Saturday, May 12, 2012

Five Questions with B.J. Love

cant co-editor Aaron McNally shot a few emails back and forth with his main man B.J. Love to talk music, verse, and Urban Outfitters. Behold: 

photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz
Until the twentieth century, the closest you could come to putting on a record or dvd in your home was to crack open a book of verse or a novel. To what extent is that still relevant to poetry--that instant, on-demand, pre-recorded musical aspect?
Okay, I don't know that I fully grasp the question, but here is an answer that answers the part of the question I could conceive an answer for:
One of the main problems with contemporary verse is that it has become an exercise fully based in the mind. Which isn't to say that it's not entertainment, but that it's a kind of entertainment apart from our historical views on what it means to be entertained. Those looking to be entertained, don't turn towards poetry (it seems only hobbyists and practitioners still do) and I see that as a major problem for this art.
To jump ahead some; I don't think art should be solely a guttural, reactive experience, should be entertainment. In fact, great joy emerges from consideration alone, just staying in your head with a work. But if I were to ask you right now what your 3 favorite works of art were, I can say with some certainty, that at the very least 2 of the 3, if not all 3, would be pieces you found entertaining; the sculpture you have that uncannily resembles your girlfriends body and is really sexy, Bacon's Pope Study that you hesitate to look at in the museum because it scares you so much, or Matthew Zapruder's "Come on All You Ghosts," which you read every time you are lonely because the book is actually talking to you.
Anyway, I think the short response to your question is: I don't think that poetry has "that instant, on-demand, pre-recorded musical aspect" anymore, because nobody thinks of poetry as entertaining. Nobody looks to poetry for fun, especially in a world where movies are always at our fingertips. I am a poet, I am a reader, in fact, one of my favorite pastimes is reading poems, but that's a pastime, a hobby, and though I do get joy from it, I don't know that I consider it entertaining like a movie, or a novel even. I mean, at least those things are aware of their audience...
I think you can probably tell that this topic is painfully close to another that I am much more passionate about.

I do think you're right--my favorite works do have an entertainment aspect for me. It's that entertainment factor that allows my mind to have the leisure to achieve the contemplation. In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer's able to get me to Troilus' "disembodied laughter," a spiritual concept, because it's entertaining to read. Similarly, Ariosto's main purpose was "to delight."
But, as you know, I'm a classics man. You're more of a contemporary reader, which is why I look to you for the low down. I think you're saying that the contemporary poet is cloistered in a way that removes it from a mainstream audience and, therefore, lacks the same entertainment value of old. Chaucer was a sort of court performance artist who interacted directly with his audience. Today's poet is interacting with a tiny microcosm of poet-readers--minds that are distinctly educated and literate in a certain, specific intellectual way.
Still, don't those folks have a good time? I think Dorothea Lasky put it best when she cried out "Let's Have a Party, Poets!"
But that phrase, "Let's have a party, poets!" is a problem, though. Not in any real sense, but a problem none-the-less. Chaucer. That guy was a fucker, but he put on a show, both on the page and in person. He was interested in entertaining, a precursor to acted drama, Vaudeville, movies, etc., he was after audience; his life often literally depended on it. Today though, I feel (I), that we poets have lost out on the pursuit of audience and have seemingly given up on getting it back. Our audience today is literally a version of yourself. "Let's have a party, poets!" Let's just have a fucking party for everyone, and make sure that the invitations, the poems, are inviting to everyone.
I know I'm speaking broadly and generally here, but I do believe that (and I think the way you phrased it, "the contemporary poet is cloistered," is much too passive) we poets have become the aging slugger of the literary world. We used to be great and everyone loved us, but then thanks to cheaper printing costs and the birth of film, we couldn't really keep up in the field anymore. In the 60's we switched to AL and DH'ed for a few years and people loved us again, but now, now we're toiling away in the independent leagues as a player/coach, trying to scrape together some kind of living from the only thing we've ever loved.
The history of poetry as the life of Jose Canseco...jeez.
Yes, today's poet/reader is having a good time. S/he has never, in history, had more verse to consume, but I do think we're, not just avoiding, but really missing out on the challenges a broad audience gives us. Major production studios/publishing houses/record labels are always after the largest audience possible. They have focus groups, algorithms, and advertising agencies help them to it, because, who the fuck really knows how it's done? Audience, as an entity, is as mysterious as it has always been, and really, who better to tackle that challenge than us, us poets!?! After all, isn't that we're already doing, trying to capture a part of human experience?
Why aren't we all trying to write a poem that is as complicated, interesting, and entertaining as the "Dark Knight?" Or, any Christopher Nolan movie for that matter?

