Reaping the Poetic Whirlwind: An Interview with Brendan Constantine
Brendan Constantine is a whirlwind of a performer. He takes the stage and starts riffing about … well, something. You're really not sure where he's going, how it might relate to his poetry, but it is hilarious, whatever it is. He has a sure sense of the absurd, and a comedian's timing.
Then he launches into a poem:
“Alibi & Goodnight”
I didn’t see nothing. The rules was
broke when I got here. What happened is
the sun boiled over the rim,
got on everything. Everybody starts
pointing & the cops arrive, like maybe
somebody thought the cops should arrive.
I seen cops before in books, so I skipped
out the back. The sun was waiting, hit
me full in the face. When I came to
it was all over the radio: night fell
or was pushed.
You're still laughing, but now the laughter is tinged with "Wow." He reads another poem:
(poem to be read in private)
This was before your people met our people,
when autumn had no theme, the trees were still
drinking their first round of leaves. Brown, red,
or gold hadn’t been invented & the birds were
blind. Your greatest grandmother woke to find
her bedside candle frozen. She broke off the flame,
maybe the first thing broken off another, threw it
out the window. It lay on the snow without
sinking. Come sunrise the barn burned down
but she didn’t much care. She was watching
the leaves fall, wondering if the trees were
about to pull up roots and go, which before
she could learn to speak, they did. They were
headed for our people, or what there was of us,
which was your greatest grandfather. Being first
he was as thick as they come. When he saw
trees flapping over the hills like trees flapping
over the hills he came completely unglued, began
making notes in a little book. He wrote They come
like acrobat spiders & they come like double
chandeliers, like all the little ropes between
the head and heart, torn out, thrown at the air
like…he didn’t know what like. Neither did he
know how to write; his poem was just scribbling.
He tore out the first draft, tried to think of some
letters, but by then the trees were crowding him,
so he couldn’t see. They said they’d just come
from a fire & he asked what that was. The trees
weren’t sure. They said it belonged to a woman
in the next valley.
Now you're in full "wow" mode. He has turned that sense of the absurd into the service of poetry. You still may not exactly understand it, but you know he is saying something both profound and beautiful.
I have been wowed by Brendan more times than I can count. He is one of my favorite SoCal poets; I see him every chance I get, and I am never disappointed.
I was able to ask him some questions recently.
GMT: What are you up to these days, poetically?
BC: First of all, thank you so much for asking. I’m happy to say I’ve been writing! Summer and fall had been pretty dry periods for poetry, but (knock on my wooden head) the words are coming. Also, not sure if I can name names (Red Hen Press!) but I have just engaged a wonderful publisher and what I would consider my first real grown-up collection is in the works.
GMT: Congratulations on your upcoming publication. Getting poetry published is notoriously difficult. What did it take for you to reach this point?
BC: A few years back I read an interview with Maxine Kumin and she was asked how long she’d been a poet (Or rather, when did she become a poet, I believe is how the question was asked). And she, in turn, asked did the interviewer mean a “private” poet or a “public” one. The first category is, of course, the one to which we’ve all belonged the longest.
My reasons for publishing have always been very personal. Subsequently I’ve probably made it even harder on myself than it needed to be. I have always been careful to look for the art in myself and not myself in the art. If I have any doubts about a poem’s readiness to see the light I withhold it. As it is, far too many have been printed prematurely, usually because I was distracted by the idea that I SHOULD have some new poems to read publicly. This is truly poisonous thinking. It kills inspiration for me. In my best moments I have gone so far as to retract poems from magazines that had just accepted them for publication. On some level I knew I had not done all the work necessary to get the poem as near completion as possible before asking anyone else to waste time on it. I mean, they’re never “finished” but I hope to get as close as I can.
The first time I submitted to a contest, The National Poetry Series, a collection of my poems made it to the finals. This was a collection I had previously shared with no one and taken no editorial advice. This was a great encouragement but it may have also totally distorted my expectations. In the next four years I completed two other manuscripts and submitted exclusively to contests. This is truly the long way around, but all three books regularly made the finals, (sometimes the final three) for quite a few other contests: Philip Levine Prize, Crab Orchard Review, twice more for the National Poetry Series, The A. Poulin Prize, the list goes on. In one case, all three books placed for the same award! But they never won.
Now it’s 2008 and I am finally engaged in negotiations with a publisher and not as the result of having won anything. Indeed, last year this same publisher rejected the book they are now taking.
What changed? Couldn’t tell you. Part of me believes that as soon as the first book was named a finalist in 2003, I should have just published it myself and learned about distribution. At the same time I feel as though every rejection has made the work stronger and that only now is any of it ready to be seen.
GMT: What writing related activities are you involved in?
