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“Like going back to the beginning of time, and starting over”: Karen Szczepanski in conversation with Lewis Warsh
When you were young, a teenager, did you imagine ending up writing poetry?
I got serious about poetry when I was 14. I had some friends my own age who were also interested in poetry and they were more advanced (or so I thought) and it made me work harder. I had the weird idea that poetry had to sound difficult–so I began looking up words in the thesaurus and putting them in my poems, words I would never use in conversation. The more obscure the better. I never questioned writing poetry–not even so young–and I just became more serious. When I was fifteen this book called The New American Poetry was published, edited by Donald Allen, and that became my main poetry bible for the next few years. I wrote every day for many years in a notebook and then typed up my poems on a Remington Portable which my parents bought me. I could type 80 words a minute on a manual. I also started writing fiction when I was fifteen. I went to a high school called The Bronx High School of Science with emphasis on math and science but there were good English teachers there too who encouraged me and I won a city wide fiction award in my junior year, sponsored by NYU. I didn’t do well in high school, except for English and creative writing courses. I also studied French which was useful later. I met a great writer while I was there, Samuel Delany, and we’re still in touch. He was a senior in high school and had already written 7 novels. So that was inspiring–I learned a lot being around him. Then I went to City College of New York and was poetry editor of the literary magazine, Promethean, in my first freshman semester. This was the fall of 1961.
Why did you start writing poetry and how were your first experiences with poetry and the people who were writing poetry?
I wrote a lot of poetry (and fiction) between ages 15-20. I was going to school at the time, but neglected most of my school work in favor of my own reading and writing habits. When I was 18 I went to San Francisco for the summer and my friends there took me to a bar in North Beach where Jack Spicer and his circle of younger poets went every night. These were the first poets I met. I liked Spicer’s poetry but the scene in the bar was very depressing and I wasn’t even old enough to drink legally but I did anyway. There was one friendly person in that group, Larry Fagin, and we’ve remained in touch over the years. I also met poet/painter Liam O'Gallagher that summer and he was very kind and supportive and gave me the sense there was more to the poetry life than the scene in the back of the bar. He was an early experimenter with LSD and lived in a loft in Chinatown with his partner Robert Rheem. There was much lightness in his world compared to the darkness in Spicer’s bar, and in a way I wanted both. When I returned to New York fall 1963 I took a poetry workshop with Kenneth Koch at The New School and wrote my first good poem, “The Suicide Rates.” Kenneth’s support, for that moment of time, was also important. When I was 20 I went to San Francisco again to attend The Berkeley Poetry Conference. I met Anne Waldman at one of the readings and we became close comrades, mates, and co-founders of Angel Hair Magazine and Books back in New York where we lived together at 33 St Mark’s Place. Age 15-20 was a kind of apprenticeship and after that everything made sense.
It seems like you have been good at surrounding yourself with other poets and seeking communities that have given you some good settings for writing poetry. Do you think that’s important if you, as a poet, want to be able at continuing writing poetry?
I was involved in communities of poets when I was in my early twenties, both in New York City and then in Bolinas, California, the small town where I lived from 1969-1970. I think it’s good to have friends who you see everyday and who live close by and who you trust to give you constructive feedback on your work. That’s why people today enroll in MFA programs. These programs–and I teach in one now–provide an instant community of people who are reading your work over a period of 2-3 years. In the pre-MFA days the communities were more organic or developed around places like the Poetry Project or at a person’s house. For several years, when Anne Waldman and I lived together in an apartment on St Marks Place, there were people at our apartment every night, talking about poetry, about each other, listening to music, getting stoned. In other cultures, and in other periods of time, people might meet in cafes or bars. Poets tend to come together for periods of time and then everyone goes their separate ways. It was disorganized (in a good way) than the institutional communities that develop in MFA programs, but any coming together of a group of people to talk about one thing is meaningful and healthy, though probably some people prefer working totally on their own. Also, magazines and independent publishers create communities as well. When I started publishing Angel Hair in my early 20s I kind of knew the poets I wanted to publish and the world that I wanted to be part of. It was definitely good for my poetry to be entangled with a group of poets and then it was also good to let go and move forward on my own.
Is your way of writing as intuitive and immediate as it might seem to the reader?