Aaron and B.J., December 2007
I'm not certain I'm convinced that there's nothing out there that's as "complicated, interesting, and entertaining" as the Dark Knight (for me personally Timothy Donnelly's Cloud Corporation and Laura Solomon's The Hermit both fit that bill), but I will concede that there's nothing out there that's as entertaining to the "the largest audience possible." I guess to get back to the initial question, is it possibly just a question of technology, that mere textual work (no matter how much symbolism, irony, humor, emotion or soundplay you force into it) just doesn't have the same appeal as it once did?
Ignore that question. Let me propose another one. Let's talk Urban Outfitters. They figured out how to niche market "retro" technologies (vintage-style cameras and vinyl) as extra merchandise to the hipster fashion set. Effing Ehy, they and Anthropologie even sell books! Let's say Graywolf wanted to tap that market. Or better yet, Ugly Duckling or Small Fires (that letterpress has the vintage appeal). How can B.J. Love write a poem that better serves that potential audience? How can B.J. Love and Small Fires make a niche market into the largest niche market possible?
Well, now, I would never go so far as to say those poems aren't out there, check the transcript! There are poets writing poems right now who greatly invested in the entertainments of doing so (both for them and for their audience). You've mentioned a few already, Dottie Lasky, Laura Solomon, for sure, Matthew Zapruder, Mathias Svalina, his press partner Zach Schomburg (who maybe the most famous poet in America under 40, shit, under 70!), Erika just showed me a book by Gabe Foreman, "A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People,"'s one of the most entertaining books of any kind I've ever read! Anyway, what I meant when I mentioned the Christopher Nolan thing, is that I feel a lot of poets, people I went to school with, people I know, even people I sometimes am myself, are content with writing smart poems and leaving it at that (the smart poem, by the way, is a poem that is very good at being a poem, but hard to read because it is boring).
Before I ignore your followup question, I will say that entertainment and engagement go hand-in-hand, and I think it may be engagement that I'm lingering on here more than anything. Smart poems are good poems, poetically, but they lack engaging factors that welcome the audience into them, or even coerce the audience into them.
I've been watching a lot of physics documentaries lately. Not because I have found myself really interested in physics, but because physicists and poets face, essentially, the same problem...relating complexities and abstractions and unknowns in inherently relatable ways. Have you ever watched Dr. Brian Cox? You should, not only is he a genius, but he takes those impossible equations and makes them tangible. But the thing that is really fascinating, as a poet, is when he starts, realizes his analogies aren't going to work and then tries something else...those failures is where you see the idea of audience at work, the idea of engagement, of entertainment. In short, the equations explain themselves, their equations, that's what they do, but that someone really wants a layperson, someone who has no interest in physics, to understand what they are after, the answers they want and the reasons they want them, is fantastic to witness.
Personally, I have a hard time writing poems for a broad, faceless audience. And most of my difficulties stem from boredom. I'm just not interested in that particular exchange. What I love, though, is picking one person (you, Aaron McNally, have been that person 30+ times) and writing to them. It helps me focus the imagery, limit my abstractions, and, really, mimic those patterns of conversation that are so musical to me (I believe in the utility of the drum fill). And that is where, if any, I see a crossover with Urban Outfitters; the concept of selling individuality to a huge population. That even though you are picking up this shirt from a stack of others identical to it, that this is now YOUR t-shirt, it's always been your t-shirt, you just didn't know it yet.
By writing poems for individual people, but desiring that more than those individuals read them, I have to believe that anyone, whether you know me or not, can feel while reading the poem, that I am speaking to you, with you, maybe for you, but preferably not. Even though you are picking up this poem in the internet and that, literally, tens of other people are reading it, that this is YOUR poem, it's always been your poem, you just didn't know it yet.
Okay, enough for today. How about you though, who do you write for? Realistically, what do you imagine your role is in our culture (poets or otherwise)? Do you watch sports? How does McNally love poetry?