BC: I’m on faculty at The Windward School in west Los Angeles. I teach a poetry class called Industrial Poetry. Windward is a college prep and my class is offered to seniors. I should add that every summer I teach several workshops at Idyllwild Arts to junior high and high school students. These are great fun and a real challenge as the classes go for three to five hours a day and incorporate lectures, films, book making, and a lot of experimentation.
GMT: How does one sign up for the Idyllwild workshops?
BC: So glad you asked! During the regular school year, Idyllwild Arts is a superior grade school. It’s summer programs, however, are offered to all ages and cover a surprising variety of mediums. If anyone wants information about Summer Poetry or any of Idyllwild Arts’ youth programs, just visit http://idyllwildarts.com/ and click on the icon for Summer.
On top of all that, I am due in March to return to Beyond Baroque as leader of the Wednesday night poetry workshops. All are welcome! Bring poems!
GMT: You’ve always been active in the poetry scene, not just as a poet but as an organizer and promoter. When I first met you, you were one of the VCP directors. How do you see your role as a member of the poetry community?
BC: That’s a huge question. Not because my involvements are so many, but because it opens up several other subjects which I find urgent. You see, I believe it is not enough to advance our own work, we must advance the work of others, the poetry we find inspiring and useful. Also I think every poet, where possible, should be aware of poetry in other languages, we should read or facilitate translations or even learn other languages in which to create poetry. Unlike dance, sculpture, painting, music, or even theater our art is meaningless outside our language. It’s just a scratch. The more languages, the more cultures we approach, the more I feel we have “earned” our beds. SO, what am I doing about all this? Beyond teaching, not a whole lot!
I must say I do consider my role at Windward to be a kind of activism. I have no illusions that my students will all become professional poets. GOD FORBID! Some of them have to eat sometime! So my job, as I see it, is really to teach aesthetic thinking, to help them stay sensitive to wonder, irony, the subtlest of beauties. Howard Nemerov warned we should not confuse teaching poetry with being taught BY poetry. What I strive to do is create an atmosphere where students are taught by poetry; by reading it, writing it, by recognizing where they live in it. This, I believe, can only help them to contextualize their impressions of their world.
Poetry is a language within language and the young writer who learns from it, thus doubles their available vocabulary, their first means of self-expression. A student able to reduce the velocities of experience, the “speed of life,” to the stillnesses of art, any art, is likely better able to appraise it.
GMT: There are some poets who see poetry as a hermetic process, that all you need to write poetry is to go deep within yourself. How do you respond to them?
BC: Again, I think whatever gets you writing is good. There is no single approach or motivation. I don’t think artists need degrees or licenses of any kind to create art. As the man said, Mozart didn’t study the classics, he wrote them.
Societies, however, do seem to need their “professional” artists to be “credentialed.” The archetypal patron needs to be assured on some level that the artist has earned their attention. If a painter has not mastered realism, then any abstract work may be viewed as accidental rather than deliberate. What if the artist has put both eyes on one side of the face not as a means of expression but because they haven’t learned any better? I guess this might embarrass someone who has just paid $7,000 for a painting.
Just last week I saw two people on TV fighting over whether Thomas Hart Benton (American muralist whose representational work began the genre known as Regionalism) was a “real” artist because his sketches were sloppy. These guys were serious.
But what of the staggering collections of indigenous art from all over the world that we use as yardsticks for everything since? What of the cavernous museums filled with pots, sculpture, tapestries meticulously crafted by the vanished tribes of the Americas, Africa & Asia? Are the first artists any less impressive because they have no test scores we can reference? No MFA’s?
At the same time, if the we are to make a life (not necessarily a living) of art in the 21st century, then we may want to at least consider the possibility that we are “in service” to the art. I began to study poetry formally, its history and evolution, as a means of renewing my interest in writing it. The pattern of my productivity is always the same: after a while, I come to the end of my resources, my poetry becomes boring to me and suffers from sameness. So I try to find or create a new way to see it. This involves trying approaches to poetry which are foreign to my experience AND my tastes. If I don’t try things that are sometimes frightening in their newness, then it will be entirely my fault if there is nothing at stake in my poetry. If we are not responsible for the excitement in our lives, then we are complicit in the boredom.
But, I would tend to agree with the premise of your question: nothing is required to write poetry but the desire to do so. Will the poetry be any good? There’s no telling and there never will be outside the criteria of the individual.
Lately, I have been struggling to decide upon yet another language to study. Aside from Spanish or French, languages with rich poetic heritages, I have been seriously considering Greek, Mandarin, or Japanese. In the last years however, I feel as though we have, as a nation, watched whole cultures literally vanish into semantic gulfs. More and more I think Arabic may be the way to go. We are at war and we have a lot of healing to do. The emotional language of poetry, the language inside every language, is restorative. I’ve seen it work. It works for me still.