Totally intuitive, but my brain is at work as well, amazingly. I’ve been writing poetry in an ongoing way for 55 years, and almost every day for many of those years, and I certainly think about poetry every day, so hopefully my intuitive powers, if they exist, have evolved over all this time, along with everything else, and I’ve become more concerned, over the years, with putting things together, which is part of my practice as a collagist, because that’s what I’m doing, so I’m always working with the idea of how one thing follows another, and my intuition always instructs me about whether it makes sense or not. The person who makes that decision isn’t really anyone I “know”–it’s just who I am, in some curious way, and hopefully I’ve become good at making the right choices. I do think of a poem as an object that has to be made, which is like going back to the beginning of time, and starting over. I used to not know when a poem was good enough–I was kind of lazy when I was younger–and now I work hard on making it “good,” whatever that means. Most of what I write comes out of the air, a little phrase in a book that I copy down and insert alongside another phrase. I like when the poem adds up to something I didn’t know about before I started and moves beyond the personal into the “not me” state.
I was looking at your collages. Many of your poems are built very similar to these: Consisting of fragments and images that might seem unrelated, but together form a meaning and a hidden narrative. Is your mind and your way of perceiving the world very fragmented? Does it help you see things more clearly when you write?
In the early 1990s I began writing these long collage poems which were later collected in a book, The Origin of the World. There were 17 of them when the book was published in 2001. I save everything–versions of poems that didn’t work out–and I keep handwritten notebooks with lines and quotes from everything I’m reading. I used my own failed poems as a source and the words in my notebook and I began to arrange these unrelated fragments into something that resembled a whole. The arrangement was everything–all the lines were there but I had to put them in a sequence that made sense. I wanted to create, as you say, a “hidden narrative.” There’s no way I could articulate where that narrative begins and ends, though I think there are threads that run through each of the poems, individually, and then together, all my little obsessions rise to the surface, nothing is really hidden, I can take anything from anywhere and add it to something else. So the word “collage” definitely seems appropriate to describe these poems. And I’m still writing them, maybe one or two a year. I do think in fragments, little segments of memories and fantasy. I’m trying to figure out why things happened the way they did and why people act and say what they do. Human nature gets more confusing as time goes by. These collage poems allow me to make connections that I can’t really verbalize in my head. In the mid-90s, at a time concurrent with writing these fragmented poems, I began doing visual collages and making artist books, using images from magazines and texts. They were fairly conventional collages, putting unrelated images side by side. Then I began pasting letters together. I would go through magazines cutting out letters–mostly white letters on a black background–and then arrange them on a poster board. I began working with grids of letters. I had collages that consisted of just the letter “e” packed together. The capital letters fighting off the lower case. Finally I realized I could combine the image collages with the letter collages. I could do an image collage and cover parts of it with letters. It’s been an intense practice and definitely a spin off of the collage poems. Everything fit together in a way that made sense.
So in some ways you’re figuring things out through your writing? Investigating relations and why people act the way they do in certain situations. Are you mapping situations and relations retrospectively?
It’s all retrospective and I am trying to work out the reasons people do what they do. And that’s what I’m doing in my head a lot of the time–going over things that happened and trying to figure out my own actions, as if I’m going to come to some right answer. But sometimes forty years go by and I actually figure it out. Like once I boarded an airplane and flew to Athens, Greece and completely altered the “course” of my life, in a way, and the question of why I boarded that plane is something I revisit, or have revisited, down through the years. It’s like I’m my own therapist, even though I did go to therapy for a number of years, with a number of different therapists, all women, and that was helpful to different degrees. I’m interested in psychology and sociology and so that’s what my fiction is about, for me. I’m a realist who’s also interested in abstraction, so there’s a place to go that’s hidden–that’s the abstract part–which I try to explore in my fiction. I’d like to think it’s possible to be conscious 24/7, but there I am in the middle of a daydream about something that happened long ago.
How is writing fiction different for you? I assume that you can’t write it as intuitively with poetry?
It has to do much with reading, and all the time involved, reading and looking closely at other works of fiction. This is true of poetry as well, knowing about all the poetry of the past, and all of contemporary poetry, is like a full-time job, and kind of impossible. But reading fiction, and taking notes, is an important part of my writing process, and one thing leads to another. I wrote a lot of fiction between ages 15-20, 3 novels, mostly influenced by the new-wave French writers like Robbe-Grillet, Butor and Duras, among others, and then there were the new American fiction writers like Kerouac, Burroughs and Selby, who influenced me a lot as well. Less so, the so-called literary lights of the day, like Bellow, Roth, Updike, Mailer etc. I read them conscientiously but half-heartedly. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted structure to be at least as important as content. The writer who first influenced me, strangely, was Anais Nin, and I think her writing influenced me in a bad/good way in terms of relationships. I was fifteen and it made life seem mysterious and dark and I went for it totally. I’m not sure what she would sound like today or if people still read her today and are influenced in a literary way, beyond her sexual exuberance and freedom. I like to think the fiction I write is intuitive as well, maybe more like the poems than it looks. I’m really the same person writing both, with the same peculiar concerns.
