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The Switchboard


August 1, 2011

Elaine Equi300widemainpage.jpgThe wry poet on the crossover between poetry and the punk rock scene, O’Hara and Ginsberg, and embracing technology.

Elaine Equi is not a poet’s poet and not a people’s poet, and yet she is both. Her poetry is wry and sparse. Often less than a page, her poems read something like eloquent one-liners that along with laughter effortlessly provoke profundity: a little Wang Wei, a little Frank O’Hara, a little Nicanor Parra, but mostly, just a little.

The daughter of Italians, Elaine discovered poetry in the schools and universities of the Chicago area. She gained notoriety for her performance poetry in that city’s punk scene, where she met her husband, poet Jerome Sala. The poets were invited to Los Angeles to read in the 1980s, where author Dennis Cooper was curating the performance space, Beyond Baroque. A few years later they discovered a thriving poetry scene in New York—which Elaine calls the “the switchboard”—and they decided to stay. In addition to writing poetry, she teaches literature at New York University, the New School, and City College.

Her poems appear in general readership publications like the New Yorker as much as they do in online poetry zines. The annual Best American Poetry series has showcased her verse several times. Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems—a greatest hits drawing from earlier collections The Cloud of Knowable Things, Decoy, Voice-Over, and Surface Tension—was nominated for the Los Angeles Book Prize and shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize.

This year, Coffee House Press published her new collection, Click and Clone, the title of which was appropriated from The Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. Click and Clone refers to our zeitgeist as Elaine sees it. However, Elaine also experiments with a series of poems composed solely of the words she reads over people’s shoulders on the subway (“Reading Isabel Allende Over Someone’s Shoulder On The Subway”), one sonnet written from headlines from the tabloid, the New York Post, and short, poetic blurbs meant to accompany movie stills (“Cinema Tarot”).

We met at a café near her apartment in Manhattan. While Elaine described New York to me as a writer’s city, I noticed two men behind her discussing a manuscript, a neat pile of white paper nestled between their coffee cups. It seemed that, as Elaine was saying, so many people in New York are writers. For a moment I thought that maybe what Elaine says in her poem, “The Libraries Didn’t Burn,” was true: “the locket of bookish love / still opens and shuts.”

—Jesse Tangen-Mills for Guernica

Guernica: What’s it like being a part of a poet couple?

Elaine Equi: I like being married to another writer. You get to trade ideas. You get to talk shop. You get to complain. You get to gossip. And you don’t have to explain why you’re in such a bad mood when your work isn’t going well. Jerome is always the first person I show anything to. We have very different styles but we trust each other’s opinion. Last night I showed him three poems. Two of them got a yes and one of them was no.

Guernica: How did you and Jerome meet?

Elaine Equi: We met at a punk rock bar in Chicago, called O’Banion’s (named after the Chicago mobster and florist from the 1920s, Dion O’Banion). Jerome was something of a local celebrity known for reciting his poems in clubs and bars and I had just published my first chapbook, Federal Woman, so when we did meet, we were already aware of and interested in each other’s work. Plus there had just been some poems and photos of Jerome in a free newspaper kind of like the Village Voice and I thought he was incredibly cute!

There are so many different flavors of funny. It’s not all fluffy entertainment; it can be an important tool for survival.

Guernica: So there was crossover between poetry and the punk rock scene?

Elaine Equi: Very much so. In New York there was Patti Smith. In L.A. you had Exene Cervenka and John Doe who met at a poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque and went on to form the band X. In Chicago, there was Jerome and I. Of course, a big difference was that we weren’t musicians, and we didn’t have a band, and we weren’t famous either, though I did have a guy playing synthesizer to accompany me at first. We did a lot of readings in bars and art galleries. The whole idea was that neither of us wanted an audience that would mostly consist of other writers. Eventually in the early ’80s we got invited to read at Beyond Baroque when Dennis Cooper ran the series. It was one of my all time favorite readings. We felt so at home there and met a lot of cool poets who are still among my best friends—people like David Trinidad, Amy Gerstler, Jack Skelley.

Guernica: Can you describe to me the scene at Beyond Baroque?

