Even Though I Call You Ezra, I Should Say You Are My Bernadette Mayer
I’ve known Erika Jo Brown since a past life, when we spoke a different language and our bodies were smaller and more fragile. Yes, a different life, and maybe even more distant than that. Like we believed in a grand narrative of emancipation, like transcendence was just like you know, some shit everybody wanted to try like snorting blow on the job or dancing on stripper poles in bars, because you know, the stripper pole is there and demands to be danced upon. Because we both wanted to be poets and even if we had read Judith Butler, we didn’t yet understand Judith Butler and we wanted to take our clothes off and jump in a lake. Any lake. Any body of water. And maybe one of us or both of us still doesn’t understand Judith Butler. And maybe one of us is naked in that lake still. Or maybe we both are and don’t want to admit to each other that growing older doesn’t mean becoming less wild, it just means becoming wilder in different ways, in ways we didn’t know wild counts. Like married wild. Or like dog owning wild. Or like recycling responsibly wild and comparing at home water filtration systems wild. Like grant writing wild. Hooray.
And when we first met we delighted in reading The Wasteland out loud by the Norfolk heath over and over because we felt the historicity. We hadn’t yet heard that history was over. And even though we didn’t want to become fascists, I called Erika my Ezra, because really we were kind of enamored by the grand narrative that led to fascism. Or should I say we were naive because we were naive and didn’t realize yet that there was some fascism inside the poets we worshiped. Inside their aesthetic choices. Because aesthetics was something we felt back then, not something we knew. And even though some distance has passed between then and now, I still call Erika my Ezra. Maybe because we share a sense of humor. Maybe because I still think Ezra is a really great girl’s name. Maybe because Erika will forever be my poetic genius.
I think Erika Jo Brown, despite all odds, has somehow kept that excitement, the playfulness of being 18 and just beginning inside her poetry. Each poem is a secret source of wonder, and humor and joy pulled from the tumult of breakups, economic crises, wars, and theory driven academic existential angst and precariat economic anxiety that many of us have had the privilege to share. Written by a person to people, I come back to these poems on particularly dark days, when the news is most heavy. They are moments of light that help me push through. They are what I need.
These poems are from I’m Your Huckleberry courtesy of Brooklyn Arts Press.
Captain Snugz Rides Again
Break a brandy snifter. Break any
small thing. A nugget of bituminous
coal. Not a heart. Not a lot. Afterwards,
improve yourself. Refrain from hitting
snooze. Fix a small thing. A bug or
capillary. Eat a schnitzel with capers.
Stop taking orders. Adopt a schnauzer.
Adopt a funny German accent when
commanding it to stay. Captain Snugz,
how is your mouth always so hot?
I love you more every day, not less
and this concerns me. You mug. Plus,
we live on a floodplain. It may all seem
non-germaine but G-d, sometimes
it’s cloudy, sometimes luminous.
Alone In The Shower I Practice Peeing Long Distances
A modicum of tenderness is necessary
but ill-appropriate here. Our origins
are errant. The same old ghost
stories do not repopulate the present.
Sand dulls everything.
I lack the leisure to be rude
when conditions are crude. I’ve rituals
too, that unravel if you learn them.
I’ve touched a million things.
Fingerpads are a site of memory,
of feathery jeopardy, of treachery.
People tell me about mine all the time
in succor. I know, I say, look, there’s
a future and it’s a vast expanse of desert
with lightning. And I can’t always find
the oasis. And you can’t always find the oasis.
Put up your fingerpad. Tell me which way
the wind is blowing. I’ll start a repository
of touch memory, bound in clean paper.
I don’t know why my body malfunctions
in comfort, but in the wilderness
I am a fucking ibex, sinewy and hardscrabbling,
avoiding scorpions, trying
new roots. You can’t choose delight, you
must walk outside and wait for it to find you.
French New Wave Cinema
Because I don’t care for Godard,
I am the loneliest poet. Go,
dart, to the heart of my beloved.
Tell him: we mythologize each
other when we’re apart. Tell
him: I’m a bit of a tweaker. No,
I don’t actually sleep with
deers out here. Check yo
navigational chart. In fact,
a perfectly respectable club jam
came on the radio today. Tell him:
I’m sorry for accidentally kicking him
in the gonads. It’s too bad, too,
I had imagined us on a gondola
in a scenic place funded carte blanche
with affection. Tell him: I don’t do
goulash without meat. Tell him: of my love
for gorgonzola cheese: garbanzos.
Tell him: of my objectionable
tartness. Don’t forget that part.
My goal is to go steady.
Although I’m rather cerebral,
I don’t know shit about
beer. The avant-garde won’t
protect me here. If I need you,
I know you’ll be available to hold
my mitten on a starry evening. Oh,
tell my love nothing. I’ll do it myself.
JL: What were the avenues and alleyways that led you to becoming a poet? (and is it weird to call yourself a poet in the company of strangers?)
EJB: I feel like poetry found me! I tried to avoid it. In my first year of college, I took classes in politics and religious studies and natural resources. I wanted to be the president of the United States.
