Big A, Little a: interviewing Daniel Borzutzky, with Joel Craig, by Matthew Reed Corey

Six o’clock p.m. on Sunday, August 10th, 2014 // Mixteco Grill, Chicago, IL


Daniel Borzutzky, who lives and teaches in Chicago, was born in Pittsburgh to Chilean parents. He has published two collections of poetry, The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat, 2011), and The Ecstasy of Capitulation (BlazeVOX, 2006); as well as three poetry chapbooks, Data Bodies (Holon, an imprint of The Green Lantern, 2013), One Size Fits All (Scantily Clad Press, 2009), and Failure in the Imagination (Bronze Skull Press, 2007); and a book of fiction, Arbitrary Tales (Triple Press, 2005). Additionally, he has translated volumes by Chilean poets Raúl Zurita (Song for His Disappeared Love, Action Books, 2010) and Jaime Luis Huenún (Port Trakl, Action Books, 2007), and several other Chilean-born writers.

We met early on an August evening in Chicago’s Southeast Ravenswood neighborhood, set between Graceland Cemetery and a century-old industrial corridor, to discuss poetics and politics with my fellow interviewer, and poet, Joel Craig. I admire Daniel because his poems engage my imagination at the same time they give rise to my feelings of love toward people I don’t know. In the weeks leading up to the interview, I was sure my response to his poems had shown me something about poetry’s ethical responsibilities, and about what poems seek to provoke in politics. Yet, to be clear, I wasn’t at all sure what poetry’s intervention into politics would look like. Daniel sat diagonally from me, Joel sat across from me, and our conversation began with its most important question.


On Politics and the Imagination


Matthew Corey: What does politics have to do with the imagination: where do those things intersect?

Daniel Borzutzky: Are you thinking of the quote from the 9-11 Commission Report [that begins The Book of Interfering Bodies]: that we must ‘find a way to routinize and bureaucratize the exercise of imagination’?

MC: Yes, the failure of the imagination. As if, in our capacity to imagine something, we could’ve avoided, or superseded certain events, and it wouldn’t have happened. I think this says absolutely nothing about the imagination.

DB: I think that at that moment in The 9/11 Commission Report, where it specifies that the imagination needs to be bureaucratized––rhetorically, it was really interesting, I think, that the imagination was being given this important standing in culture. I mean, not just as something for kids, but for having the potential to craft policy. You know, nothing was ever done with that idea of bureaucratizing the imagination, it was a complete fiction….but there was this two-week moment when you would turn on NPR, and people would be talking about the importance of the imagination. It didn’t last. We should talk this out, the politics of the imagination, to see how it looks right now….

Joel Craig: Isn’t the imagination inherently dangerous for politics? That statement was interesting, in that regard.

DB: Yes, just the ungovernability of it is dangerous. You see all throughout countries that have had dictatorships, not just political artists being imprisoned (and potentially exiled or killed), but you see non-political ones, as well, in part just because art and the imagination are things that can’t be controlled. Even at the level of music, like in Brazil in the ‘60s: you get all these musicians who, on their faces, don’t seem political. But you get thousands of people going to their concerts, and there’s this realm of the ungovernable that is maintained––

MC: And they were punished, those Tropicália musicians.

JC: Well, they were certainly watched, they had their mail opened.

DB: I think from a policy standpoint, the destruction of art programs in public schools is this very, very clear shot, if not at the politics of the imagination, then at least at the imagination’s lack of value, and it’s all deeply connected to neoliberal educational reform policies and neoliberal policies in general that seek to destroy the public’s imagination and replace it with corporate nightmares.

JC: Usually, the people who make those decisions are academic boards made up by business people who are also the political donors, so they’re shaping policy in two directions––

DB: And the decision that gets made is that art has no use, which is happening throughout every sphere of education, through elementary school all the way up to graduate programs.

MC: Imagination seems to be the nightmare not of politics necessarily, but of dominant political systems, whether it’s left-wing or it’s right-wing. The things that people (from anywhere on the political spectrum) could imagine would potentially disable politics, in a way, and re-imagining politics makes people engaging their imaginations seem completely dangerous.

[I’m thinking of] a Brazilian musician like Tom Zé, who is interested in making psychedelic music that is much more closely related to North American music, than to traditional Brazilian aesthetics.