GMT: Do you read much poetry in its original language? If so, how does it affect your own writing?
BC: I have no fluency in any language! Any! GOD, I would love to understand Pavese in Italian or the subtleties of Akhmatova’s local Russian! However, I do read multiple translations of the same non-English speaking poets over and over. Where possible, I will try to consult others fluent in the same language and ask them about particular pieces. The first time I did this, I was traveling through Germany and discovered that a favorite line of Rilke was an embellishment made by the American translator!
W.S. Merwin’s translations of Osip Mandelstam, - which he acknowledges as potentially translated not into English so much as into Merwin – absolutely changed and enriched my work. Likewise translations of Neruda, Breton, Hickmet, Valek, Prevert, Transtromer, Pavese, and on and on.
I should add that I just had a chance to chat with Ilya Kaminsky and he said that he felt Merwin’s translations of Mandelstam were the best!
Bottom line, even the most timid approach to any other language will help our understanding of our own. Just experiencing a transliteration of the Japanese or German relationship to subject-verb agreement can be a revelation.
GMT: In your time in SoCal poetry, what changes have you seen in the scene? What has stayed the same?
BC: Wow. The first change that comes to mind is how many poetry venues are gone! Most of the poets I know I first met at readings, which no longer exist. However, it is more or less in the nature of poetry readings to last about six months and then vanish.
Another change would have to be the practical life of the poet. Never before have there been quite so many jobs in poetry. The academy has seriously expanded. More and more schools are offering poetry programs, and therefore more schools are churning out books of poetry, journals, and anthologies. Likewise, the “online journal” seems to be finally coming into its own.
And still another big change would have to be the quiet simmer which Slam poetry has assumed, in L.A. anyway. I know it continues to thrive in San Jose, San Francisco and elsewhere. But in L.A. proper and OC, it is a lot quieter than it was in ‘95-’99.
Is that significant? I don’t think so. Performance poetry isn’t dying, it’s just napping or becoming something else, I’m sure. All forms turn and return.
GMT: How do you view the State of Poetry today?
BC: I would say, compared to virtually any point in SoCal’s history, it’s pretty darn good. Sure, it’s still under exposed, under attended and in need of a loan, but it is thriving nonetheless. And more and more I am witnessing people coming to poetry who are not looking to become “public” poets, but who really seem to need it as a practical thing. Not a calling, per say, but as an organizing principal for their lives.
GMT: For any creative person, there is, of course, an intrinsic value in the creation. We aren't poets because we want a career in poetry, we are poets because that is what we do. (The career would be a nice bonus, however.) Do you find that the current situation, the proliferation of open readings and online journals, for example, makes it easier for a poet to find that intrinsic satisfaction, independent of material reward?
BC: I would hope so! I mean, no matter how personal our reasons for writing, a little encouragement is always nice! And there’s a lot of encouragement to be had. I’m sure somewhere there’s someone who’s totally pissed off that “the scene” is so popular and thus polluted by “posers,” etc. But you find that everywhere at virtually any point in history. I guarantee you somewhere right this minute there’s a stamp collector longing for the “good old days.”
Poetry itself is changing all the time. It’s been evolving since the second poem was written. It hasn’t slowed down. Part of the reason is that our language is still changing. Every generation brings with it a new vocabulary, inventing new words and shelving whole libraries of others. These days there seems to be a real climate of wonder in some poetry communities. As the lines of distinction between genres continues to blur, as the contention that we have exhausted all forms gets challenged again and again, I find I am very optimistic about what is to come.
GMT: When did you write your first poem?
BC: Gosh… well, I would have to say the first poem in which I was truly invested I wrote when I was in 7th grade.
It was a poem for my junior high-school yearbook. One of the other kids had attached his camera to his telescope and taken a really sharp image of the moon. The school wanted it for the album and asked students to write something to accompany it. My poem got picked. Not only was it my first poem but also it got published!
GMT: Do you still have it?
BC: Yes, and NO you can’t see it ever ever ever.
GMT: What do you strive for in your poetry?
BC: Oh, for God sakes!
Well, it isn’t any one thing, I can tell you that. Every poem is different. Every poem requires something different from its poet.
When I think of it, I imagine that the poem exists as an invisible impulse, an entity just outside our heads, spinning slowly or quickly in the air, until it is translated into some physical arrangement. If we get it right, it allows itself to be unspooled onto the page. Every poet is thus a translator charged with re-expressing what the phenomenal world has already expressed to us. On that scale anything is possible.