I’d always read widely–cycling through nonfiction, fiction, poetry, graphic novels, plays–I still do. But when I took my first poetry workshop, it felt completely natural and emboldening.
JL: Were there any poems or poets in particular that brought you closer to the dark side of professional poetism? I mean you are from New York, where I think poetry plays a large part in the making of the identity of the city, and vice versa, poets have always found the city as a source of inspiration. Contrast that with growing up in a place like Tucson, in the desert, where our most famous poet is either Richard Shelton or the hair that grew between Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows. Did that sense of cultural legacy make it easier to connect?
EJB: Ha. That’s an interesting question. Or two questions and an assertion.
I love New York–it’s the best city in the world. I think its legacy of storytelling and funky sonics might have informed the way I write and read. When I was starting out after college, I couldn’t afford tickets to events at venues like the 92nd St Y (although I did go there once on a date). My first big reading was at La Mama, a sort of grimy, sort of celebrated arts space in the East Village.
That first reading was curated by a group of incredibly generous, diverse women. Thinking about it now, that experience still affects my relatively rosy attitude about the poetry world. I think it’s imperative to help each other out in our careers–especially women and other marginalized voices. I went to Iowa and I’ve seen some things. But I’ve also run or helped organize popular reading series in four cities, and I’m all about that community, man. Maybe (probably, hopefully), there’s a little bit of Frank O’Hara and New York School in that spirit.
Across the citiy, to the plains, to the dirty-dirty South, to the bayou…
JL: I mean you are one of those people that dip their feet in both the water of the University and the community, which doesn’t always happen. And you are getting a PhD in poetry. Lots of people make a big to do about the academicization (word?) of the poetry. What is your take?
EJB: I have two takes.
Take one. The proliferation of MFA programs is a-okay by me. People spend their money however they want–although I personally wouldn’t recommend anyone take out loans to get an arts degree. Bottom line: the production and distribution of more poetry does not hurt other poetry. I think it’s sort of nice–there’s a Tucson tribe, an Iowa City tribe, a Lincoln tribe, a Tallahassee tribe, an Ann Arbor tribe, a Syracuse tribe. You know? Joe Brainard and Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett were all Tulsa boys, but they had to move to New York to really pop off back in the day. Meanwhile, the grad student tribes can live in tidy towns, and run reading series, and keep local bookstores and bars in business.
Take two. There’s a flip side to the bohemian economies I mentioned above–that is, the world of academic hirings, publications, and fellowships. That is real money going to a very select few people. The system is rife with nepotism, and the “grooming uncles” (a pun on the cognate of nepotism) are still typically white men. That hegemony is something to consider, to a greater or less extent, depending on where you are and how powerful the cult of personality is at that institution. I’m a labor watchdog and the politics can be maddening. That is, at some schools, one guy picks all the awards. But, at others schools, things are decided by committees and external nonprofits. My current PhD program really endeavors to do the latter, so that’s good.
I’ll say this, as a positive. I think creative writing stills holds a weirdo position in academia. Faculty are more aware of indie presses and unconventional venues and new media-type accomplishments. So, there’s my giant hedge.
JL: I mean, even though I really like wearing a suit, there’s something kind of gross with the professionalism, no? I mean the spirit of rebellion that led so many people to get into poetry in the first place is kind of quashed, don’t you think? Criticism also gets whitewashed. You rarely read any thoughtful, negative book reviews. It is kind of like that movie, PCU, did you see it? The politically correct university. For instance if you don’t like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (which I don’t), you might be afraid to say so, because well, at this time racial tensions in America (and in poetry) are running high and people might call you a racist. Also you don’t want to say Poet X writes boring poems because, well, Poet X might eventually be on a committee or staff something and hold a vendetta against you.
EJB: Here’s the thing: When I graduated with my BA, my dad took me shopping for “interview clothes” and I essentially had a nervous breakdown in the clearance rack at Nordstrom. Do you know what it’s like, trying on lined pants in the summer? Or jamming meaty thighs into a pencil skirt because of propriety? As a PhD student, I occupy a liminal position between professionalism and beans out of a can. I have several colors of the exact same pants and enough tops that hide my decolletage. I’m good for now. But we’re not talking about just dressing.
Dressing is a sort of code, which is perhaps more broadly what you’re asking about, a code of behaviors. It’s true, I wasn’t wild about “Citizen,” which we talked about together candidly from a craft/reader response perspective. But I wouldn’t write a negative review about it because 1) I wouldn’t want to discourage people from reading it (not that I would/could). I agree with the spirit of “Citizen” and think it’s powerful book, and 2) I don’t want my subjective, aesthetic preferences to enter the political arena.
Believe, I’ve been trained to recognize the dominant hegemony and how it’s problematic. Sometimes what you love is just a matter of taste. So, it’s less fear of consequences for me–I’d like to believe–and more than I have “issues” I go to bat for every time, like feminism, environmentalism, labor relations, so I’m not going to spend time parsing out a book that I didn’t feel so moved by, when I’m busy writing about gender parity in academia. Or organizing community events.
I feel that similarly about boring poets. I might resent it if some vanilla cardboard cut-out of poet is getting money and awards, but I’d rather consider the institutional consequences and think about it that way.