That’s terrifying. I’m not in power, but I would imagine if you are in power, that’s the worst thing that could happen.

DB: Right. But another side of it, I guess, is when you have drones, which are clearly a fascinating creative object of the imagination taken to the extreme. They’re going to become these completely mundane things. I think what politicians and bureaucrats do is figure out how to take scientific innovations, or artistic innovations, and make them completely mundane through repetition, normalization, assimilation.

JC: Is that one of the keys for the repetition in your work?

DB: I think so. I think there’s a fascination with certain words, as well. The word body is really interesting to me––

JC: Well, you constantly re-contextualize and re-define that word. Obviously, you implore through your titles that there is going to be a kind of project going on around that word. I get that. But the astounding amount of moves that you precede to make? Phenomenal. You strip meaning, re-assign meaning, you create music through repetition––and a lot of different kinds of feelings occur. You can feel horrific, pornographic, but always decidedly not romantic, not self-important. I’m curious: how much of it happens through the process that just feels right, in the making of it? Is there a strategy involved?

DB: I think part of it is just literary. I really love Thomas Bernhard’s novels, which continuously repeat the same name, or phrase, or rhythm, over and over again. I think it became––when I started writing––a way of getting the engine going.

JC: Barthelme came to mind, the first time I saw you read, many years ago. Instead of existing in an actual landscape. and instead of existing in a landscape of symbolism, it was a landscape filled [with] the words themselves, creating a logical progression for the piece.

DB:  I think that the more I write the more I have become interested in abstractionlessness or maybe even some type of realism…and it doesn’t ever quite get there. But I found myself building from that place.




JC: When I read your work, [Daniel], I think a lot about composition because you have a huge toolbox. I don’t know if you’re aware of how big your toolbox is [laughter]. I’m not thinking about structure, I’m thinking about your ability to veer between potent things like satire (that may potentially be misread), and really generous, loving thoughts about people and culture. As much as you tear things apart, you’re always reifying the fact of life, especially in your latest book and your latest chapbook. I would imagine that your decision is, if I’m going to be this rad, I’m also going to be committed to life. Am I wrong?

DB: Yeah, [it was] being committed to life, but I think it was losing the fear of being emotional. There was such a 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s backlash against emotion, against sincerity, against making direct critiques, direct political statements, didactic statements—and this is still very much in play—with the assumption that to emote, to foreground feeling, to not write through modes thought to be more apt means of making political critiques: that to be direct, emotional, politically didactic in poems is not a valid way of using language and art to craft critique, that critique must be disguised through modes that mask subjectivity and that privilege language only if it is somehow commenting upon its own artificiality.  Which comes out of this completely privileged position where writers get to distance themselves from the violence of the world and to focus more on form and diction rather than direct brutality. Somewhere in this I came to the idea that the lyrical work that I was interested in doing had to be about individuals, in some way. Political violence and bureaucracy seek to destroy individuals. I had to figure out how to give some value to that, and to think of very real contexts of how our relationships with one another, and our relationships with ourselves, get completely destroyed. I’m thinking of the US, but I’m also thinking about Chile, and about war, in a general sense. Politics becomes real when one figures out how individuals are affected by it. Neoliberal economic violence becomes real when you see its effects on the crumbling city of Chicago: the closed neighborhood public schools; the privatized public services; the closing of public mental health facilities; the insane realities of economic abandonment of so much of the city; the murders; etc…I find it hard to care too much about debates surrounding the politics of poetic forms in such a context.  It’s not that I don’t have tastes and preferences and poems I like and poems and approaches to poetry I can’t stand.  But I don’t have a lot of patience for poetry arguments about what approach to poem-making makes you a better Marxist.  I’m not too concerned about abstraction, either, or whether one’s aesthetic choices have that much to do with their ability to craft political critique.  I’m concerned about urgency, desperation, and the poetics of a violent neoliberal hell. 

JC: Like being able to give a torture order, or giving a torture order, following through on a torture order.

DB: Sure, or teaching in public education and figuring out how state-political decisions affect actual people, how that boils down to the students who see policies that are enacted [against them] all the time.

