Tom Beckett

An interview with William Allegrezza

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

William Allegrezza: Poetry begins in one of two ways for me. The first way is that I grow interested in a single idea and explore it in a brief collection. I will often set some parameters around the collection and write through the idea within the parameters, shaping and reshaping as needed. The other way is that I just begin writing, exploring whatever comes up as I write. With this method I let myself float in words, exploring the chaos swirling around in my head, and I look for patterns or connections. Most of the recent writing that I have been doing on found objects has been a mix of these processes. I have been writing on found objects but have been trying to write through my rethinking of Dante’s suicides in terms of language randomly placed and disembodied/re-embodied. The basic process, however, has been one of letting the words find their own form on the objects founds (like pots, children’s toys, paintings, tile, etc. . .). Recently, Eileen Tabios mentioned something on her blog about living a life of poetry, and that struck me, for I don’t know that I can pull out of the poetic world completely. That can be both a problem and a joy.

Beyond that, poetry often begins for me in other poetry. I try to read widely, and thinking about what I read makes me examine my own work. For example, recently I’ve been reading quite a bit of ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation alongside of contemporary innovative Chilean poetry. I’m too close to it to know how exactly it is transforming my work, but I’m certain that it is filtering and changing my practice.

TB: Bill, I'm struck by the importance of translation to your work. Even fake translations! Could you speak to this aspect of your project?

WA: Translation and fake translation are distinct directions in my work. Through translated work, I first made my way to some early influences. That’s how I originally encountered writers like Dante, Homer, Neruda, and Stendhal. Beyond that, I enjoy reading works in translation because they teach me about other traditions and convince me over and over in the merit of the poetic venture. Plus, I’m fascinated in how language moves from one language tradition to another with all of the cultural moving and loss that occurs as part of the process. Some much of a culture, how it thinks and expresses itself, is embedded in its words.

Specifically, doing translation forces me to look very closely at language, often even closer that I do as a literary critic. When I look back to graduate school and the classes I took translating ancient Greek writers like Homer and Aeschylus, I feel like the process taught me more about language use than many of the literature classes that I took. I would spend hours sorting through a dictionary, trying to figure out the meaning of a word at a certain period of time in a certain context. That was important for my development as a writer.

The fake translations are another story completely. They relate to my desire to poke fun at established ideas and to play with language; plus, they are related to other projects that I’ve worked on like sending out anonymous poems to people with the same names as poets and the spoof writing advice that I sometimes post on my blog. Actually, I wrote an entire book of spoof advice, but I never ended up publishing it. The process of writing it, however, was a blast. I laughed as I wrote. The same is true for the fake translations.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

WA: My major influences include writers like Whitman, Sappho, Dante, Neruda, Keats, Pound, Ungaretti, Levertov, Montale, Eliot, Empson, and Cecco. My forebears, however, the people from whom I take my techniques and forms, include writers like Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Robert Duncan, John Berryman, and Charles Olson. Lately, the forms of Olson and Howe are the most intriguing for me and keep me exploring. I’m also fascinated by the work of Sheila Murphy and Jukka-Pekka Kervinan and think I’ve learned a lot from watching them play with poetic boundaries. Also, working with my friend and collaborator Garin Cycholl has been important to my writing. Co-writing Aquinas and the Mississippi with him, a project that has taken us many years and is still incomplete, has taught me more about finding form than probably any single writer’s work has. Garin’s work takes up the Olsonian tradition and pushes it in new directions.

TB: Tell me more about Aquinas and the Mississippi. What was that project’s impetus? Where are you at in its progress? And what sort of process do you and Garin have as co-creators of this text?

WA: The project grew out of a period of collaboration between Garin and me. We originally were working on shorter pieces, and then we started to put together a longer piece based on the Mississippi river. Initially, we were playing on its central location and its history to make it a carrier symbol. At this point, the long poem is filled with historical references, quotations, multiple characters, and myriad story lines. We recently sent off a copy for a press to look at, but we consider even that copy incomplete. It’s probably a long-term project, with parts that will be added and meddled with for quite some time.

We probably knew that already, but we really discovered that to be the case when we took a trip together a few years ago. We started in Chicago, drove down to southern Illinois, and then followed the river off and on to Memphis, and from Memphis, we took the river roads to New Orleans. We were hoping to finish the poem then, but the trip just seems to have increased the imagery, place references, and epic underpinning of the work.

