Interview with Reb Livingston
Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?
Reb Livingston: In college. My childhood was mostly devoid of poetry. I can’t recall coming across any poetry outside of the couple weeks per year we’d read in English class. I definitely did not care for any of the poetry in our text books. Poetry was the only literature I didn’t enjoy. I remember approaching poems with dread in my senior advanced English class. As a teenage girl, the poetry cannon held little allure or relevance. I had no idea how to go about reading it. What were these poems even saying? I’d approach each one as a puzzle that I wasn’t smart enough to solve.
It wasn’t until I was introduced to contemporary poetry in college that my opinion began to change. The first contemporary poetry books I read were The Best American Poetry 1990 (guest-edited by Jorie Graham) and The Gathering of My Name by Cornelius Eady. I don’t remember loving BAP, but it was the first time that reading poems weren’t torture. I did like Eady’s book. His were the first poems I ever connected with, the poem “Sherbert” especially. Not only did I “understand” what the poem meant, it conjured a great of empathy for me as a reader. Something I experienced many times with novels and short stories, but never poems.
Of course, I never would have voluntarily signed up for a poetry course, it was required for all Creative Writing majors. My plan was to become a novelist because as I mentioned, I read and connected with novels. Then I had a bad run-in with a fiction workshop teacher that turned me off to writing fiction. I didn’t know what to do, I knew I was a writer. So I gave poetry a try. Sometimes I feel like poetry was the only thing that would take me.
TB: That was then. Now you're a visible poet/editor/publisher.
What inspires you, gets you going, makes you want to write?
RL: A couple things. First a pressing desire to create. It doesn’t necessary have to be poems, but often that’s what it turns out to be. For instance, this past December I only wrote three poems, but was making Christmas cards, ornaments, a wreath, etc. As long as I’m creating something, I usually don’t feel too twitchy.
The second thing is intense, nagging emotions. I’ve been gifted with a lot of those over the past few years which makes the day-to-day difficult, but the poem writing a breeze.
TB: I'd appreciate it if you could get more specific. Would you talk about a poem you've written which is important to you, and of the process you followed in making it (from the point of "inspiration" on)?
RL: That’s getting to be a difficult question to answer, but I’ll try. The difficulty in explaining process comes in that I don’t really remember writing poems anymore. I’m not claiming that I black out or go into a trance or anything like that -- I can recall the act of writing the poem. When I wake up in the morning, I know I wrote a poem the night before, but of course I may not remember her name, er title. Often, I don’t remember what I wrote -- at all. When I go back to the poem the next day or week to revise, it’s like I’m reading it for the very first time. Nothing is familiar. I don’t recognize the phrases and sometimes I’m rather surprised by the content.
For instance, in 2007 I read on Laura Carter’s blog that she really liked my poem “Lament for Fronting.” Now I had no memory of writing such a poem, but I had written a series of laments that entire year, so I knew it had to be true. I couldn’t find the poem anywhere on my hardrive and wrote Laura asking her if she got the title correct. Then I went into my blog archives -- and checked all the poems I posted on my blog in April for National Poetry Month. I had long since removed them from the blog, but luckily saved them as drafts for my records. There was the poem, written on April 25, 2007, a poem I forgot to save as a document. Here it is:
Lament for Fronting
O Damsel, how is your torso . . .? How you tiptoe! O Maiden, how is your torso . . .? How your slip shows! O accomplished woman whose benefit now annulled, how do you abide? O Nymphet whose downgrade unnerves your higher priestess, how is your torso. . . ? After your benefit annulled, now how do you abide? After your indulgence, your warmth and interest, how is your torso. . . ? Your tabernacle unworshipped, now how do you abide? Your altar turned to syrup, how is your torso . . .? You are not the prized tulip in a field reduced to turnip rounds. You cannot wakeup beloved in a meadow reeking fish. You cannot pose as impune to those who sowed before you.