MC: When you write lyric poems––you, in particular––do you think you’re trying to humanize the speaker? For instance, you have one poem [“Analytics for Everyone,” Data Bodies] that is a list of people in varying degrees of pain. Whereas they would otherwise go unseen, by mentioning them, do you try to humanize them?

DB: Yeah, I think I try to un-abstract––

MC: Yeah, yeah––

JC: If that’s a word.

DB: I’ve tried to figure out how you can write about war and torture, and neoliberal destruction, and maintain some sense of specificity about it. I’ve never been disciplined enough to do a straight documentary project, but I think there’s a similar spirit to think about people as individuals, and to be affected by those things.  And in Data Bodies, I’m trying to explore ideas about data fascism, which none of us know how to shake.  We’re all caught in this world where everything has to be somehow quantified, and we put so much faith in quantification that it serves as a way of making us not think about [things] qualitatively, right? One piece in here [Data Bodies], called “Analytics for Everyone,” is almost completely found language from this presentation that I heard about a new open-data system in a work place. It was very much being touted rhetorically as the formation of a new data democracy that was going to be––

Joel Craig: Data democracy?

DB: That phrase is used all the time, [as if] giving people access to data is somehow making us more equal, that there’s a connection between those things. Anyway, a lot of the verbs in the poem were verbs that the presenter used––refining, aggregating, extrapolating, tightening, overwhelming––they were all words that the person talked about as something you could do to the data. So I just sat there taking notes. It brought out the underlying violence to that.

MC: I don’t think anybody would say that you’re wrong.

JC: Have you ever met an underwriter? It’s like a massive obsession and business: who has the best data? Somebody with the right partnership, or [right] pocketbook, proposes to buy that data. In what condition are you presented to that body, itself?

DB: And all of us are willing submit to this shit all the time. We just submit to being other people’s data all of the time.

MC: Can you imagine seeing that data? It would be like somebody giving you a bag of your fingernail-clippings or dead skin-cells, and saying, here’s everything that you didn’t know belonged to you. We’re going to give it back to you. You think: is that [data] a part of me, or not?


On Sympathy and Empathy


Matthew Corey: I think sympathy is an important part of [your project], writing a speaker with whom the reader could sympathize, and you do it so quickly; there’s no development of emotional attachments, or saying you’re similar to this person. In a lot of your poems, it’s already assumed, so that by the time I get to them, I can sympathize with that pain.

Because it’s a poem, and because it’s a lyric poem (which has a long history of sympathizing with the speaker), you look at it, and you think, this isn’t my life, but I can understand it. That has to be one of the most difficult things to do in poetry, [and]even though there’s this long history of poems that make the reader want to sympathize, to do it is really difficult. I can’t teach people how to do that; I’ve tried. You can’t teach people how to do it; it has to be felt, I think.

Daniel Borzutzky: I don’t know…A confessional writer, like Silvia Plath, who I love, does everything to push us away from feeling sorry for her, and yet the result for me is always engagement and empathy. To take some sense of power back. And maybe this is where I’ll sound like I’m contradicting what I said before about form and diction, but not really, it’ll be hokier: I think there’s some mystical power in really good sentences. I think there’s some act of generosity, and of love, in writing beautiful, powerful, violent, life-affirming, life-destroying, soul-sucking, city-crumbling sentences. It’s answering the question of, why be engaged with really horrible acts, in writing? It wouldn’t [be engaging] if your sentences suck.

MC: But why sentences? Why not something like emotional textures, or something? Why the structure, or the shape, of the sentence? Why is that important to sympathy, or empathy, in your mind?

DB: The structure and shape of the emotion is all in there, but for me, I think it’s because of narrative. What I really want to be doing is writing novels.

MC: I can’t. Moving a character across a room, or plot arc, it escapes me. Do you feel the same way? I desire to; at the same time, I wish I could.

DB: Yes, I desire to, yes [laughter]. But I can’t sustain intensity, and sustain narrative, at the same time. I don’t know how to do both. I think I will eventually lose that fear of not having every sentence be a powerful container. Novelists have to write sentences that are boring. I can’t do it and, sort of, come back.

Joel Craig: Right!