I think many of us are never totally convinced of our place in reality. Early in life we have the experience of waking from dreams which seemed real. Or we come to from letting our minds wander for an instant and are disoriented. This isn’t some middle class luxury I’m describing. It’s basic and primal. Even people living under the most extreme conditions – war, famine, physical isolation, social collapse – will discuss in their arts and prayers the possibility that their suffering is a dream. We are all of us haunted by a suspicion that we can just perceive the edges of the picture we inhabit.
If there is any one principal, one idea which enables my poetry, I would have to say it is an awareness of that gulf, or to borrow from Stevens “the syllable between life and death.”
Some of my favorite moments in life have been those when I was totally confused or disoriented by the events around me. I can remember being a child and trying to read a poster for a French film. I could barely read English and I had no clue what the poster was trying to say. I recognized all the letters and I knew what sounds they should produce together, but I recognized no words. I then tried to reconcile their sounds with the rest of the poster, a vivid collage of men wreathed in cigarette smoke, a heavily mascara-ed woman perched on a Vespa, a doll floating in blood. My mind raced until I got dizzy with interpretations. I remember looking at the words again and again, thinking that if I just tried one more time, I would get it. That there was one small piece missing which would justify everything.
A good dream is often like that. Especially those where we manage to bring something out with us; a quote which seemed (in the dream) to be brilliant or useful or funny. However when we replay it in wakefulness, it falls apart. It either makes no sense or is totally unremarkable. And yet, it is somehow haunted. There is this feeling about it that if we could turn it a few different ways, keep saying it to ourselves a little longer, if we could recapture its context it would glimmer with truth.
For me the best poems have some of this feeling about them. That’s not to say that poetry is something that needs to be deciphered or that it be difficult to understand. But even the most linear, narrative poems are at their most attractive for me when some aspect of the world they describe is left unreconciled. Don’t ask me for a list of poets, it would cover the world!
GMT: This would seem to fit with one of my theories about poetry -- that the best poetry doesn't tell you what it is about, instead in leaves open space for the reader to discover meaning on their own. Would you agree?
BC: Yes. And, no. I would have to agree and yet I know that there are very “final” poems which I enjoy (Larkin’s This Be The Verse, Giacomo Leopardi’s cripplingly existential poem To Himself). But I am wary of saying there is any yardstick for great poetry. Any at all. To answer your question more fully, I guess it comes down to what you deem to “open space” or mystery. I mean Plath is a queen of the haunted poem: the arcs of each poem (I think of Daddy, All The Dead Dears, Mussel Hunter At Rock Harbor, Lorelei, Black Rook In Rainy Weather) are absolutely conspicuous, but they always “ring” afterward. Something is continuing to happen. The poem is, as Paul Celan said, always “making toward land” , even while it lies unread in the dark of a closed book. Howl is still Howling. Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song will play under my feet for the rest of my life.
GMT: What do you feel you have accomplished as a poet?
BC: I’ve written a lot of poems. Many of them are done.
GMT: What poets do you admire, living or dead?
BC: I told you not to ask me this! I’m not kidding, the list is absolutely huge. As soon as I start to assemble names into an order, I realize I’ve forgotten a hundred others.
I don’t believe in any one kind of poetry, any single rule. All schools have something to teach. OK, here’s whose on the bedside table at the moment:
Nance Van Winkle
George Mackay Brown
Alfred Lord Tennyson
And that’s just the last five weeks.
BC: They make me want to write.
GMT: You have a reputation as one of the funniest poets in SoCal (along with Rick Lupert). What role do you see for humor in poetry?
BC: I very rarely set out to make a joke in the course of a poem. But I am very conscious of irony. Laughter is a common byproduct of understanding irony. But a preoccupation with any result for one’s poetry, that is, getting too set on having your audience respond ONE way is dangerous.
The novelist Donna Tartt was interviewed for Poets & Writers a couple of years ago and warned against becoming a “connoisseur” of one’s own work. GOD, is that true! Once we start saying to ourselves “This better make them cry and this better make them laugh,” we may be in serious danger of sabotaging our art. But if people laugh, great!
GMT: What about performance? You’re certainly not afraid to put on a good show (some of your shows with Rick Lupert have approached vaudeville routines).
BC: When Rick and I perform, we tend to take things to extremes, and then the poems are only a part of what we’re doing. They aren’t the entire focus. Our “show” is a deconstruction of a poetry reading.
Whenever you read aloud, it’s a performance. I think the poet who just gets up and reads ten poems in the same tone, one after the other is asking a great deal from their audience. They do their poetry an enormous disservice. Even the humblest reader should make an effort to vary their delivery; otherwise the poems will likely cancel each other out in the mind of the audience. If we make our poems public then it is only good manners to make a gift of them.
If I perform alone, I try to break things up, have something to say between poems, deliver different pieces in different ways, avoid strings of poems in one tone, and always thank the audience for listening. Thank you for asking!