Now what can I tell you about this poem? It is part of a series of laments I “translated” from the translations at The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=c.1*#). Which one? I haven’t a clue. I’m assuming the repetition of “how is your torso” follows repetition in the translation I was translating. The “. . .” are also likely in the source text, missing or untranslatable sections that I adapted into my own pieces. I don’t keep better track because it’s really not about what’s in the source text, but that these old texts are wonderful gateways to give an outlet to my normally silenced voices (which as it turns out, there are many).
“Lament for Fronting” is one of my favorite from that series because it’s so direct and cutting, but at the same time sympathetic, perhaps even empathetic. It’s wise, much wiser than I. If this poem was left to my conscious self to write, it would be something like, “Girl, you better check yourself before you wreck yourself.” That might illicit cheers from the studio audience, if this was 1992.
So why is this poem important to me? Well, aside from the fact that it would be lost forever if a reader of my blog hadn’t liked it enough to save her own copy and then 8 months later noted so on her own blog, I’m awestruck by what it says. It’s coming from a voice within in me, that doesn’t normally get a chance to be heard, except in my poems. I was intensely miserable and suffering in April 2007, trying my very best to present myself as keeping it together -- and this voice was addressing that. Not that I was doing a very good job of listening at the time. I’m not even sure if I gave it a second reading after I wrote and quickly posted it. I don’t think it’s coincidence that this was the one poem from that time I “forgot” to save. I also don’t think it was entirely coincidence Laura’s mention of it 8 months later. Although I’m quite grateful to her.
I know many poets who go to public places to write, for inspiration, ideas. They overhear conversations and steal snippets. They read a article in the newspaper and declare, “There a poem in there somewhere!” In fact, that’s how I think I was trained to write poems in graduate school. I have older poems written from external stimulus but I haven’t been writing that way for a couple years. It’s not natural to me. So much of what I’ve been formally taught, I’m slowly realizing, is completely incompatible with my true process, which I admit, I’m still in the early stages of understanding.
I no longer carry around a notepad for the purpose of jotting down “good ideas” that pop into my head while I ride the metro or go to the grocery store. I absolutely cannot write a poem when someone else is in the room with me, with the exception of my husband, although I prefer to be locked away in my study, sitting on my red chair with my feet propped on a swivel chair. I don’t mean sound all Stevie Nicks, but I light candles, turn on my iPod, pull up a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary on my browser and select the ancient religious text I’m going to translate. Then it’s 2 or 3 am and I go to bed because I have to be up in a few hours to get my son ready for school. That’s the best I can describe my process.
TB: So, you frequently work from source texts?
RL: For the past couple years it’s all I’ve been doing, I can’t seem to stop. I think it started in early 2007 when Jill Alexander Essbaum sent some links to Catholic prayers sites. I was searching for some type of spiritual guidance or template for my poems. I remember being chagrined with what I found and started rewriting them. I took many liberties, completely changed the tone, meaning, everything. I liked the results and began rewriting prophecies and then re-translating translations of old religious texts, spells from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, whatever seemed in need of a good re-telling. All of these pieces are part of my next book, God Damsel. I have over 100 and am still writing them.
TB: God Damsel is a provocative title which evokes religion, humor, anger and a feminist slant all at once. Which has something to do with why I wanted to interview you in the first place. But before going into that I want to delve a little more into your literal process.
Could you show one of the source texts you worked with, the final poem you wrote using that source text and talk a little more about how you make decisions when you write? Are there particular procedures you employ?
RL: I’ll try my best. Let me show you a piece without editing that I wrote last week. Since December 2008 I’ve been working with aprocypha texts. A recurring character in God Damsel is Shepherd and I came across “The Shepherd of Hermas” at interfaith.org. Much of the manuscript so far is in the voice of Damsel or Sultana or a higher power speaking to them or Woe-Dodo or Apron, etc., I thought it might be good to give the much maligned Shepherd a chance to share his perspective. Maybe this is an attempt at some semblance of balance, but I’m seeing he’s not faring much better when he has the microphone. Perhaps he’s being set-up? Perhaps Damsel is giving him enough rope to hang himself. Here’s the original text:
1:3 After a certain time, as I was journeying to Cumae, and glorifying God's creatures for their greatness and splendor and power, as I walked I fell asleep. And a Spirit took me, and bore me away through a pathless tract, through which no man could pass: for the place was precipitous, and broken into clefts by reason of the waters. When then I had crossed the river, I came into the level country, and knelt down, and began to pray to the Lord and to confess my sins.