On Poetry Affecting Change


Matthew Corey: You’re interested in [writing] the political grotesque, you’re interesting in [writing] bodies in pain: when you do that, are you working in one mode of many that you could choose, or is it the result of [following one single idea]?

Daniel Borzutzky: I think I’m writing the same thing over and over again. Working with Raúl Zurita [on translating], he will admit to having written the same book for the last forty years, in some way or another. Again, Thomas Bernhard, Marguerite Duras, who keep returning to the same thing over and over again. I think, when you’re young, there’s this fear of being repetitive. At some point, one becomes OK with that notion––

Joel Craig: A distinction can be made between those who further themselves in whatever style they’re working in, and those who don’t.

DB: You can definitely think of writers who have stayed in the same voice and mode, and who you feel like they’re writing the same poem they’ve been writing for twenty years, right? But then there are others, like Raúl, who stick with that mode and voice, and who are mystically able to not write the same thing. Maybe it just has something to do with how urgent or compelling that thing is, or how incredibly unique, beautiful, insane, that thing is.

JC:  Comfort is a word that comes to mind: where are your triggers coming from, and are you exposing yourself to different things that are uncomfortable? You’re compelled to assimilate those, somehow, and make them a part of your voice. Or maybe something really basic, like just thinking you’re good at it–– [laughter]

DB: Or other people telling you that you’re good at it, right?

JC: More so, yeah––

MC: But it’s hard not to, at the same time. It’s hard living in Chicago, and living with other poor people, and teaching poor students, & not to want to do something about it. You look at it, and you say, the best thing I can do about it is poetry. The thing I do best is poetry, so the question becomes, what can poetry do about poverty, pain, and injustice? On its face, it looks like it can’t do anything. Especially in the United States, I think, where [poetry is] looked at as something that’s frivolous.

JC: That’s going to be the case with anything that’s marginalized. At best, [poetry] may be confusing to someone who doesn’t know anything about it. Certainly, our culture has no merit and value in something that isn’t always changing toward the enrichment of the marketplace.

MC: Of course, poetry has the world’s smallest marketplace; it could fit on the tip of my pinkie. So the question is, how can poetry change anything: not why, or could it (because maybe it could), but how? It’s hard to overlook the people in pain. So what do I do about it, not as a writer, but as a poet? One strategy is sympathy, to make the speaker (it’s a dumb word, but I’ll use it, anyway) believable enough or real enough, to make that sympathy happen? Or to understand your reader enough to make that sympathy happen?

DB: Look, on a practical level, art is for the most part not going to be able to do anything for the threatened or the impoverished. I think it’s the wrong expectation that the poem should be able to do that.

MC: Yeah, yeah––

DB: But it also speaks to this absolute divide that we have between action and thought. It’s not that thinking is enough; one actually needs to do the work of fighting for big real changes on the streets and in our communities , and to do radical activism, in real concrete ways. But I think when statements like ‘poems have no political use’ are made it comes out of the ways that we separate thinking from acting, as if thinking is not action, [as if] there’s something inherently weak about thought.  I don’t know. Maybe we write about horrible things in the hope that they won’t happen again.  Maybe we write about horrible things in the hope that by living in them through words we can understand them better and that this somehow helps us to be more human..Maybe we write about horrible things in order to, as Fanny Howe says, ‘show that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.’  Raúl Zurita has spoken to me about the poem being a utopian space.  That he writes from a position of having to believe that paradise is still possible even though we all know it’s not possible.  That’s not the way I’d frame it, necessarily, but I’m sympathetic to the idea that it’s utopian to write about the horribleness of the world in beautiful ways.  That to write through violence, to re-imagine and re-contextualize it and try to show just how awful the world actually is – that there’s something beautiful about doing this.  It’s old fashioned, right?


JC: I think about cultural fabric. If we learned anything from German Dadaism, widely regarded to have failed as an art movement that tried to be activist, it did demonstrate the importance of cultural fabric. That people contribute at whatever level they’re able to, and that community is very, very important, whether your community is five people or five hundred, or if you have a soapbox in the middle of the piazza. I like to think that contributing by doing is a good thing, you know? If you’re able to exact any kind of change, then that’s amazing, and maybe we should all have that as a goal. We also live in a society that likes to wonder if something is worth doing if it’s not practical.