Plus, as you can tell from this garbled, flailing response, I need to work on more seamless critical prose before I think about playing. I mean, what do you think about it all?
JL: I don’t know how I feel about it all. I live in Korea, as you know. So I am far removed from the American academic scene. But, I mean, it’s all a little gross. But gross in kind of a good way. AWP for instance, as an institution and concept is really gross. But it is also really fun and great to see all these people you love in one place celebrating poetry. But it is also super gross and careerist. But I like it. It is like sweatshop made adidas track suits in that way. So soft, so nice, but made with the sweat and blood of indentured slave children. So it is really terrible. But adidas track suits. I like them.
Your new book is really a celebration. Of love, and life and language. You don’t get a lot of celebration in contemporary poetry, even though the celebration has a long poetic tradition. Was that a conscious choice you made a long time ago? How did you come to be so celebratory?
EJB: Because “the darkness surrounds us,” as Creeley would say. Ultimately, what is sharing your sorrow really doing, as a poet, as a human? It’s so easy–it’s so fricking easy–to be sad, to really dwell, in poetry, on the interiority of a sad person. This mustn’t be mistaken for depth. I think I’m drawn to writers who aren’t one-dimensional or narcissistic about sadness, or they can be a little ironic or self-aware about it, or their sadness is festooned with pleasantly distracting layers of wordplay.
I’ve been lucky, privileged–I’ve experienced no real personal trauma, to speak of (yet, knock on wood). Like any sensitive person who reads the newspapers, who’s interested in international politics, who lives, however temporarily, in Texas and cannot begin to understand the destructive delusions of our policymakers, I am often enraged. I’ve tried to flirt with politics in my poetry, but haven’t come up with anything that satisfyingly shares with the reader. So my mini-political claim is to create poetic space, yes, for joy, for the full mania of life’s abundance.
JL: I think of that Kierkegaard thing he said about the conclusions of passion being the only reliable ones. Or that saying, in the dark times, we’ll sing about the dark times. Maybe, do you think that political-claim you are talking about is a kind of reminder that while poetry can and does address political issues, either allegorically or directly, that it should also help us broaden the range of emotional connection we have with the world? I mean I asked Elisa Gabbert a very similar question recently and she said that there are lots of other jobs people could do that have a more direct political impact than being a poet. Which I think is why so many poets are drawn to being politically active outside the poetry ring. But I’m not entirely convinced that becoming a poet is not a political act. I mean in poetry politics will often result in the kind of reactionary depressive poetry you were talking about earlier.
As a sidenote: Sometimes when I am at a poetry reading I think of that Garbage song, “I’m only happy when it rains.”
In your last response you said that maybe you haven’t found a way to write about politics that shares with the reader. Do you think of poeming as a sharing thing? As a gifting thing? I know you as a person that likes to cook for people, feed people. You are really generous in that way when you give readings also. You don’t just read, you entertain. Could you talk about that more?
EJB: When you say, “I mean in poetry politics will often result in the kind of reactionary depressive poetry you were talking about earlier.” Aah, I just don’t know. I’m doing an independent study this term on 21st Century American Women Poets, On “Radical” Politics and the Lyric. (The scare quotes are purposeful–the politics they were/are advocating was/is usually along the lines of people not being terrible to each other.) In reading Brooks, Rich, Olds, Lorde, Hacker, Levertov, Rukeyser, Kenyon, Di Prima, Spahr, Diaz, Gluck. I’m going to see if there are any alternatives to your sentiment. Hopefully. If not, I’ll keep looking.
Oh yes, I’m interested in performance, audience, tone, even camp, the speaker. A listener of poetry is committing an act of generosity. They are more or less held captive during poetry readings, on account of awkward spaces and the kerning of those plastic chairs. It’s the least a reader can do to make it worth their time.
I did a reading at a local library recently, and most of their usual line-up are slam poets and some older poets who inherited a Beat-lineaged reading style. One lady came up to me afterwards and said: “You may be a university student, but at least you read with some color.”
So, I’m mindful of the old page vs stage binary, and I think lets obliterate it. I love watching Matt Klane and Janaka Stucky go into their quieter trances, as much as a I love watching Abe Smith and Matt Hart ascend into their readerly ecstasy, the higher mania.
I do think of poems as sharing, or more precisely, a triangulation between the writer, reader, and the text (think Personism, think Lucky Pierre). I’m obsessed with language! What a stupid fun thing we can share. Language performs things of consequence–marriage, assassinations–in a social sense.
I quote from Berryman’s Dream Song 14 a lot. “I conclude now I have no / inner resources, because I am heavy bored.” But. But! We don’t have to be. Life is a cabaret, my friends.
Erika Jo Brown is from New York. Her chapbook, What a Lark!, was published by Further Adventures Press in 2011 and her book I’m Your Huckleberry was published by Brooklyn Arts Press in 2014. She was educated at Cornell University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Capote Fellow in Poetry. Brown is currently a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston, where she helps edit and curate a reading series for Gulf Coast, a journal of the arts.