and this is how I translated it:
The Shepherd of GOURD 1:3
Adding syrup to the crumb named Cake, as I journaled to Tabernacleville, eulogizing Damsel's mixtures for their bluntness and blubber and pouting, as I waned I fetished. And a Spectre charmed me, spiritlessly we tangled a patchy tramp, through which I escaped my Apron: for the meadow was soggy, and flattened into clever flaps by my centered wit. When then I crawled from the mancatcher, I came to my reflection and absorbed it and praised Gigolo and stroked my sophisticated virtue.
In general, I kept the form and punctuation, with some variations. Maybe what I’m doing is seizing on certain words, letting it trigger a similar sounding word and going from there. Here I changed “journeyed” to “journaled,” “creatures” to “mixtures,” “walked” to “wane” etc. I also am doing some skewed synonyms, like changing “glorifying” to “eulogizing,” “crossed” to “crawled” and “sins” to “virtue.” Those are starting or triggering points. There are lots of words and phrases that don’t fit the original text, like “river” isn’t really related to “mancatcher.” I can’t really tell you where those words and lines come from, they come from a place where I have limited access. They’re given without explanation and if I demand one or question what’s coming during this process, the process will halt. I can try to come up with possible interpretations afterward and often I do, but they’re pretty much best guesses.
I can tell you that “mancatcher” comes up in several other poems, so it’s intentional by some part of myself. Maybe this is an attempt at personal myth making? I’m currently reading The Power of Myth, the Bill Moyer’s interview with Joseph Campbell. Campbell says that as a modern society we’re disconnect with mythology and need to reconnect with and adapt it back into our lives. Perhaps that’s what I’ve been trying to do with these poems over the past two years.
TB: How about Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books, 2007); was there any particular methodology attached to the composition of its poems?
RL: The majority of those poems were written the old fashioned way: writing what came, not thinking about it until after completion. I never started a poem knowing what it was going to be about, I’d figure that out later.
Some poems are responses or interactions with other poets’ blogs. A couple came from a series of thieving blog poems -- where I’d take phrases and snips from other poet’s blogs and use them to construct a poem. “Rare Hawk Evident” was stolen from posts at Rebecca Loudon’s blog. “My Lover Beside” was stolen from Charlie Jensen’s blog.
“He Will” was my attempt at rewriting a few draft poems that Aaron Belz posted on his blog. That poem is based on several of his poems. “Clutch” was a response to a series of blog posts at Anthony Robinson’s blog. “Much We Could Do” was responding to a poem draft he sent me in e-mail.
“No Bra Required” is based on a dream I had about PF Potvin. I don’t dream about PF very often, but every time I do, it involves ridiculous underwear.
TB: Your Ten Favorite Words is funny and sexy, but it's not just that. It's also angry and a kind of sustained investigation of "the feminine" (if I'm reading it correctly), or maybe I should say of "feminine-masculine relations?"
RL: Yes, my poems are definitely exploring “feminine-masculine” relations, at least from one feminine perspective. I don’t have the privilege to ignore it. It’s daily existence for me, something that at times is quite curious and others frustrating, and occasionally immensely painful. For the longest time I’d strive for clarity believing if I could be clear, I’d be a successful communicator and there’d be some kind of connection and understanding. Now I see what a rare, fleeting thing that is, both in life and in poems. When I first read your review of Your Ten Favorite Words in Galatea Resurrects, I almost cried, it caught me off guard and I was so appreciative. While there have been many men who have been supportive of my work, few seem to notice the layers. I get responses like “Wow, that’s sexy stuff” or “Funny!” which aren’t wrong, per se, but that’s the realm where the responses seem to end. Last year I gave a reading with an older male poet who seemed enthusiastic towards my work. The reading was his first introduction. I read first, he followed and preceding every “sex” poem he’d stop, look at me and say “You’ll like this one.” Like I was supposed to be flattered. Blah. I wish that was a one-time incident, but incidents like that happen frequently in my world. I’ll write a really sad poem, strive hard towards clarity, I could even title it “Really Sad Poem” and a common response it will garner is “Hey, this chick likes to fuck!”