MC: And it is so dangerous, after all, the imagination and poetry [laughter]––

JC: Oh? Absolutely. It’s dangerous to poets.


On Pain and Memorization


In an interview with Daniel, the poet Raúl Zurita mentions that when he was arrested as a university student the day of Augusto Pinochet’s military takeover of Chile, Zurita had with him a folio of poems that he would carry with him each day. Upon discovering the poems, the soldiers who arrested Zurita didn’t think much of the folio, until a senior officer saw that drawings accompanied these poems. Thinking them dangerous, and thinking the drawings contained codes, the officer threw them into the sea like garbage. In that gesture, Zurita says, he understood exactly what was happening in Chile. Those discarded poems were eventually published as his first collection.


Matthew Corey: That’s totally fascinating, and I want one more sentence from Zurita, just to know exactly [how he knew] what was happening. What was communicated to him?

Daniel Borzutzky: What I think he means, or what I would say he means, is that there was now going to be arbitrary punishment, and arbitrary violent punishment.  And what the military found incomprehensible was going to be destroyed. That the incomprehensible would get silenced, that art would be consider garbage. That art was so meaningless it could be tossed into the sea.  Which of course is the same place where the dictatorship tossed bodies.  Art was garbage.  Humans with opinions were garbage to be discarded and buried in nature, the homeland, the landscape.

Joel Craig: That’s the fascist-coup playbook, right? Anything that could be of cultural value, but especially anything that could be a danger to them, whether it’s a person, or a painting.

MC: When a fascist government goes after a poet, does that serve to prove the danger of re-imagining, that something as disembodied as poetry could be dangerous to someone who wants to remake a nation?

DB: I think it was the fact of it being incomprehensible that made it suspect. When he says that soldiers thought the drawings were codes to destroy the military, it speaks to the fact that they didn’t know what his art was, and because the military didn’t know what it was it thus contained the possibility of being destructive. It’s also this re-defining of what is going to be permissible, or not permissible.  Among other things, the dictatorship sought to eliminate eccentricity as much as possible.

MC: That’s how you make the hard edge of a fascist nation, I would guess.

DB: Yeah, but backing it up with––

MC: Pain, torture.

JC: Yeah.

MC: Thankfully, he memorized the poems.

MC: Poetry seems like a technology [readymade for memory], that says, I can remake [a poem] because it lives in that space between the voice and print.

DB: It was insane that he recreated [his first book], and he took a long time, but he wasn’t going to let it be destroyed. That’s the thing you hold on to, in the face of watching your friends get killed, and that’s pretty powerful.

MC: I was reading about a soldier [Pete Peterson] who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and they asked him about how he got through being a prisoner of war, and tortured. He said that he designed a house, bit by bit by bit by bit, every screw, every staircase. When he came back to the States, years after he’d been taken, he built the house––he remembered everything. He did that as an act of resistance, or maintaining his humanity, or whatever it is.

DB: There’s this documentary called Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzmán, and it’s about these women in the Atacama Desert who are searching for the bone fragments of people who were disappeared in the desert. There were these prisons, concentration camps really, there, in the desert. The filmmaker interviewed this one architect who was imprisoned, and who forty years later, he could completely re-create the architecture of the prison. That was what he did to stay active. When you’re isolated in a concentration camp, you’re not just removed from society, but everything you have is taken. [Memory] is just this way of, I don’t know, being alive.

MC: What remains? In all of these different accounts, what’s left there that would make [one] human? What does that say, once you’ve been dehumanized, about what’s left [of you]? The need to communicate?

JC: It a lot about our cognitive ability, and perhaps, our untapped cognitive ability. I’m sure it says something about our animal. Being in stasis, just being fed, is not surviving.

My aunt and uncle in Minneapolis, many years ago, sponsored a child from Cambodia who had escaped from a re-education camp at a young age. Most of his elder siblings, who were at university, were murdered. His parents starved to death trying to keep him alive. Then he went to a re-education camp. He escaped, spent weeks traveling through the treacherous, soldier-filled jungle to make it to Laos, or Thailand, or wherever else. If he was kept alive there, it was little different from a prison.