As far as the process, Garin and I send the piece back and forth writing over whatever is there and adding new parts. Nothing is settled, and any part can be rewritten by either of us. We’ve both introduced characters and added to the development of characters. In fact, when I look back through some of it now, I cannot remember who wrote what exactly. We take our time with it, so the poem is growing slowly like layers deposited.

TB: I like the idea of that kind of sedimentary process, but I’m wondering about other sorts of process in your work. To what degree do appropriative strategies and procedures figure in your process of making poetry?

WA: I play with many appropriative techniques. For example, in the past I’ve let the voice recognition software on my computer copy radio announcers, and then I’ve taken the text produced and have run it back and forth through online language translators. I’ve ordered that text in shapes that appear poetic. At other times, I’ve thrown in lines directly from other writers, and with some of the bunny translations, I took quotations and simply changed the humans in the texts to bunnies. (I often use quotation marks for phrases in poetry, but more often than not, the quoted phrases are my creations). Occasionally, I use cutouts. For example, in my last book, Collective Instant, I wanted to write a longer poem about the current war activities of the U.S., so I used a biography of Winston Churchill and cut out much of the text. I did not write any of the text; I just picked the words already there for a new type of text. Oddly enough, I consider my writing under assumed names as doing something similar. When I write under an assumed name, I consider myself appropriating a possible identity and possible style.

I consider appropriation a core technique, but it is one that also rests on a blurry line. For example, the long poem titled Go-between from Fragile Replacements is based on Dante’s Vita Nuova. It has the same amount of poetry sections. Each of my poetry sections relate to his sections—even with some of the same language used. I copied the theme for many of the poems, and ultimately, the theme of the work is similar though slightly adjusted to his work. Is it appropriation? Yes, but it seems less so than the borrowed lines or voice recognition work, and I doubt someone reading the two together would notice without being told.

TB: To what degree do you see the “blurry line” of appropriation as an ethical line? And do you think, as a poet, that you have any unique social responsibilities?

WA: Ethical? Well, I don’t want to take someone’s work entirely and claim it as my own. I’m just borrowing bits and pieces, often to refer to the author’s work. Really, this issue is not unique to poets. Musicians and artists often deal with similar ideas.

As far as social responsibility, I agree with Neruda and Ruykeser that poets should protect life, and I like Adorno’s claim that the lyric is a form that works to retain the individual in an increasingly mechanized society—it’s a claim that I wish could be made of poetry as a whole. My own work is a process of finding, retaining, and claiming the position of the individual.

TB: How do senses of limit and constraint figure in your work?

WA: I’ve used preset limits quite often to shape my works. For example, my book In The Weaver’s Valley was written on the basis of time constraints. I wrote five poems a day for fifty days, and I included all the poems in the book in the order they were written. The limit helped me produce a lot of interesting pieces, but then again, I also produced many uninteresting pieces that way. As I wrote through the limit, a theme emerged in the book, but because of the process, I did not fully expand on it. I tried to address the theme in the last long poem of Fragile Replacements. I also used a similar time constraint with temporal nomads. There the time constraint was connected with a reading constraint. I was trying to think through my reading of Deleuze and Guattari in a collection that took a month to write. In that collection, I edited and crafted the pieces more than in the book In The Weaver’s Valley—I was trying to get the process into that book. Practically speaking, the time limits allow me to add urgency, even a false urgency, to my writing projects, and that urgency helps me finish the writing process.

Appropriative techniques and collaboration often function as constraints. That’s especially true of some of the collaborative pieces that I’ve written with Simone Muench, mostly because we’ve written in traditional forms and have alternated writing the lines of the forms. Most traditional forms require an element of limit and constraint, so the question becomes how much can you fit into the constrained space.

Ultimately, I see the different mediums as limits. I often imagine the print sizes of books as I write, and that in itself seems limiting. That’s why I like playing with new media forms, like moving text, video poetry, and image work. They have limits as well, but when I feel constrained by print, I try working in another medium.

TB: You mentioned trying to think through your reading of Deleuze and Guattari in the course of writing temporal nomads. Is philosophy important to you? Do you see a relationship between philosophy and poetry writing?

WA: To me, philosophy and poetry are related ventures, for they both explore the limits of what can be thought and known through language, though the forms of their explorations differ, and the trick about them both is that they are just play, a type of roaming in fields of possibility. Calling it a trick might seem to trivialize the process, but really the space to play is vital.