Elaine Equi: Well, I just went to read there a couple of times, but I loved the sensibility of most of those writers. Their work was so witty and edgy. What fascinated me most was how pop it sounded. If it had been a big deal for Frank O’Hara to write about James Dean, these L.A. poets seemed to have grown up, like myself, watching hours and hours of TV. Jack Skelley had a magazine called Barney, after the Flintstones character, and he’d written this great ode to Marie Osmond. David Trinidad wrote about Barbie dolls and girl groups. They aggressively and unabashedly upped the ante on bringing poetry and pop culture together.

Since New York and San Francisco are usually considered the big meccas of writing, in L.A. and Chicago, I think we felt freer to do something a bit more—well, actually, a lot less literary. Do you know the Chilean poet, Nicanor Parra? He has his poems and his anti-poems. Our idea was a little like that. We wanted to be writers but we also wanted something more populist at the same time.

Guernica: When did you discover Nicanor Parra?

Elaine Equi: I began reading him in my twenties and never stopped. I like that he has so many minimal poems now.

Guernica: I find both of your poetry funny, although I wouldn’t say that it’s light verse either. Do you think your poetry has ever been dismissed for humor or levity?

Elaine Equi: I would say no. The simple answer is no. I tend to like poems that are short as well as funny. I love Joe Brainard and Aram Saroyan. And I think their sense of humor and minimalist approach are pretty radical. For example, Aram has this chapbook called The Beatles. It’s four pages long and all that’s on each page is the name of one of the Beatles. I think it takes a lot of confidence to write a poem like that. I also like dark humor—Dada and absurdist stuff. There are so many different flavors of funny. It’s not all fluffy entertainment; it can be an important tool for survival. I find this sensibility in a lot of my favorite German poets like Oskar Pastior, Ernst Jandl, Gunter Eich, and Eugene Gomringer, the father of concrete poetry. Their work isn’t always funny in a jokey way, but it’s extremely playful and inventive.

Guernica: Wait, I thought it had a Brazilian beginning.

Elaine Equi: Yes, you’re right. Gomringer is the father of the European concrete poetry movement, though he was born in Bolivia. I don’t exactly know the chronology of which came first but I think the movements happened sort of simultaneously around the same time in the 1950s. I recently met Nora Gomringer, Eugene’s daughter. She’s a terrific poet too and was involved in the poetry slam scene in Germany.

Guernica: Have you always liked poetry?

Elaine Equi: I’ve always liked language and been a big reader. I always loved books as objects. My favorite time of year as a child was September when we’d go buy all kinds of notebooks and pens and markers for school. I think I wanted to be a writer just so I’d be able to fill up all those pages. But to be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the kind of poetry I found in high school English books. I didn’t get really excited about poetry until I discovered Lorca in college. If it wasn’t for surrealism, I’m not sure I’d have become so involved in poetry. I was attracted by the extravagant imagery and elements of fantasy. This was in the ’70s and it seemed to fit the psychedelic mood of the times. I found it liberating.

Guernica: When did you start teaching?

Elaine Equi: A long time ago. Maybe in the mid-’80s. I went to Columbia College in Chicago and studied with Paul Hoover and his wife, Maxine Chernoff. They were great and generous friends and mentors. After I got my MA, I started teaching a beginning poetry workshop at Columbia College. I was waitressing and teaching at the time. Gradually I was able to transition into just teaching.

Guernica: How is teaching?

Elaine Equi: I like it. I think poetry workshops get a bad rap. I’m sure some aren’t good, but in general, I like the format. I try and keep mine pretty informal. Sometimes we have wine or sake, and we read aloud, and we talk. It’s my experience that people write better when they feel at ease and free to experiment, rather than being in a competitive, hypercritical atmosphere. There are always a few students who want me to be tough or harsh, but it’s really not my style.

Guernica: What poets do you like to teach?

Elaine Equi: I try to assign combinations of books that will give a variety of approaches. Maybe something old and something new. Sometimes you get lit students that know a lot about the canon but virtually nothing about contemporary poetry and vice versa. I like to mix things up.

For the past couple of years I’ve taught a class at The New School called “The Minimalist Mystique.” In it we look at a lot of concentrated, condensed poetry. We read Sappho, Bashō, Paul Celan, Lorine Niedecker, Creeley, Rae Armantrout. I guess what I like best about teaching is that it allows me to explore my own interest with a group.

Guernica: In your essay about Frank O’Hara you say that “his poems no longer speak to us the way they used to.” Why do you think someone like O’Hara isn’t as widely known as say Ginsberg?