Do you have an overview when you start working on a fiction piece; a planned narrative, a beginning and an ending? Are you crafting your texts in the same way as you described you do with your poems?
I have no idea what’s going to happen next, in my stories, and definitely in my novels, from moment to moment, it’s very much letting one thing lead to another. I seem to write about the same things: sexual identity, cops, marriages, small-town life, adolescent sexuality, voyeurism, among other things. I repeat the same scenes, often, in variation. I like beginnings, you have to begin somewhere, but you can end almost anywhere. My sense of endings is mostly intuitive. What intuitive means, I guess, is that it “feels right.” According to what I’m not sure. I guess that people have different sensibilities. I start a lot of recent novels and can’t get past page 3. I don’t understand the syntax, or the sound of the sentences, the grammar, it just sounds off. I want to learn from other novels about how to put something together. I’m very unhandy, in real life, so making stories, or putting a narrative together in a sequence, is what I do, my version of making something. I just read five novels by Patrick Modiano and I think I learned something, but I’m not sure what.
Does writing fiction then serve as an outlet for some things you can’t do with poetry?
I don’t tell stories much in poetry, so that must be the outlet. I like the word “outlet”–I live in a town where there are a lot of “outlet” stores, which I never go near. I do like there to be a narrative, since life is a kind of narrative, but I’m not that interested in a linear time sequence, which we’re all forced into, so constructing a narrative that plays with time is what interests me, since I’m playing with time in my head (all the time). I have a line in a poem from Alien Abduction where I say “that’s what happens when you’re lost in the fog of time” since that’s what happens as you get older and you start time traveling and playing movies from the past. I have some interesting movies I can play back whenever I want.
I get this feeling of nostalgia when I read your writing. Maybe I’m wrong or maybe it’s unavoidable. Is it something you think about, nostalgia?
Yes, of course, I’m always looking back. But the key is that I don’t want to be back there, so I’m not sure if that’s really “nostalgia.” I’m really glad to be in the present, but I have to acknowledge everything that happened before, and everyone i knew, otherwise it would just be a waste of time. And I like to look back and I try to maintain relationships with people I knew in the past. It’s hard work, sometimes, and sometimes there’s nothing in common except your memory of long ago. People do change over time. I know people who I knew in high school, for instance. You can make contact with practically anyone over the internet. I live part of the year in a town in Western Massachusetts which is very close to where i was living 40 years ago when my children were born and it’s really an accident or serendipity that my wife and I found this house in a part of the world that’s very familiar and important to my past. I’m glad whenever past and present intersect, especially in an unplanned way, and all of the above seeps into my writing. Absolutely. The past is totally non-threatening. I don’t want to be back there. I want to be right here.
And lastly, in what ways has your way of writing evolved or remained the same over the years?
I think I’m getting better–which is a good thing, since if the opposite was true I’d feel terrible. I don’t feel I’m writing the same poem over and over, and a few times a year I write something that makes me think I’m advancing a few inches over what I did before. My ear is definitely getting better and I’m interested in the way that things sound, letter by letter. Internal sound patterns and repetitions interest me, where before maybe not that much. With fiction I keep going back to the same stories. I’m finishing a novel now, called Delusions of Being Observed, and hopefully, when it’s done I’ll do something completely different. It’s written from a woman’s point of view, which is something I’ve never done before. The alternative to “not growing” is shutting down the store, and I don’t think I’m going to do that any time soon.
Lewis Warsh is the author of over thirty volumes of poetry, fiction and autobiography, including One Foot Out the Door: Collected Stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) and Inseparable: Poems 1995-2005 (Granary Books, 2008). He is co-editor ofThe Angel Hair Anthology (Granary Books, 2001) and editor and publisher of United Artists Books. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council of the Arts, The Poet’s Foundation and The Fund for Poetry. Mimeo Mimeo #7 (2012) was devoted to his poetry, fiction and collages, and to a bibliography of his work as a writer and publisher. He has taught at Naropa University, The Poetry Project, SUNY Albany and Long Island University (Brooklyn), where he was director of the MFA program in creative writing from 2007-2013 and where he currently teaches. He lives in Manhattan and in Western Massachusetts.
All images belong to Lewis Warsh.
Flight Test (Ugly Duckling Presse 2006) is currently out of print but can be read online here.
Alien Abduction (Ugly Duckling Presse 2015) is available here.