Humor has always been dismissed as lightness, which I never understood. The funniest people are the ones most in pain and the same goes for poems. I remember as a graduate student my professor categorized my poems as “light” -- not as an insult, but the category they belonged in because they used humor. Well, those poems were about emotional abuse, including parental abuse. What’s light about that? This was a poet who used humor in his own work. I wish I had the gumption back then to ask if he considered his poems “light” as well.
And occasionally when the pain, sadness or anger are comprehended, there’s the she’s crazy or needy response. That’s more infuriating than dismissing the poems for sexiness or humor. That “this woman is unwell and flinging crap” response is my fuel that keeps me going. The first time this happened was in an undergrad playwriting class. I wrote a scene that touched on female sexuality, loneliness and anger. A male student became quite upset, called the scene “depraved” and refused to finish reading. This was the same student who earlier in that same class gushed at great lengths about the beauty and poignancy of Reservoir Dogs, which, if you ask me, is kind of depraved.
I will never apologize for my feelings or my poems no matter how they rub or where they point. And no, I won’t keep it to myself and I won’t write pretty poems that flatter emptily. These poems explore truth and experience, my truth and experience, and every poem I write is true and happened on some level. It may not be a “true story” but its true and took place in some dimension, even if it’s unrecognizable. Often I don’t realize it happened until I learned from writing the poem.
TB: Humor, sexuality and epistemological concerns always seem to come together in my own work. I've written many times before (ad nauseam, I guess) about the reception of a poem being akin to an unsolicited kiss. Responses to that figurative smooch can range from ignoring it--to falling in love--to seeking a restraining order. That fellow in your writing class likely shut down because you were showing him something that he wasn't prepared to see. That he had such a strong response was a sign that you were working emotionally powerful territory. Who knows, you might have started a process in him which will blossom later. It can take years for one to figure out why one feels about the world as one does, let alone change. But that is something of the business of a poet, no?
RL: Yes, I do believe starting the process of change is the business of a poet and I can think of lots of poetry that I worked hard to avoid in my 20’s that I appreciate and embrace now in my mid-30’s. For example, I mocked anything motherhood related -- and while I don’t believe I’ve written anything to date, that would be characterized as a “motherhood” poem, I have a very different take on that subject matter than I did a decade ago. Aside from subject matter, I’m more receptive to a variety of styles -- something that I think is demonstrated in my poems. The business of being a poet has/is profoundly changing who I am. I’m a bit embarrassed of my initial approach to poetry, but we all have to start somewhere.
As for the male student in the playwriting course, my scene probably did unnerve him a great deal, just as his emotional, repulsed response unnerved and started a change within me. It planted a seed. I feared provoking similar responses, probably stunting my early writing and exploration. Like most young writers in workshops, I cared too much for my peers and teachers to like and approve of my work. My poems in my 20’s were often seething and snarky. Looking back, I see I was denying and pushing down the feminine. I can only hope that my early, ignorant responses to peers’ work didn’t plant any similarly destructive seeds.
TB: Reb, have you come to feel that a poet has any particular responsibilities--social or otherwise?
RL: Yes, the first calling (which all poets share) is to write poems. Once one has accepted that calling, the callings and responsibilities vary from poet to poet. For instance, most poets likely abhor war and all the atrocities that come along with it. Do I believe all poets are responsible for directly addressing that subject in their poems? No. In fact, some might be so ill-equipped to do so, their poems could diminish the subject, or make it laughable. Do I believe one has to physically be in a war to write about it? Of course not, but one has to experience it, on some level, in some profound way, to write compellingly about it. Can that be from reading the news or familiarizing oneself with first-hand accounts? I think so. We all have been touched deeply by happenings that don’t seem to affect us -- and I say “seem” because obviously the distant and unconnected are often not so distant or unconnected. I don’t know if we’re moved by our calling or the other way around, but for a poem to be something, it needs to be invested in that something. That’s why I rarely respond to submission invitations based on themes. If I can conjure no experience in the topic, why would I bother? Why when there are likely to be many poets who do conjure and can express it profoundly. It’s not the same thing as not caring or being ambivalent. There are so many things to be responsible for, one poet could never cover it all. That’s why we have many.