Elaine Equi: Frank O’Hara has a solid reputation. He’s unquestionably one of the greats. I don’t necessarily think Ginsberg is more famous, although he was much more of a public figure, public poet. What I meant in the essay is that it’s hard today to have the same kind of exuberance as O’Hara (at least I find it difficult) and to celebrate art in the same kind of way. Our age feels more cynical.

Now there’s the veil of the virtual in between. The old opposition between inner and outer doesn’t quite capture it, especially as it contains elements of both. It’s real but not concrete.

Guernica: Do you teach Frank O’Hara?

Elaine Equi: Not so much because most of the students at The New School are usually already familiar with him. That’s probably one of the reasons they chose to study there. Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch both used to teach at The New School. And David Lehman, who heads the poetry program there now, wrote a wonderful book, The Last Avant-Garde, about the New York School. Actually, I often have gone back to O’Hara. I think his work is a good influence on anyone. You can’t go wrong with it. And his poems have a chameleon quality. You think you remember them and know then so well, but they always still surprise me.

Guernica: Were you imagining O’Hara’s New York when you came here in the eighties?

Elaine Equi: No, I don’t think so. My attitude was more like: “I’m not from here, but I wonder what the people here are like.” I remember very clearly going to see the Wim Wenders movie Wings of Desire when we first got here. I sat in the darkness thinking, “So this is a New York audience.” I was curious to see how they reacted to different scenes, what made them laugh. I guess I wanted to get in sync. I had never lived anyplace besides Chicago, and New York is such a great city for poets.

Guernica: How so?

Elaine Equi: For one thing, there are so many of them. And people here genuinely love and respect literature. In Chicago, if you tell someone you’re a writer, they look at you suspiciously—as if to say “yeah, right.” In New York, people don’t question the idea. If you say you’re a writer, that’s what you are.

Guernica: What do you make of the changes in New York?

Elaine Equi: You need so much money to live here. The most bohemian person you see in New York has money somewhere. We’d never have been able to stay if Jerome didn’t work in advertising.

Guernica: Luc Sante once described New York: “We thought of the place as a free city, like one of those prewar nests of intrigue and licentiousness where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter in a tangle of improbable juxtapositions. I had never gotten around to changing my nationality from the one assigned me at birth, but I would have declared myself a citizen of New York City had such a stateless state existed, its flag a solid black.”

Elaine Equi: Yeah, that sounds like it was earlier, maybe the ’70s. When we got here in 1988, that was already over. Everyone told us, poet and hipster friends told us: “You missed it. It’s all over now.” We didn’t quite altogether miss it, but the city was more cleaned up and certainly didn’t have such a transgressive feeling. I liked it a lot though. The image I had of New York when we first got here was of a giant switchboard. I know that’s old-fashioned and really dates me, but it was so incredibly social here. There were readings and parties and friends kept introducing you to other friends.

Guernica: Name a writer you didn’t expect to run into but did.

Elaine Equi: I was really happy when we moved to New York because I worshiped Joe Brainard and knew I’d get to see him more. He had read at my college in Chicago and I had written back and forth with him, but when we first arrived in the city, Joe took Jerome and me out for a nice welcome dinner. Then David Trinidad moved from L.A. to New York about the same time we did. He knew James Schuyler, so one night the four of us had Chinese food at a restaurant near the Chelsea Hotel where Jimmy lived. Ann Lauterbach, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Raymond Foye, Rene Ricard… It was all very exhilarating…

Guernica: Advertising seems like an interesting profession for poets.

Elaine Equi: I have a lot of respect for advertising. If I didn’t teach and could go back in time, I might try and become a copywriter. I especially like print ads that combine a photo with a short caption or tag line. I think some of the German concrete poets I mentioned earlier worked in advertising. There’s the same kind of bold, concise graphic approach and interest in type and design that you might see in ads in their work.

Guernica: Teaching, writing, reading poetry… do you tire of it?

Elaine Equi: Yes, sometimes, but usually not for very long. I like to take photographs a lot just as a hobby and I like to go to galleries and museums. When I shut off the verbal, I like to escape into the visual. Although I guess I can’t stay away from poetry for too long because I’ve already done a couple of photo/writing projects. My poem “A Guide to the Cinema Tarot” in Click and Clone began as a series of film stills. I would rent some of my favorite movies from the ’50s and ’60s, pause them, and photograph the TV screen. Then later I added little poems/fortunes to go with each image [PDF].

