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KGB Interview - Elaine Equi

by Benjamin Carter Olcott

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Nietzsche, Clones, “A Guide to the Cinema Tarot,” oh my! Like Oz, there is something mysterious, a little frightening, and wondrous about the realm of Elaine Equi. In Click and Clone, her latest published collection, inversions of and excursions from expected physics abound on every page: here, we find “A Woman Trapped in an Aerosol Mist” living “in a clock in a corner of the future”; and there, “The Necessary Troll” “beneath a bridge on a box of jasmine tea imported / from an imaginary country in an undisclosed century.” We’re not in Kansas anymore … or are we? In our preposterous world of gaudy waste and scattered self, there is something profoundly true about Equi’s poetry, something real in its cohabitation with the fantastic. With HD vision and tuneful humor (I laughed aloud in more than one coffee shop reading her) she waxes future perfect. And she’s been doing it for a while now: her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and numerous volumes of The Best American Poetry. It was a pleasure talking poetry with her.

I wanted to ask first about Click and Clone. The first poem in the collection, “Follow Me,” begins, “The flower breathes / the window’s perfume. // The wall opens / its door.” These might be considered “imagined” perceptions – in “reality” the flower is perfumey, the door’s opening belongs to itself. Do you consciously set out to interrogate the distinction between imagination and reality in your poems?

I thought it good to start the book with some kind of reversal of how we normally look at things – i.e. imagination being inside, reality, outside. I was thinking of how technology opened up a new kind of imaginative space – the virtual – that was real, but not necessarily concrete.

“Click and Clone” is, to me, one of the more mysterious poems in the entire collection in that its morsels of wit and almost-tactile image (“Caught in the layer cake / of an ancient argument”) are familiar to your poetry, yet the poem as a whole seems unique. What about this poem is representative of collection?

I think this poem captures the spirit of cloning in a general way. “Click and Clone” sounds like an updated version of “cut and paste” – importing snippets of language from one context and dropping them into another. I often use asterisks to connect lines that are related but not in obvious ways. The art of the splice calls attention to how your mind connects disparate elements. It highlights disjunction, as well as continuity.

What is the draw of the clone as an image?

Clones seem kind of tired as an image – played out. I wasn’t thinking so much of real clones or the scientific possibilities of cloning. Mine are more like clones in literature and cheap sci-fi novels and movies. Their ability to perpetually start over, their unflagging energy, masks a place of profound exhaustion. Also clones don’t create, they repeat. That quality of recycling everything seems very prevalent today.

That reminds me of one my favorite poems in the collection, “Progress Report,” a sort of mock office assessment extolling institutional wastefulness. You write, “Technology, we’ve learned / should be balanced with human folly / in order to malfunction / in the optimal way.” Is our “human folly” that we believe we really can be indefatigable?

As humans, we have so many follies – greed, intolerance, hubris – it’s hard to choose just one, and when you couple them with technology, the results can be unpredictable, to say the least. I’m glad you like the poem. It’s slightly exaggerated to make a point, but also pretty autobiographical. I’m slow, vague, and lackadaisical by nature. During the Industrial Age, people had to keep up with the new pace of the assembly line. In the Information Age, the feeling of being rushed all the time has multiplied exponentially. I hate it.

Your poetry has an incredibly deft and sure touch with Information Age material that young poets often shy from, out of fear its inclusion will somehow dilute a poem’s “poemness” – I’m thinking of Hollywood film, plain speech, specific mention of social media, etc. Why do you think this perception exists?

Gee, I’d say poets today go much further than I do in terms of including pop culture and “non-poetic” sources. Look at Flarf. I actually watch movies and TV a lot less than I used to. They seem kind of boring.

But even so, Flarf has been firmly relegated to the avant-garde. Why do you think it’s considered radical, or perhaps a form of Futurism?

I don’t think it’s the practice so much as the intention that makes Flarf radical. Many people could collage found language (even from the internet) and it wouldn’t be considered Flarf. It’s the attitude or intention to provoke/annoy/outrage the audience that reminds me of Dadaist or Futurist art.

“Popular poets” à la Longfellow are almost non-existent today, for many reasons – but you’ve been reviewed in Entertainment Weekly, been called, in that same review, “one cool dude.” It’s not every poet that is associated with either notion. What about your poetry do you think suggests “cool?” Is it something you work against or with or regard indifferently?

I do try to be cool – more in poems because it’s easier to get away with than in real life. But I think a lot of poets are cool. Rimbaud, Baudelaire, the Beats, the New York School. Why else would commercials for Levis quote Whitman?

I certainly agree they are cool; but I guess what I mean is poetry is not “cool” in a commercial sense; it is not a “hot commodity.” Does it bother or frustrate you that poetry is often appropriated for the ends of commercial cool seemingly without accruing any for itself?

It doesn’t. I like any intersections of poetry and pop culture and am more amused than irritated by them. I’d hate for poetry to be stuck in some art-ghetto. I’m more of a populist.

Nietzsche makes several appearances in the collection. Wherefore the Ubermensch?

Aphorisms are one of my favorite forms, and I enjoy, in particular, the way many philosophers use them. Not just Nietzsche, but also the Pre-Socratics and Wittgenstein. When I do read philosophy, it’s often as poetry—for the language more than the ideas. I like Heidegger too. His sentences are wonderfully disorienting, more repetitive and circuitous than even Gertrude Stein’s.

There are a bunch of prose poems in the collection.

I’m a great appreciator of a good sentence. I like to read novels and essays. Prose poems allow me to indulge in the pleasure of sentence making and discursive thought without too lengthy of a commitment. When I write poems, my method of composition is usually more atomistic. I favor scraps, fragments, short phrases.

Has your writing methodology changed in the last three or four years? In all the years you’ve been writing?

I still write all poems with a pen in a notebook.  What makes my writing change and evolve are the different traditions that I see my poems in conversation with.

How does your work-in-progress Sentences and Rain, compare (so far) thematically to Click and Clone?

I’m happy to announce that Sentences and Rain will be out in October of 2015 from Coffee House Press.  To circle back to your first question, I do consciously play with the balance of reality and the imagination, in different ways in different books. This new one feels more grounded in clarity rather than fantasy. I’m influenced by the Surrealists, but I’m also influenced by the Objectivists, and am constantly recalibrating and remixing those seemingly incongruent positions. As I say in the title poem: “The rain/ waters/ the sentences.// The words/ grow taller,/ more supple.// The sentences/ previously/ too dry// now bend/ and reach/ toward meaning.”

Elaine Equi is the author of many books including, most recently, Click and Clone from Coffee House Press. A new collection, Sentences and Rain, is forthcoming in 2015. She teaches at New York University and in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The New School.



Benjamin Carter Olcott' photo

Benjamin Carter Olcott is an Editor at KGB Bar Lit Magazine and a proud Manhattan resident. His fiction has twice finaled in Glimmer Train Story Contests. He is an Editorial and Digital Products Assistant at Oxford University Pres and works part-time at 192 Books in Chelsea.