As a writer, while I’m influenced by the philosophy of thinkers like Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Emerson, and Benjamin, I feel the pull of the Greeks heavily, from Plato backwards through the pre-Socratics. Some of that, I’m certain, is due to my having translated them as a student, but with writers like Heraclitus and Parmenides, it goes deeper. Heraclitus especially sounds in my head as a writer as few others do.

TB: What is it, Bill, about Heraclitus and Parmenides that particularly appeals to you? What are some of the points of connection?

WA: Heraclitus is the stronger influence, but with both, the ideas of order versus chaos versus change appeal to me, as does the interconnectedness of being. Often as I write, I hear fragments from Heraclitus in my head, and the fragments show up occasionally in allusions in my writing. I sometimes wonder whether or not Olson was onto something when he said we are “post-logical,” by which he is referring to being post-logos. He wrote that we should work from the pre-logos/post-logos of the pre-Socratics backwards in history instead of forwards.

On a related note, the often fragmentary remains of some early Greek writing probably were an influence on my writing. Heraclitus fits into that category, but so does a poet like Sappho. Looking through the Loeb version of Sappho’s works with its symbols for lost sections drifted into the way I write.

TB: What do you think poetry does, can do? What does it do for you? What do you want it to do?

WA: Poetry can be influential, entertaining, informative, explorative, and comforting, and I want my own work to be all of these. Some works help me think through ideas, such as works by Bernstein, Palmer, and Stevens. Some help me understand events, such as works by Howe, Neruda, and Akhmatova. Some help me explore the limits of language, such as works by Huff, Murphy, and Coolidge. Some influence me to act, such as works by Whitman, Neruda, and Martí. Beyond that, I feel compelled to write. Some internal push makes is there for me. Call it the muse, the green fuse, or whatever.

Ultimately, I hope that poetry helps us to be individuals and to be accepting of other individuals—really I hope that it fosters a respect for and a way to the person within, to the person beyond the layering of society, if such a person exists.

TB: You co-edited an anthology of Chicago poets. How does a sense of place figure in your work, in your life?

WA: Often I think of place as more important for fiction than poetry, but the places I have been have drifted into my works. Mississippi, Baton Rouge, Rome, Dallas—these have all made cameos in my work, though Chicago has definitely been the place where I’ve been the most productive. Still, besides in the long poem Aquinas and the Mississippi, I have not intentionally focused on place, and the fact that I edited an anthology of Chicago poetry and am currently editing two anthologies that are country based seems more a necessity issue than a need of mine. By that I mean that when Ray Bianchi and I decided to put together the Chicago anthology, a special moment in Chicago poetry was apparent to us. Essentially, someone needed to showcase the work, so Ray and I took on the project. The several new anthologies of Chicago poetry that are coming out this year and next year and the heated debate about a New Chicago School (see Adam Fieled’s and Kent Johnson’s blogs) and/or a New Prairie Renaissance (see Tim Yu’s blog) suggest that the movement, whatever it might consist of at this point, is continuing or at least has attracted attention.

Perhaps I am not a poet of place because I’ve moved around and even now do not feel settled. Ultimately, the idea of humans as nomadic in body and mind rings more to my core. I tried to explore that idea in temporal nomads, but it keeps coming up in my work, and language is the most appropriate vehicle for me to explore such a theme. It shifts in different contexts—words that seem to name in stone rest like water in a sea around us continually shifting, even if ever so slightly at times. In other words, language is a shifting foundation for work, and while I personally like stability, I understand that life is flux, and to explore ideas like identity and individuation in motion, language is an appropriate medium.

The new anthologies that I’m editing, one of Chilean poets into English and the other of U.S. poets into Spanish, seem necessary simply for cross-fertilization. Much interesting work is being produced in Chile but is not being read in the U.S. because of language barriers and distance, and the same is true in reverse for Chile. I hope the anthologies will help at least a few poets think Pan-American in the largest sense.

TB: Would you expand on your interest in Chilean poetry? How did you become engaged by it? What approach to it will your anthology take?

