Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My internet was down last night so that's why this wasn't up yesterday.

The inquisition interview with Jeremy Schmall (links to his writings will be up soon).

Me: How were you drawn towards poetry? Have you always liked it?

Jeremy: I started writing poetry accidentally as an undergrad. I didn't consider it poetry, I just knew I found it really enjoyable and compelling, in a compulsive way. So I'd lock myself in my room at night and scribble the worst poems ever written in a notebook. When I look at them now it's hard not to laugh, but at the time they really meant everything to me, and carried me from day to day. I'd never written poetry before that, or read any. I eventually realized I was doing something people might consider "poetry." When I overcame my embarrassment, I went to the library and started digging into the work of real poets. Naturally this blew my mind.

Do you find that certain themes/media inspire you more than others? How influenced are you by other poetry? As a musician, other music has a far greater impact on me than visual art or movies; does this same relationship hold true for your poetry?

In terms of themes, I'm always drawn to something new and exciting, something I'd never considered before, something that breathes life into my banal day-to-day. I love to find or see something that raises the ceiling on what's possible in the creative arena, and to gain new perspectives.

I'm definitely most influenced by poetry, since it's the most applicable, but music has a strong influence on me. The lyrics of David Berman (The Silver Jews) are pretty amazing, and Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices) basically opened some door in me in terms of realizing what you're allowed to say. His use of non sequitur language is incredible.

But lyrics aside, texture and tone are so important in music, and I've thought a lot about how to match musical chords with images. In a lot of ways I'm wildly jealous of musicians because music cuts straight to the core. You can play a combination of three chords on the keyboard, accompany it with a sparse guitar solo, and the whole audience will be in tears without even thinking about how abstract that is. If I try for something like that in poetry, people most likely would just respond by scratching their heads, because words are so strongly tied to meaning. Instead of letting these strange abstractions settle over them, they try to wrestle them into linear meaning in an attempt to "get" whatever's in the poem. It's a natural inclination, because that's ultimately what Western civilization is founded on, but it can be destructive.

That's a fascinating thought, the idea that you really can't use abstract words to generate mood. I think it's true, and I think that's a big reason why music is a billion-dollar industry and poetry is a... somewhat less industry. At the same time though, I'm often frustrated by the fact that song lyrics tend to fall to the wayside. You have to really pay attention to lyrics to understand them (and sometimes they're still indecipherable) and that's pretty much expected by the modern music audience. I occasionally feel forced to work harder on the music because it gets most of the attention, despite the fact that well-written lyrics are ultimately more satisfying.

Just to clarify, it's not that I don't think abstract language can generate mood, it's just that the way our culture perceives language circumvents it. For example, A+B+C=angry or sad. I think it's just a matter of being open or tuned into language, or perhaps having different expectations of it. There's definitely writers who create poetry that is based almost completely on tone and texture. The poem doesn't add up to anything, or there's no rising, tense narrative; whatever's in the poem permeates it, and the feelings sneak in that way.

So right now you're studying at the New School in New York City. What is 'studying' an art in an institutional setting like? Is there actually any studying done, or is it essentially like an artist colony? What are the benefits/drawbacks of working in that setting vs 'real' life?

I was definitely skeptical of the program going into it, because it is a contrived environment, but it's won me over. I think an M.F.A. program could be the worst experience if the professors were a certain way, and if the culture of the program was oppressive and hyper-competitive, but my experience has been great. There's a fair amount of studying that takes place, especially in terms of reading literature, and the New School also has an amazing live reading series. Last night I was at a reading for Wave Books, and the poets who read just blew me away. I would probably never even have heard of these poets if it wasn't for the program.

The other great aspect is the focus it forces on you, and the way you're always surrounded by writers. My group of friends here are the only people I know who--the drunker they get--the more intense the conversation becomes about poetry. I would never have met these people otherwise, and I think just having people as focused as you are on an art form can really lead to great things. That being said, I'm glad I waited a few years before going back to school. Had I gone directly to grad school, without the rough 'real' life experience in between, it wouldn't be the same. And of course it feels nothing like school did as an undergrad. I work full-time, then a few nights a week I go to class.

I know you also spent a year in Korea. Was being linguistically isolated a good or bad thing (or neither) for your writing? What about when you moved back to the US? Was there a palpable feeling of relief or dread that translated to your work?