At the end of two years, they decided that they were going to close to camp, and [the detainees] were given the option of being shot in the head, or returning to Cambodia, or if they could make it safely through a minefield, and into the country, then they could stay, with papers. It was as inhuman as what they were coming from. It’s interesting knowing someone who has been through such difficult circumstances: it’s still abstraction, to me, but it’s a different kind of abstraction than reading it out of a book.


On Transnationalism: Chile and Chicago


Joel Craig: Your work does a good job of handling absurdity in different parts of the world.

Daniel Borzutzky: I think what I’m recently interested in writing about all the ways that Chile and Chicago are linked, and completely intertwined. I’m coming at it from this notion that Chicago is actually a very Chilean place. One of the things I’m trying to think about is reversing the notion that the United States is always the thing that affects the rest of the world. There are all these links between Chile and Chicago, starting with the notion that Pinochet’s economic plan was developed at the University of Chicago––

Matthew Corey: The Chicago Boys.

DB: Who then exported the economic plan, and then Chile became the testing ground for it, and it became exported all over the world, where there were repressive governments with the idea that you could implement severe acts of economic repression when there is a dictator. I think the endgame, ultimately, was to bring that back here. A couple of years ago, when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike: there were at the same time enormous public-education strikes in Chile, with privatization essentially at the center of both school strikes.  Pinochet’s privatization policies were copied both by the British, but by the US in many ways, as well. So when George Bush tried to privatize social security, he talked about imitating the {failed} Chilean model, where social security is completely privatized.  Additionally, Chile has an almost completely private school system that’s based on a voucher program, where the majority of kids left in municipal public schools are very poor ones. Everybody gets a voucher from the state, but the voucher doesn’t really pay for a good private school, so people have to pay on top of it. In Chile, you had people go into debt not just to pay for college, but to pay for high school. Chile privatized its water. All of these moves are coming back to the US, and to Chicago in particular, where there are these extreme privatization ventures happening. Rahm Emanuel hasn’t privatized the water, but he has privatized the call-center workers for the water companies.


I’ve been reading Micah Uetricht’s book on the Chicago Teacher Union Strike in 2012 called Strike for America; Chicago Teachers Against Austerity.  It’s funny, because when people talk about Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s often referred to as the laboratory for the neoliberal experiments with privatization of public resources.  But Uetricht uses the exact same language about present day Chicago. He continuously talks about Chicago as being the laboratory for the neoliberal urban education agenda, the scraps that feed the flames of capital.  But this is what Chile was under Pinochet -a laboratory, an incubator for neoliberal austerity public-sector destroying policies that were designed in Chicago.  That is, they were designed in Chicago, exported to Chile and a few decades letter, now that the dust has settled, they’ve been brought back with vigor by the good old Democratic party who are unapologetic in their hatred for working people and labor unions.


On the one hand.


But on another hand I’m also thinking about the desert and disappearance as well:  the Chilean desert being the site of mass disappearances, [and] the Arizona desert being this place where right now where there’s also mass disappearances.  The coroners offices in the Southwest processing hundreds of anonymous bodies of Central American migrants….


So, this link between Chile and Chicago, between Chile and the US….It’s an identity-act on my part, but also the comparative neoliberal critique is relevant.  And no matter what anyone tells you, Chicago is a Chilean city in a Chilean nation obsessed with re-enacting Chilean policies to completely restructure society, to destroy poor and working people, and to build a paradise for private corporations and the bureaucratic dispensers of capital.


MC: Have you tried writing that?


DB: Yes, I think I’m writing it, I’m trying to articulate it in a few essays, but more than that it’s at the core of my poems right now; and it’s important to me to start from the concrete communities that I live in and come from. I guess it’s just to make sure that when I/we talk about war, torture, destruction of society based on neoliberal [policies] and violent governmental policies, it’s not something that we can look abroad and say, that’s happening there. I’m thinking about the Chilean prisoners that have to enact whatever rituals in the minds to survive.  But it’s also true that there are people living in Chicago in extreme poverty, [who] have to do something very similar.

Joel Craig: Right. One of my favorite statements of yours, when the [Chicago] teachers strike was started, was I just wonder who no one is rioting. Really? Why aren’t we?

