An interview with the poet, artist, publisher, and novelist Jeanette Powers conducted by C. Derick Varn
You work in many elements of poetry in addition to crafting poems: Performance, publishing, book arts, etc. How do you find that these elements of your craft inform each other?
For me, they are all tools in my toolbox. I am an artist doing a project, always. They all have their way of converging into one another, and from my perspective are basically inextricable from each other. I feel like some emotions are purely visual or poetic, but the less I focus on emotions and the more I explore the way the emotions connect together to be a trajectory the more I need fiction and essay. I also think of general parts of my day as art, the daily practices that I engage in, going to the river, learning my tarot deck, weeding the garden, the space that is generated between people. I gather haphazardly and presently the diorama of terrific and terrible human drama with this inexorable feeling of connection to the universe. All aspects weave together, I am not a creature of compartmentalization.
Your books often vary quite a bit in tone and content. Do you tend to craft poems individually or as collections?
I’ve definitely done both, at first my books were just individual poems placed in a sort of jumble that makes remote sense. A lot of poetry books are like that and it’s fine. When I turned 40 (39? one of those), though, I made a dedication to never read the old work again, to never push out old work for publication, and to commit to writing entirely new work moving forward. This opened up the idea of a concept book to me and everything that’s come out since 40 has been in that vein. Naturally the concept books are radically different from one another, they each have their own narrative and space to investigate. “Don’t Lose Your Head” tells the story of finding out how my father died many years after the fact and answers the question of why I have abandonment issues. “Perfectly Good Muses” is a series of love letters and apologies to folks I adore and have lost in my life to however we lose close friends, family and lovers. The “Kirk” book is about my rage at the current political world and how that connects to our cultural identity.
I love both forms in the long run. I don’t always have a strong concept to work around and I’m completely not into forcing anything. So when the concept lags, I write one-offs and take all the pleasure in the moments of poetry, which is perhaps it’s real intention. I feel like the concept books expand the traditional view of the use of poetry.
How do you see yourself expanding the traditional view of poetry?
I think my real poetic gift is in the performance of poetry, taking the poem and enmeshing it with all the senses. Poetry are naturally so sensuous, musical, they have a dance of their own which I like to explore and make physically potent in the actual “reading” or performance of the poem. Last night at a reading, as soon as I hit the stage, I just felt this need to elevate my reading to performance and so allowed all my body language and song to come out at full velocity. I tore bits of napkin as confetti, I used my body as a drum and silence as a melody. I looked everyone in the eye and could feel how I brought the whole room together as a singular body of experience in the moment. It was a magnificent feeling. Afterward a person came up to me and told me that he was from Spain and had only been speaking English for one year and that he’d never understood a poem in English before. He said he understood every word I said. That was an extra magnificent feeling! And rather confirmed/justified my ongoing feeling that my place in poetry is on the stage, not just the stage, but on an art stage.
I’m interested in using the poem as a device in a larger structure. So perhaps the poem is the words of a play, but there is also an orchestra, an installation piece, nag champa burning and dancers in the audience, perhaps we even play with breaking the fourth wall, or never erecting it in the first place. In some ways, it could be seen as the creation of modern rituals. In some ways I very much need that in my life. But honestly, I just have little patience for being bored. I like to be captivated, and I want to make poetry more captivating for folks. It hurts sometimes to see what feels like the vast majority of folks really disliking the thing I’ve loved the longest and hardest: poetry. And I can’t blame them either, it’s a hard task to find work that is relatable to a person. Especially if they are still working with a colonized perspective on emotion and justice. I find though, that through the elevation of the performance of a poem, one can transcend to communicate with and reach many more folks than just the existing poetry fan base.
How do you react to poetry that resists performance? Have any such poets or poems influenced you in ways that you have found particularly useful to your work?
Poetry that resists performance. I think all poems can be performed, elevated to multi-sensory. The real problem for me when it comes to poetry that isn’t my own is that changes to the work becomes useful when the poem resists performance. I don’t change others’ work. I can change my own though, and that’s an important part of the editing process. Where my own poem resists, it must change. I change it.
I have never thought about poets or poems which resist performance as being particularly influential in my own art, if I’m understanding that question correctly. Certainly many poets and poems are SO performable and I adore performing those poems. I love that space those poems create inside of me and then a room. “More and More” by Atwood, “Curiosity” by Reid, “Once Again I Prove the Theory of Relativity” by Cisneros, “Poetry” by Neruda are the first to come to mind. Local poets have influenced me tremendously, the activity of growing together is a natural nurturing space. Sharon Eiker at the head of that list. I hope to publish her collected works in 2020, it’s gonna be so good.