TB: What, as a poet, do you worry about most?
RL: Can I separate my poet fears from my general life fears? I have trouble separating any of it. I have two main fears that I’m conscious of. One is that I’ll fail as a mother and let my son down in some vital way -- that I lack the necessary knowledge and tools. The other is that I’ll become cold and hard, close up, stop loving because I won’t be able to get past some betrayal or disloyalty, something that would prevent me from being able to trust another person. If both of those fears came to be it would mean a fate as a lonely, embittered crone. I think those general life fears probably also transfer over to my poetry. I sometimes fear that I’m not equipped to know what to do with my poems, that I’ll go along for years and not even realize I’m in some way wronging them. Maybe they never even come to be due to some personal fault on my end. Or that one day my passion dries up and I’ll have no reason to write poems anymore.
TB: What do you find most engaging about the current poetry scene(s)? Who are some of the contemporary poets that matter to you most--and why?
RL: One engaging thing with today’s poetry scenes is discovering how many there are -- or the constant discovery of new poets and modes. Eight years ago when I completed my MFA I thought I had a firm grasp on the contemporary scene, I had no idea I was living in a bucket wrapped in a plastic bag tucked away in a cave. It’s a great pleasure to constantly find poems like no other I came across before. Sometimes I feel like I’m the first archeologist ever to step foot in Egypt, as they were building the pyramids. Obviously I’m not the first, that’s just my human tendency to put myself in the center and count my experience as the true and only.
I’m especially engaged in the poems of Lara Glenum (although I haven’t yet read her newest book), Anne Boyer, Danielle Pafunda and Rauan Klassnik. These are poets working, in different ways, with the darker, more menacing stuff. I can expect to either cringe or feel uncomfortably implicated in some way when reading their poems. I’m also delighted (in a more traditional sense of “delight) with the poems of Mairead Byrne and Fritz Ward. They’re touchingly funny in the sad, but not boo-hoo -- surreal and dreamy in a rooted way.
I’m bad at discussing poetry in concrete terms, but what I’m most interested in are what I refer to as “bridge” poems, poems that don’t fit easily into any category (despite how some may try to force them), poems that cross borders, connect styles or schools and most importantly disregard expectations. That’s something I strive for with the books I publish at No Tell Books – what does Bruce Covey, Rebecca Loudon, Jill Alexander Essbaum, PF Potvin, Shafer Hall, Laurel Snyder, Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Karl Parker, Ravi Shankar all have in common? They’re misfits (in the best sense of the word). Some may insist that say Jill Alexander Essbaum is “traditional” or “mainstream” or lord forbid a “quietist” because she writes in form, but her poems are striking, daring and nothing like I’ve found from other poets writing in that style. Her poems appear in places like Poetry, The Christian Century and Coconut, WOMB, No Tell Motel and a number of other seemingly conflicting publications. Her poems are conflict and the appeal is broad.
TB: How do you feel your activity as an editor, publisher and blogger has affected your practice as a poet?
RL: It makes poetry a conscious daily activity for me. I don’t write poems every single day (unless it’s NaPoWriMo), but I’m writing about and responding to poetry or in some way working on someone else’s poems on an almost daily basis. It’s great practice towards my craft and growth.