More recently I’ve been posting my pictures on Facebook and calling them “photo haiku.” It’s fun because I think of it as picture writing—or making wordless poems. I’ve always been interested in Imagism and this just seems like an extension of my thinking about that kind of poetry. I like to look at the interface between words and pictures and wonder about which comes first, a sort of chicken-or-egg type of question.

Guernica: It feels like there is more thematic coherency to Click and Clone than in some of your previous books. I would think that what you’re working on now would be a total departure from that material…

Elaine Equi: I can never plan out what direction my poems will take in terms of either form or content. I wish I could but it doesn’t work that way for me. If I try to write something, I’d probably end up doing the opposite. In Click and Clone, I’d write a poem and a few weeks or months later, another poem on a similar topic would arrive. It’s as if I had more to say, so I began thinking of them as sets. There’s a set of dream poems, a set of portraits of women, the clone poems. They were like a bunch of serial poems having a discussion with each other. And as you mentioned, it was more thematic than my other books. I think fantasy was the common element. I decided on the title early on. It’s the name of an educational website from the Genetics Science Center at the University of Utah and they were kind enough to grant me permission to use it. I just love the sound of it. It’s such a seductive mantra.

I haven’t thought much about my next book yet. Right now I’m just happy to get a poem wherever I can find one.

Guernica: How did the “clone” come about?

Elaine Equi: Well, I wasn’t thinking of real clones, like I said, it was fantasy. Maybe a metaphor for how fast it feels like everything is moving. And I’ve always been fascinated by tales of doppelgangers and the idea of a double. If you look at my previous book titles Surface Tension, Decoy, Voice-Over, The Cloud of Knowable Things, Ripple Effect, and now Click and Clone, it feels like one continual exploration of self-estrangement and the differences between “real” and “copy.”

Also, my previous book, Ripple Effect, was a book of new and selected poems. There was something about assembling work from all those different periods (about twenty years) and giving it a new context that made me feel like I actually had created a literary clone of myself.

Guernica: Describe your writing process.

Elaine Equi: I still write longhand in a notebook. Maybe I should try writing on a keyboard. That would be really different for me. But it seems so bland. I really like the element of color. I like to have a blue notebook or a yellow one. I’m very sensitive to color. I like to think the color is coloring my work. For a long time, I’d only write in green ink because green is my favorite color. One day someone told me that Neruda only wrote in green ink too. Siempre verde.

I don’t write every day, but if I go more than a couple of months without writing, I begin to get a little nervous. I usually have bursts of poems. Five or six come together and then I slack off and want to do something else. In order for poetry to exist there has to be not-poetry to contrast it with.

Guernica: Some of your writing seems to come from reading. What are you reading right now?

Elaine Equi: I recently read Sister Carrie for the first time and a great book by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Crack-Up. It’s made up of all these lists, kind of like the The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. He was having a nervous breakdown, so he began making lists—hotels he’d stayed at, songs he liked, landscapes, girls he’d kissed. Somehow these helped him to get better. I love lists and list poems, so the idea really appealed to me.

I never liked the philosophy that you can have everything and be everything and that something is wrong if you don’t want that.

I also just got a biography called Furious Love about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s marriage. It’s the perfect summer escapist book! As for poetry, one of my former students, Ben Mirov, just sent me his latest chapbook, Vortexts, which looks awesome. I’ve been teaching for so long now that many people who studied with me have one or more books out. There’s Chris Martin, Erica Kaufman, Jen Benka, Shira Dentz, Ron Drummond, Mark Lamoureaux, and Julia Cohen to name a few. It’s a great way to stay in touch with what’s happening with younger poets.

Guernica: In “Role Reversal” you write that “reality is baroque and multifaceted.” What do you mean by that?

Elaine Equi: There are fewer and fewer philosophies that everyone subscribes to. We don’t seem to have as many beliefs in common as we used to. Also, we interact much more online. We have all these gadgets to help us manage different aspects of our lives.

In the past things were either in your head (subjective, imaginary, fantasy) or else they were part of the outside world—cold, hard, concrete materialistic reality. If you want to look at it in terms of poetry, there was surrealism and objectivism. Now there’s the veil of the virtual in between. The old opposition between inner and outer doesn’t quite capture it, especially as it contains elements of both. It’s real but not concrete.