WA: I’m interested in Latin American writing in general, and I have been since I took a class titled Poetics of the Americas in graduate school. Chilean poetry has a special draw for me because Chile is a country especially rich in poets. Mistral, Neruda, Huidobro, de Rohka, Lihn, Zurita—the list could keep going easily. While part of my dissertation was about Neruda, I don’t feel like an expert in Chilean poetry, but fortunately, the co-editor for the anthology, Galo Ghigliotto, is an excellent contemporary Chilean poet, and he will be guiding me in picking out the Chilean poets. In reverse, I will be guiding him in picking out the U.S. poets. We will be focusing on poets who prefer to work in innovative ways.

TB: What for you constitutes innovation in poetry?

WA: With U.S. poetry, when I think of experimental writing, I think of post-language work. It’s basically a tradition of writing. However, in a broader context, innovative writing is anything that plays with the boundaries of language, so mixed media work, sound work, video poetry, asemic writing, etc. . . all fit into the category. If it is narrative, then it is not typically narrative, or it is work that avoids moralizing or coming to a clean solution. Beyond that, I don’t like to define it.

TB: You speak of playing with boundaries of language. I appreciate the ludic aspect of your work, but I’m wondering how senses of resistance and risk figure for you. You’ve been very careful in this interview to answer questions but not expand beyond what has been asked.

WA: Resistance is something I live with as an academic. The work that I do and support has several centers in the U.S. in academia, but for the most part, I am not part of those. I did not experience support for my interests in experimental writing in graduate school, and even now, I rarely teach anything that has any relation with what I write and with the writing that I think is vital right now. Basically, I see my teaching life as separate from my writing life, and I’ve been compartmentalizing that way since graduate school. In fact, the complex machinery of academia often seems as much a hindrance to new ideas as it does a support. Too much bureaucracy, too much paperwork, often gets in the way of charging through with a new idea, and I don’t like to fill out papers and wait. That’s probably why I started Moria and Cracked Slab Books. With Moria, I handle everything on my own. I don’t mess with having a team read work. If I like the work, it goes in, and if I want to start something new, as I did with the e-books, I just do it. With Cracked Slab, the process is slightly more complicated, but my partner Ray Bianchi is as willing to try new things as I am, so we often agree on work to publish. I suppose there is some risk involved (mostly financial, my own bias, and hurt feelings for a few writers), but the risk is not significant, i.e. bodily harm, financial ruin, or any such thing.

Writing that explores resistance is important for me. Perhaps another way of saying it is that writing that borders on change or pushes at the boundaries attracts my attention more than other types of writing. The border could be internal or external, as long as it creates tension, to borrow a phrase from Allen Tate. In that sense, I consider writers like Dante pushing at the boundaries of self, writers like Neruda pushing back against harsh governments, and writers like Bernstein pushing against social/community/media pressure. Often when writing, I feel as though I’m swimming in a field of the expected, of language prefabricated and open, and of influences while trying to find a momentary self; thus, the work I produce is varied in form, clarity, and style. This result seems like a necessary reaction to our refiguring of self as controlled or free, virtual or real, pressed and relaxed.

Ultimately I suppose that to experiment is to risk aesthetically and be willing to accept the results.

Perhaps, however, to return to the question, one reason I’m a little hesitant to meander in interviews is the compartmentalizing that I’ve grown accustomed to from academic life; another reason is that currently I’m searching for a new direction in my work, and another reason is that I’m hoping that my work can fend for itself without my pre- or post-theorizing about it or my rationale for writing it.

TB: Final question. What is most encouraging/discouraging for you about current poetry scenes?

WA: The global poetry scene’s incredible diversity and the connections happening between poets around the globe due to the Internet are exciting. I “met” poets like Mark Young, Anny Ballardini, Louis Armand, Virna Teixeira, Marco Giovenale, and so many more through the Internet, and I think my own work is richer due to knowing their works. Also, the U.S. scene in itself is rich with a wide variety of poetry, so I know poetry is alive and well.

As for the discouraging side, the variety of schools, of course, leads to harsh and somewhat arbitrary scene divisions at times, and I’m worried about the lack of poetry distribution in the U.S. for actual printed books. The Internet is great for journals, e-books, and POD books, but these types of works, I’m guessing, tend to be viewed by people already interested in poetry. When you browse U.S. bookstore shelves, except for at a few special bookstores, the work seems quite limited, and the shelf space seems to be shrinking.

Thanks, Tom, for the interesting questions, and thank you for your own poetry and your collections of interviews.

Tom Beckett lives and works in Kent, Ohio.
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