DB:  Given the amount of economic segregation in Chicago, the amount of economic abandonment, the utter callousness with which public resources are privatized at the expense of poor and working class people, it’s a pretty good question, right?  It’s a good one to ask in our poetry.


On Poetry Culture


Joel Craig: What do you think about poetry-culture, right now, here?

Daniel Borzutzky: In Chicago?

JC: In the US, in the Internet Age, in the AWP Bookfair age? What do you think of poetry-lifestyle poetry? Academic [poetry]? World poetry? Small-press poetry? Poetry-personality poetry?

DB: I don’t think I’m pessimistic about small press poetry. Certainly there’s no shortage of interesting writing happening.


In terms of ‘Academic Poetry’: I think what is funny are the discussions about an aesthetic inside and outside.  People talk about universities as being the center of poetry culture, or literary culture, and that this creates a certain kind of dominant, conservative aesthetic.  But I actually think the importance of the mainstream, university poet as the determiner of what kind of writing is acceptable has been largely nullified. I don’t think you could say that there’s this mainstream type of poet that is getting all the university jobs anymore, because those jobs just don’t exist.  The neoliberal education agenda and its reliance on adjunct faculty has more or less destroyed the possibility of university careerism for all but the, I don’t know, 1% of poets.  But there’s still this notion that there’s an aesthetic inside centered around universities and mainstream publishers.  I don’t buy it, so much. I mean- I think things like the VIDA count make clear that there are disparities in publishing, but I’m more inclined to think that those disparities have more to do with gender and ethnicity than aesthetics (though I recognize these spheres are not always so separate).  I don’t know – I think aesthetic and political affiliations for university poets is a dead conversation, killed by the neoliberal attack on full-time faculty and the larger lack of commitment to education that it’s a symptom of. Who cares what kind of poetry is coming out of universities?  Aesthetic debates about what kind of poetry your university is producing seem stupid considering the agenda that seeks to destroy not just the liberal arts but the entire profession of the professor and her relationship to students.  I could care less about what kind of writing the professors and students at the Iowa Writers Workshop are producing.  I care a lot, however, about the fact that the university as a place to have these discussions is withering away and is itself another illustration of austerity and hellacious neoliberal reform.  But these discussions about the type of poetry that is being produced by MFA programs and how conservative or not-conservative or whatever it is…to me it’s like worrying about what color the walls are painted when the whole house is on fire.   And if you look at Chicago specifically, and more broadly at urban colleges and community colleges, that lack of investment in faculty, instruction, liberal arts, etc… – disproportionally cheats African American, Latino and working class students in a similar way that they have been cheated in public elementary and high schools.  But I’m getting off track.  Do you guys think there’s an identifiable mainstream, anymore?

JC: I think school by school, a little bit: some of the more major MFA programs definitely have a trail that follows them in their night sky. It’s not like in the ‘90s when there were, like, five presses that put out poetry books, [the] National Poetry Series, and the Whitman [Award]. That was the only way to get a new book published. The attitude changing around all of that is really great. Certainly it leads to miles and miles of pulp at bookfairs, but you kind of need that to have something quality and to be reachable, right?

DB:  I think small presses are the norm, now. There are small presses trying to maintain the fringes, but that center isn’t so clear anymore. We all have access to each other, and it’s just very hard to say that you are outside of that.


I think I get a little frustrated with Chicago as a place [to be a poet.] I mean, on the one hand, Chicago is great in terms of being able to cross the lines. There’s not a dominant aesthetic, or a dominant reading series, or any places that are exclusive in any kind of way. That part is nice. And everybody is, in some ways, very nice.


But I often feel that there’s a lack of intensity, where there’s not conversations like we’re having now, that take place in anything other than an individual setting.

JC: Are you thinking about a more pubic conversation, in a live setting, or at parties, or––?

DB: I’m thinking of this type of conversation about how poetry is interacting with the world at a political level––[this] is not a regular part of Chicago poetry-discourse. It does happen privately, certainly. It certainly happens among individuals. But I don’t get the sense of there being a large level of anger, with political intensity, in Chicago writing. I don’t know that it’s necessarily unique to Chicago, but it’s where I live, so I see it. I’m much more interested in participating in Chicago life than I am in any other kind of life. I think that notion of wanting to be involved very, very locally is really important to me.












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