I don't think spending a year in Korea had a huge impact on my writing, though it definitely made me think about language differently. You become like a deaf child trying to communicate sometimes, pointing at pictures or trying to motion what you want, speaking in broken English. It made me think, what is this magical language thing that allows one person to communicate complex thoughts and emotions to another. It's pretty amazing. I also tried to learn some Korean, which made me realize how tied our thoughts are to language, and how tied our language is to culture, which in some ways makes your thoughts a cultural by-product. There were things about Korean that I just couldn't understand. I'm sure there's better examples than this, but because hierarchy is so important, they conjugate verbs depending on the level of respect they want to show. So the same sentence will sound differently depending on how formal the occasion is. It got me thinking how different systems of language--different codes really--how that affects behavior, how it is they were ever organized, and whether a sharper, more efficient system could be produced in the future.

Upon returning to the U.S. I expected to feel a sense of relief, but moving straight to New York was really difficult. The transition from Korea would've been hard anyway, but doing it while adjusting to life here made it twice as bad. I was confused and exhausted all the time. I couldn't quite remember what "normal" Americans talked about. I didn't have a normal, casual conversation for months. It was really strange. I wrote a lot, but none of it made sense. It would just tie itself in knots. It was like I'd forgotten how to write normal sentences.

That's bizarre. The whole 'culture influencing language influencing thought' idea reminds me of 1984's Doublespeak. Now I want to reread that book.

You mentioned your friends at school... does collaboration ever play a role in poetry? It seems like poetry is a very individual art, like drawing. Obviously you are influenced by
everyone and everything you interact with, but have you ever actively involved someone in your writing process? If so what was that like?

I'm actually working on a collaboration with a friend of mine right now. It's a two-column piece, meant to be read at the same time. I write one column and send it to him, then he responds on the other side of the page. We stole the idea from John Ashbery. He wrote a long poem called "Litany" where he wrote both columns himself. We saw him read it a month ago and it was amazing. There was a woman reading one column, and he read the other column. I didn't honestly expect to enjoy it, but it was great. It went on for about 45 minutes.

The other collaboration I've done is writing lyrics for my brother's band. It's tremendously rewarding to hear something I've written interpreted into music. It's forced me to think about the rhythm of language differently, and to discover a voice that was distinct from the poems I was writing at the time.

My friend Wes and I are also in the early stages of collaboration, but neither of us knows precisely how it'll turn out. I sent him some poems that I wrote to fit what I think is the theme in a lot of his paintings and drawings. I honestly have no clue what he intends to do with them.

How exactly does the two-column poem work? Are the columns read at the same time or are turns taken?

It's meant to be read at the same time. It's weird. When I saw the Ashbery poem performed, I thought it was an interesting concept, but would be unpleasant (perhaps in a good way) to sit through. But it was brilliant. Because I couldn't focus, in a way I was hyper-focused and my mind just soared. I wrote a poem during the reading, which is something i would've thought impossible because of the obvious difficulties with concentration. And the poem turned out great.

Listening to the Ashbery poem, I would listen to one narrator for a while, then shift to the other, then one would stop for a few lines and it would be like a dramatic drum solo, and no matter what they said would seem incredibly profound. The style he wrote the poem in, which can be really frustrating for some people, really makes it work. His writing's really deceptive, and constantly hinting at profundity. All these really profound ideas appear and then as you're starting to put it together have suddenly been replaced by another and you didn't realize that the first had left.

Do you have a direction for your poetry? (Do you want one?) I've read some poetry by people who've just 'let the words flow out' and it's often fairly incoherent. It does an
admirable job of creating mood, which we talked about, but it means nothing to me. Your poetry is different, you've elevated your subjects to your conscious mind, and I'm wondering how intentional that is. I guess I'm basically asking you how much time you spend erasing.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by elevating my subjects to conscious mind. In terms of direction, I guess I'm pursuing more experimental, fragmented writing. Whatever gets me excited to be writing is what I'm after. It's all experiment and surprise.

My process is basically to 'let it flow,' and see what comes out. The yield, in terms of what's usable, is incredibly low. In mathematical terms, I'd say maybe 35% is workable material. I sit with the workable material for a few weeks, looking over it now and again, slowly scraping it down to only the essentials. Eventually something will be finished and I'll show it to a few people for confirmation. Probably no more than 5% of what I write actually ends up worth finishing. But even a poem that isn't worth finishing will sometimes have a solid line in it that will set up a chain reaction that results in a good poem weeks or months later. Then there's also streaks where I'll like a lot of what I'm writing with minimal editing, but that's rare.

That's what I was trying to ask you - how much editing do you have to do once words are on paper.

For you, is poetry a means to an end, or an end in and of itself? When you're done with school, will you live your life to write poetry, or will you write poetry so as to live your life?

For me poetry is an end in itself. I don't expect my life to change much when I'm finished with school.

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