I don't think I'm a good person to ask. For me, verse is rhetorical. That is, I'm trying to say something. More precisely, I'm trying to figure out how to say something. Even more precisely, I'm trying to figure out what it is I'm trying to say. What do I feel? Why? Why do I need melody and image to do it? In short, my process is very narcissistic and self-serving. Not very attentive to the audience. I think that's part of why I edit this journal--to try to make up for that.
Immediately after asking the above question, I wrote this poem.
But still, you have a very purposeful reason for writing the poems, and because it's basically sinful to underscore the powers that language wields for us. As human beings, anytime you express, you utter, you mean, there's meaning. Even when we say something and then immediately take it back, saying, "I didn't mean anything by it," the fact is, we did, we did mean something, we just weren't in control of the meaning. And because meaning is a two way street (it must be, otherwise, language is a useless tool), everything we write, we say out loud, anything communicative trialing behind us (even if it is a hastily jotted note reminding ourselves to pick up capers from the grocery store) is intended for an audience.
That though, should be disclaimed: I am no social theorist, language philosopher, or the like, as should be clear by the fact that I have no idea what those people might be called, but these are things I think about.
That said, every poet is a narcissist. We have to be, otherwise, why would we even think to write down anything? I mean, there are as many reasons to write poems as there are poems being written, and my experiences in this world aren't so unique that I feel I should leave a record of them for human prosperity, but I do ask those same questions you do: What do I feel? Why? (Though for the final question in that line I would answer, "because you desire that these things be relatable) These aren't narcissistic questions, but, let's face it, we do believe ourselves to be gifted in answering them. Why else publish? Why else read aloud? Why else write these things down to begin with?
Now, I'm not smart enough to understand the connectors between this idea and entertainment, but I have a feeling that they are there...maybe I'll go write a poem about it.
More cheating: Jack Spicer once said that the future of poetry was the pop song, more specifically, the performance of the pop song. My takeaway from that statement is connecting with audience. Pop songs have a virtually scientific formula for affection on an audience. I'm overstating here, but it seems to me that it's a form of expression that's only successful when it connects to an audience and that theconnection is most powerful during live performance. What role do you feel performance has in poetry? And as you're much more of an expert on the old-timers than I, what role did performance play in the 17 and 1800's?
And this gets back to your original line...Pop songs have the benefit of recordings, and (as is the idiom) though those recordings rarely capture the power of the live performer, do you think poets should try to get into the business of recording? Do you think performance classes should be mandatory for poets? What if we released albums with liner notes instead of books?
I like all of your suggestions. Steve Martin was told that his work wouldn't survive on record because it was "too visual," and I think history proved those critics wrong. If he, why not we? Also, certain poets have released records, to varying degrees of success. Dylan Thomas: highly successful. Anne Sexton made the mistake of having a band back her, which included a jazz flute. UNSUCCESSFUL.
Of course, I wouldn't mind making what the punk bands used to call a "flip ep." Two bands shared a 45 rpm record. Each band got one side--one song. That would be a pretty good Further Adventures joint, though the overhead would be notable. Full-length vinyl would be even better, as you could have a larger format for the "liner poems."
But this chat, though exciting, is also getting lengthy, and we've gotta wrap it up. We must consider our audience. One final question: In a belated memorial, what is your favorite MCA rhyme?
I remember hearing Paul's Boutique when I was, like 13, a few years after it came out, and this was then, and is to this day, my favorite MCA verse:
Roses are red the sky is blue
I got my barrel at your neck so what the fuck you gonna do
It's just two wheels and me the wind in my eyes
The engine is the music and my nine's by my side
Cause you know Y. A. U. C. H.
I'm takin' all M.C.'s out in the place
Takin' life as it comes no fool am I
I'm goin' off gettin' paid and I don't ask why
Playin' beats on my box makin' music for the many
Know alota def girls that would do anything
A lot of parents like to think I'm a villain
I'm just chillin' like Bob Dylan
I smoke cheeba it helps me with my brain
I might be a little dusted but I'm not insane
People come up to me and they try to talk shit man
I've been making records since you were sucking on your mother's dick

I love how absurdly insulting it is.

B.J. Love has got a License to Kill. I think you know what time it is.

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