I sort of wish more poets would embrace performance. It’s a separate art from the writing itself. I just selfishly want that because it’s so much more interesting than many of the dry readings of poems I attend. I feel sometimes the poet lets the poem down by not giving it the energy from whence it sprang during a reading. I also clap at every poem I like. Once I was at a big university reading for Patricia Lockwood, a GREAT performer of poems, and she read my favorite poem of hers first. I burst into applause, solo, and the entire packed auditorium, including Lockwood, turned and stared at me. Only she smiled, saying something to the effect of “thank you, that’s cool.” I loved that.
Do you agree that the distinction between MFA poetry, performance poetry, slam and experimental poetry is beginning to break down? I ask because we met at the New Orleans Poetry Festival in New Orleans where all tendencies seemed to be represented. What do you make of state of poetry right now?
I still find there’s a lot of differences between the styles or rather circuits of poetry. Generally speaking, MFA doesn’t want narrative or confessionalism right now, Slam demands justice and trauma right now, Indie press is mostly Tom Waits wannabees with middle-class, first world problems. Which are delightful, by the way, they’re problems the rest of us would like. There’s the art poets and the Dada poets that are maybe lost in a wash of what’s left over after being raised in a colonized culture.
There was a certainly an intersection of those types of poets in New Orleans, but I found a real lack of cohesiveness and dialogue between the groups. Generally speaking always. I met a few really amazing people there who seem open and responsive to active, creating art, rather than monetizing or “CV-ing” experiences. On the other hand I heard an academic white woman say word for word that “as soon as women of color stop with the narrative writing they can get to the real business of poetry”. There’s a staggering amount of non empathy, close-mindedness, and privileged that needs to be unpacked in that statement. But there was no space at that festival for a response.
I find the problem is there’s no, or little, space in most places for responses. There seems to be a growing problem that equates critique with abuse or attack. This is nothing more than a soft pickle when it comes to a poem, but if one speaking out about problematic behavior amongst one’s peers is viewed as negative or abusive, then it further supports the existing colonized culture. There can be no chance of growth without both tension and dialogue.
So my optimistic reading is more one of desperation because of venue limitation than actual bridging. As poets, you and I both pull from all of these milieus. What do you think could be gained from a more empathetic approach between loose genres, schools, and styles?
This is interesting, because I’m asking for more empathy and for more critique. Constructive, of course, on both counts. I think that with both of those elements folks will be able to perceive their (and others’) deep intentions better and also sculpt and refine those intentions into a work that truly communicates one’s vision better. Not that I really believe in “better” philosophically. But I do believe in getting your ideas or emotions across to a reader/audience. That’s communication and community. To achieve that, one must give a lot of thought to what Campbell called the “hero’s journey” and develop a trajectory of growth about the purpose of their work. I think that is more effectively done in a group and with feedback. It also requires one to put away much of the ego and hoarding/’darlinging’ of their work and ideas to let the work stand and breathe on its own in the world.
What could be gained from communication and collaboration between the genres/schools? Solidarity. An idea of community despite our perceived differences. Resources for poor and self-taught writers. Direct awareness of marginalized folks’ struggles for privileged writers. Perhaps even some sort of unity amongst creators. Now I’m heckin dreamin! That’s ok, I have nice dreams.
What poets do you think people should check out right now?
I love Michelle R Smith of the Cleveland area, she has a book on GTK called “Ariel in Black”. I want everyone to pick up ellie swensson’s new book out on Punch Drunk Press, “Salt of Us”, it’s a prayer book for the modern queer, I love it. I think your work has the elevated gutter quality that I am enchanted by. Read both Daniel and Margaret Crocker, just fucking amazing. I’m opening a show for Buddy Wakefield in October, he’s a gem and his new book is again a stunning entrance to the pursuit of the inner human truth, dig it so much.
I could probably go on, but those are off the top of my head!
What are your poetic plans for the immediate future?
I will be traveling for all of 2020 on my Dandylion Riot Tour, featuring two new books: Dandylion Riot (all new poems) and Victimless Crime (my first novel available). The tour kicks off in Iceland, where I’ll be at Gullkistan Residency for the month of January, and then I return to the US to live out of my truck and travel coast to coast in the country of my origin, the USA. This is a really exciting adventure and I’m not only doing poetry features but also exploring community living experiences and seeing as much art as humanly possible. I have a patreon where folks can support the mission and the tour here: https://www.patreon.com/jeanettepowers, info can be found on my website here: https://jeanettepowers.com/ or folks can follow me on IG @dandylion_riot