Guernica: How does Click and Clone play into that?

Elaine Equi: Click and Clone kind of epitomizes the problem I have with technology. It sounds quick and easy, but it ends up taking up too much of your time. I never liked the philosophy that you can have everything and be everything and that something is wrong if you don’t want that. I’m terrible at multitasking and find it hard to believe that no one protests this general trend of using the rhetoric of self actualization to sell you faster and faster phones and computers, BlackBerrys, etc.

I don’t like speed. I would have made a terrible Futurist. Even when I did take drugs, I never liked amphetamines and much preferred the slow taffy-pull of time that you get with opiates.

Of course, I know you can’t really stop technology. And there are many benefits to it too. But with this book, I wanted to look more closely at my own resistance to it. Basically, I wanted to complain a bit.

Guernica: What do you think is the difference is between making something like Aram Saroyan’s book The Beatles and something like Twitterature?

Elaine Equi: Maybe not that much in terms of an individual poem or book. But there’s a huge shift going on in publishing—the whole print versus digital debate. I don’t know how it will change things, but it certainly will. I can see the financial benefits of not having to print and store and distribute these bulky things we call books, not to mention all the trees it will save. But I wonder if books become in essence “files” if people wouldn’t write them differently. I’m used to writing print books and I enjoy the slowness of the whole process. It makes me more deliberate about everything I say.

Then again, I can appreciate the idea that with e-books more people would publish, the work would be easier to disseminate, and that it could even be interactive. Being a lover of photography, I especially like the idea that you could include lots of pictures—full-color pictures—with your writing. That to me is exciting! We’ll all have to stay tuned to see what develops.

Guernica: Nicanor Parra did a collection of postcards with pictures in the seventies, Artefactos Visuales.

Elaine Equi: I think I’ve seen some of them but will try and track those down. The postcard is sacred to me. It makes me sad that no one sends them very much anymore because of email and texting. I still like to buy them, but they’ve lost their original function and now just seem like reminders or mementos of what they used to be.

Guernica: What do you make of flarf [an experimental poetry movement that makes use of the Internet to produce and share poems]?

Elaine Equi: I’m not that into appropriation or collage myself, so I haven’t really read a lot of it. But I do like the idea that it captures a new kind of vernacular—the way people sound when they talk online. It’s interesting too in that it seems to embrace technology rather than resist it. Maybe that’s a really wise thing to do. Don’t be intimidated by it. Put it to work for you, make it write your poems.

Guernica: I found this line in O’Hara’s poems and in yours that poetry is a “machine.” Where do you think of poetry as “machine” starts?

Elaine Equi: We’ve all heard the William Carlos Williams line: “A poem is a small machine made of words.” Usually people think of it as a way to emphasize careful craftsmanship. In a machine, every part has a function. In a poem, every word needs to be there. But I don’t actually subscribe to that notion.

When I think of someone equating poems and machines, it makes me feel like that person would like poems to have a more obvious use value in society. They’re not happy with poetry being this ephemeral, indefinable thing. They want it to be “real.”

I think it is real, but I like the idea of it being non-utilitarian.

Guernica: Along the same lines, how do you think concrete poetry relates to the objectivists?

Elaine Equi: There are a lot of similarities. They both emphasize the materiality of language. They both “put words in the spotlight,” as I once heard Aram Saroyan say. And they both use the white space around words to sculpt/shape their work, rather than simply seeing it as background.

Guernica: In your poem “I Interview Elaine Equi on the Four Elements” you say: “The earth has always supported me in all my endeavors. I trust it.” What associations do you have with the earth?

Elaine Equi: I tend to be a pretty spacey and scattered person, so anything that makes me feel “grounded” comes as a welcome relief. I think the more stability a person has, the more they can follow esoteric or intellectual pursuits. The inner and outer, the visible and invisible, the abstract and concrete—you’ve got to get the balance right (not that I do, but it’s something to aim for). Also, my moon is Capricorn, my rising sign is Capricorn, Jerome is a Capricorn. You could definitely say, excuse the pun, that I dig the earth!

G

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2 comments for The Switchboard

  1. Comment by Carrie Kirby on August 18, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Enjoyed reading this Elaine,

    Ha! My favorite color is green, my moon and rising sign are in Virgo(earth) and Pat is Virgo!

  2. Comment by Paul Vachier on August 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Nice story and well-written, thanks.

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