions II as abbreviated sonnets, they don’t have the scope for counterargument as in a fourteen-line sonnet, but they have some of the same brio of relentless self-questioning. Perhaps in Confessions III, whenever I write it, I may return to the full-blown sonnet, I don’t know.

CH: As you’ve looked to publish poetry, how have you gone about finding publishers? How has the experience you’ve had with Soraya differed from your first two books of poetry? From your books of fiction?

AS: Each book, each publication event, is a unique experience so generalizations are not possible. I will say that one doesn’t “go about finding publishers,” I think what happens is that you establish your legitimacy as a writer, above all by doing the hard unavoidable work of deepening the texture of your writing. As you do this arduous work over a period of years possibilities start opening up, there are glimmers of hope as to book publication, some things you might look on as distant prospects, others that seem nearer at hand. And then what happens is that editors and publishers come to you, or rather there is a natural meeting of the minds, and you decide you want to work with publisher X. as someone with whom you will be in a relationship of great trust and respect and cooperation, and likewise publisher Y. might feel the same about you, that this is someone whose work they might support to the extent of putting their own imprimatur behind it.

I have been very lucky in finding such publishers, whom I think of as very old-school, in that the desire to sell books and seek audiences is of course there, but there is a greater vision of what good literature is all about, what they want to put out in the world and why. Very old-school, as I said, in terms of loyalty, mutual respect, gentlemanly or even scholarly behavior, and just being overall fantastic human beings to work with. If you persist in doing the best work you can and put it out there, book publication will happen.

I have great respect for each of the publishers who took a chance on me, and of course whenever a publisher picks up your book they are taking a chance on the unknown, no matter your reputation or track record. I have always been drawn to publishers who respect the integrity of the word above all else, and it is something to whom each of them have dedicated their lives.

In the case of Soraya, my experience has been like a dream. Black Widow Press, the preeminent publisher of surrealist writing in this country, has the kind of idealistic, even utopian, attitude toward books and their care and nurturing that one only dreams of encountering. Joe Phillips and Susan Wood, publishers of Black Widow Press, and also owners of rare and antiquarian bookstores in Boston, New Orleans, and Sarasota, are very old-school in their conduct and professionalism and priorities. This kind of happy experience is what makes all the sacrifices and difficulties of a writing life worth it. I respect them more than I can say. One wants each book, which is a treasure one is yielding up after all, to have a home one can be prouder to point to than even one’s own home.

You asked about fiction. You go through more editing, of course, compared to poetry, so it creates a different relationship of trust over time. With poetry typically you deliver a completely finished product. My first publisher ever, Colleen Ryor at Black Lawrence Press, had the independence of judgment, distanced as I think she was from established tropes, to notice and pick up outstanding work again and again. We didn’t do any editing on Anatolia and Other Stories, short stories typically need less work than novels, but with my novel Karachi Raj, there was years of slow-gestating editing, and my editor Manasi Subramaniam at HarperCollins/Fourth Estate, has the patience of a—well, let me think of a medieval comparison here, as someone who thinks most highly of the middle ages—a fresco painter, or an illuminator?

CH: What are your current writing projects? What do you see on the horizon in the next couple of years?

AS: I have lately become superstitious about talking too much about writing projects in progress, so I will refrain from specifics. But I’ll say that I hope to finish a few novels, write a substantive book of poetry that will depart from the tendency I established in the five books between Soraya and Confessions II, and in the meantime put out all the completed books, including a cat novel, a memoir (a first for me), and a trilogy of very substantive and bulky and challenging books of criticism. I stopped writing short stories almost ten years ago (although I published two books of short stories), but I may return to stories in the near future, I can see how I can use the form without burning up material that ought to be saved for novels, that threat is gone for me. I am also interested in writing sets of novellas, this is another form, an in-between one, that tremendously excites me.

CH: Which writers have been your strongest influences? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

AS: Pretty much since the beginning of my writing life, now twenty years old, and even twenty-five if you count college, the modernists have been my lodestars. All of them. I don’t need to name them, they have all been strong influences, whether American, British, German, French, Russian, or Spanish, you name them. I believe that modernist writing and art was the greatest work ever produced by humanity, and that there has been a constant decline since then—but that’s because the exploding star that was modernist writing was so bright that everything pales in comparison still, and perhaps will continue to do so for another hundred years, or another five hundred, who knows. There is really nothing new in writing today, it was already done a hundred or ninety or eighty years ago in either perfected or embryonic form, so all we’re doing is living off the legacy of the modernists, and will continue to do so for some considerable time.

As I mentioned, Stevens was the most profound influence, but also Lorca, Mandelstam, Apollinaire, Auden, Oppen, Zukofsky, Duncan, and in fiction, likewise, all the modernists, Woolf, Forster, Ellison, Bowles, Brecht, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Waugh—and most recently Philip K. Dick, perhaps the greatest writer of the second half of the twentieth century, anywhere in the world. I should say that I also appreciate the nineteenth-century realists, all of them, because they were the first to invent a form as comprehensive and self-justifying and death-dealing as capitalism, the antagonist they were dealing with.

Last week I read a brilliant poetry book by Matvei Yankelevich, translator of the Russian absurdist-futurist Daniil Kharms and founder of Ugly Duckling Presse. Matvei also gave a brilliant reading at Brazos Bookstore a week and a half ago, one of the best I’ve witnessed there, and was part of an illuminating dialogue on translation at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The book, Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt, responds to a series of 60 drawings called “Dr. Vogt” that were part of an installation in Bridgehampton, NY, in 2011, by the artist Koo Jeong A. Ekphrastic poetry is one of my abiding interests, and it’s fascinating how Yankelevich constructs a self-sufficient world that may well take from the art but is really a comment on the nature of poetry (poetry as an abstraction one is supposed to respond to, as reader and listener, in a twenty-first century world that has lost almost everything poetic about it); so it’s an act of continuous construction,  deconstruction, and reconstruction in that book, as if Yankelevich were building his own 60-drawing installation, heeding but not heeding the hard concreteness of physical art. It’s the kind of impossible book that saves my faith in poetry. Also, like the writers I’m most fond of, I found Yankelevich to be old-school, gentlemanly, scholarly, a little otherworldly, and above all driven and consumed by literature and ideas and the integrity of the word. The real deal.