Friday, January 23, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 3 w/ Tony Mancus)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Tony Mancus.

BT: I recently read an old interview with poet Robert Graves. In it, he was asked "Do you consider yourself fortunate in having been a poet?" His answer: "There's no alternative. If you're born that way, that's your fate - and you've got to do your best. It's a way of life." I pose the same question to you— do you consider yourself fortunate in having been a poet?

TONY: Hmm. That's tricky. Fortunate for the kind of attention it's trained me to have. I do believe it's a way of life and a lot of poets aren't poets in the sense that it's their job to write poems. There are people who live with the same sort of intention and attention who do all kinds of things. Artists and carpenters and financiers and presidents and dog walkers and teachers and tailors. But I don't really know what makes someone a 'poet' or what makes someone fated to be this thing. The best handle I've got has to do with attention and intention. People who tend to write often notice things that other people may gloss over. And they're slightly-to-morbidly obsessed—with language and its play and their own humanity in a lot of cases and the words and world around them. It's weird trying to be a poet currently— like Paul was saying in your last interview, there are a lot of people concerned with the craft and production and circulation of poetry, but on a broad scale a lot of people in this country are scared and/or completely uninterested in it.

Jon Stewart, the night of the inauguration, said something like what method, other than a button on Dick Cheney's wheelchair, would get 2.5 million people off the national mall—then he showed a clip of all the people exiting once Elizabeth Alexander started reading her poem. Now it's still exposure for poetry but it shows something about the attitude most people in this country have about for what we do. But putting fear of inadequacy and ridicule aside for a while, it does feel very good to write and to make things. I do feel fortunate about that. I read somewhere that Williams said poets write to become better people and while that may seem very self-help-y and a bit like psycho-babble, you can take it to mean that there's a weird sort of accumulative effect that happens when you spend your life working on something that not too many other people care about. Over time the idea of self you have in your head comes closer and closer to the self that's walking around in the world, especially with writing since the person doing the work is constantly tweaking their perception. I hope that this is true at least and if it is, then yes, I feel very fortunate.

BT: Do you do something poetry related everyday?

TONY: I try my best to. Sometimes this happens and sometimes not. Some days I do a whole lot of poetry related stuff, like today for instance. I'm trying to type up material from my little black book and answer these questions and go back over a bunch of lines that aren't quite adding up right and later maybe make a couple of book covers.

It takes me an inordinately long amount of time to figure out what things are and where they're going. I don't know how this happens for other people. I ask them sometimes but feel like they consistently lie to me. A lot of people have very diligent and ordered writing practices and I am not one of those people. Teachers have always said to write every day and many of the days that I'm not writing, I wish I was. But that doesn't mean I'm not doing stuff that has to do with writing. Just being lazy, or cooking, or making a bookcase, or watching TV, or listening to conversations, or having them, or yelling at your neighbor's pets, or cleaning the grout, almost anything relates back to or can get incorporated into poems. And that's one of the most wonderful things about writing. About art in general. What feeds it is as much the ordinary as the extraordinary as long as we're tuned in.

Most often, especially as of late, writing happens for me when I'm in motion— like on the train in to work or when I'm driving. There's something about the road that clears my head in a way that allows for things to happen up there. I'm not stuck on how many dishes are in the sink or what number of papers I've got to not grade in order to have a sleepless Sunday night or whatever. I don't actually write while driving. In the past I've tried but it doesn't make for good travel really with all the head movements needed and the way roads turn and it's dark a lot of the time at night, hard to steady the paper. Sorry, I got headed off track here.

So anyway, yeah I try to do something poetry related most days.

BT: A starving artist appears on your doorstep: hungry for inspiration, thirsty for poetry— what do you feed him/her?

TONY: Plum tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil with some balsamic and good oil drizzled over top—a touch of salt and pepper. No, seriously, it's good stuff. But this is a question about reading, right? If I had a recording of Yusef Komunyakaa handy, I'd probably play that. His voice shakes something loose in people. Lorca's Romance Sonambulo, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son which technically isn't poetry, but it is. Um. Blake and Elizabeth Bishop and Creeley and Harryette Mullen in some kind of smoothie with a dollop of Levis on top?

BT: I consider myself a logophile (which is a lover of words). Is there a word you're terribly fond of at the moment?

TONY: This past week I've been stuck on 'obfuscate.' I don't know why exactly. My girlfriend just had to take the GRE and she'd been studying flashcards with a bunch of $.75-$1.00 words on them. I can't say if this was one of them or not. I've always like the word 'liquefy'— something about the sounds there, but I never use it. Fear of water, maybe? I don't know. Basically any word that feels good in my mouth I like and I try to use and then figure out the meaning or if it's actually a word later.

BT: I am trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

TONY: Keeping it Pittsburgh— Jennylynn Keller

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