As I mentioned in the previous question, my understanding and awareness of contemporary poetry has drastically widened these past 8 years since my “formal” training. This is in very large part to my discovering poetry blogs and online magazines. There’s discussion that these online conversations and publications often lack the necessary knowledge and authority that one would find at say a university or traditional print publication. I’m not especially interested in authority, other than flipping it off, so I don’t care about that -- but in terms of “knowledge” I find a great deal of knowledge, well-considered thought and ideas that have completely changed my perception of poetry. Ideas I’d likely never come across otherwise. Is everything online brilliant? Of course not. But there’s a lot of less than brilliant stuff written about poetry in the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, Poetry, insert any “authority” poetry publication here. Also, I think it can be said that many teaching poetry in the universities aren’t especially knowledgeable about contemporary poetry, or perhaps only narrowly knowledgeable. I can’t believe the number of 20th century poets, important, influential ones, I never even heard of as a graduate student. There were too many. That said, I don’t select one over any other. I learned a great deal in graduate school and there are many pieces appearing in traditional print publications that are quite wonderful and valuable. In fact, it’s these lines constantly being drawn that really bother me. The “know your place in the hierarchy” attitude and tier-ranking system among poets is truly disturbing. I don’t understand that urge, at least not in poets. Or maybe I do. Maybe it’s as simple as distinguishing oneself from another. The need to place oneself higher. The most common criticism I receive is how I publish, rarely what. The ratio is something like 10 to 1 of that over the merits of what I’m publishing. I don’t even believe the people making these criticisms even know the work, they know that my magazine is an online magazine, or that to save a lot of $$ my press follows the print-on-demand model, or that I’m one of those wretched blogging poets who posts pictures of her baby. Who do I think I am going around doing whatever I like, without anyone else’s stamp of approval, ignoring the precious rules of legitimacy?
Having to deal with and confront these reactions also makes me constantly challenge my own assumptions. I’m grateful for that, I was carrying around too many. Probably still am. I feel a lot freer too. I’m not beholden to anyone. I really can get what I want by just doing it myself.
TB: As a poet, publisher, editor…what most concerns you now?
RL: Sometimes I’m concerned about money, will I have money to do this or that. Like many people, I’ve lost a lot of money this past year. So I have much less to spend on publishing books via the press. I need to downsize some, be smarter with the finances and the press should make it through the recession. But I also worry about finances across the board, so that’s not primarily a poetry/publishing concern. If push comes to shove, the family well-being always trumps the press’.
I’m concerned with figuring out ways to work/get along with other poets. I’m direct and straight forward and sometimes that’s interpreted as mean or aggressive. Some poets come across to me as incredibly self-centered and abusive, it’s always a great challenge for me to temper my responses.
I don’t really worry about poetry. Proclamations of the death of poetry or publishing or whatever are incredibly dull and narrow-minded. Do these things die as we know them? Sure, that’s the cycle of life. For something new to emerge, something old has to go away. Is that a painful process? Yes, if we fight it. I believe in renewal and believe poetry will always be renewed, no matter what anyone “does to it.”
THREE POEMS BY REB LIVINGSTON
Lament to Gigolo
Oh Gigolo! Fishyman, the Jumbo Glob, the autocrat of gods, made bigsnip of your destrap, but not your ladyfiller – Lord Gigolo, this is how to translate . . . the unmet dream. This . . . and . . . the cycle should not make you bristle, should not be your deathglow, will not be your inquest. Were you buckled to the chattel? Were you vetoed by the goosling cackle? The dullest torso brutalizes you. This brittle vigil brutalizes you. These cheerful bowels brutalize you. Your weirdo gospel brutalizes all. A speakeasy borrows from no brothel. You should not waddle into the chapel knotted in vainworry. Hurdle . . . before Shepherd . . . welcome the telewrath . . .
Lament to Damsel
The fowl in the breeze . . . cannot flee. The Duckling born to Harpy cannot breathe . . . Having advanced his spacework, the greeny Vale will entrap you (?). Who beslaved sunstruck . . . from the . . . delightmare? No khan ever ordained a horomope like yours. Who . . . suckling between species, whatever they may be . . . like you? . . . . the Fishyman of this despitemare. You . . . your spectre . . . pass trudgment.
Lament for Absence
Tempest . . .
. . . diebards parted knots . . . he seeps. Riddled . . . trumped . . . ? Bombshell postpones the labor.