Daniel M. Shapiro and Jessy Randall are two very talented writers whose work I had the pleasure of publishing in Ghoti Mag. I was recently able to reconnect with them and talk about their collaborative poetry collection Interruptions.
Me: Tell me about your new collaborative collection: why should I buy it?
DS: It depends on who you are. If you like experimental poetry, humor, intentionally non-poetry language, friendship, pop culture, true collaboration (i.e., both of us contribute to every poem), intentional and unintentional craziness, upstate New York, or some combination of these elements, you will be pleased. Plus, you get two poets for one price. If you get sick of one of us, the other one comes along soon enough.
JR: Don't buy it. Get your library to buy it and then you can borrow it, and so can other people.
Me: Why collaborative? How did you approach writing a collaborative collection: did it just happen organically, or did one of you force the other at gunpoint?
JR: Last time we talked about this, Dan thought it was my idea to start collaborating, but I thought it was his idea. I can't remember exactly how we started doing it, or if there was a direct cause, or what. I know it must have been around 2003, because our first collaboration was published in 2004. At the beginning of course we had no intention of writing a collection of poems; we had the intention of writing one poem together. Then we did another one, and then, for a while, we were doing almost one a day. At some point we realized that we had enough for a book, if we wanted to think that way, and we did.
DS: It was definitely Jessy's idea. I think the main purpose of collaborating was that it allowed us to challenge each other: "I dare you to top this line," etc. Most of the time, we were striving to avoid inside jokes, cuteness, etc. Sometimes, we were even lucky enough to make each other uncomfortable. As Jessy says, I don't think we considered it to be writing a collection until we had enough poems for one.
Me: Can you each tell me a little about your normal writing routines; do you write every day, only when inspiration hits…?
DS: For collaborations, my normal writing routine is: A.) E-mail a line to Jessy; B.) Wait a short time; C.) Receive a new line from Jessy that responded to my previous line; D.) Respond to her line; E.) Repeat A-D. I know there are people who believe the process must be long and excruciating, but we prefer to respond to each other almost instinctively. You're not really responding to a thought honestly if you sleep on it or ask your mom what she thinks.
JR: It was kind of like going to an exercise class with a friend. You know the friend will know you were absent if you don't go, so you have to go or you'll be shamed. I mean, I liked everything about the process, so it wasn't like exercise class in that way! I didn't watch the clock waiting for it to be over! But we had this little noodge from each other most days by email to work on poems. When we were in the thick of it, it was every day, just a minute or two to think of a line or to make a change and then fire it back to the other person, and then maybe two hours later, do it again.
Me: Who are each of your biggest influences?
DS: John Berryman's Dream Songs and The Essential Etheridge Knight are still my biggest influences because I've re-read them so many times. Many musicians have influenced me, too: John Coltrane, Hüsker Dü, Lou Reed, Tim Buckley, Marianne Faithfull, Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Presley, Patti Smith. I'm also influenced by Pittsburgh people I've gotten to know and/or hear read: Margaret Bashaar, Jason Baldinger, Jerome Crooks, Jimmy Cvetic, Joan Bauer, Kris Collins, Renée Alberts, Don Wentworth. I could say I'm influenced by Jessy, but that would make you say, "Duh," and I don't want you to say, "Duh."
JR: My biggest influence has to be Kenneth Koch, whose classes I took at Columbia University in the early 1990s. He told me (in his mild way) not to use poems to prove that I was smart, not to over-intellectualize. And he had a wonderful, expansive, generous way of talking about poems by great poets and poems by students in the class in the same breath, as though we were all poets together. And of course the New York School of poets was big into collaborating so maybe that's where this all came from in a way. Other influences for me would be Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nikki Giovanni, Russell Edson, Scott Poole, Sarah J. Sloat, Emily Lloyd, Nate Pritts, and getting outside poetry, Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, Julia Child, Robert Rauschenberg, L. Frank Baum, Ellen Raskin, Daniel Pinkwater, Shirley Jackson, and Louise Fitzhugh.
Me: Did you find it difficult to market a collaborative collection? What has working with Pecan Grove been like?
JR: Uh ... yeah man, the manuscript was difficult to place. But probably not any more difficult than finding a home for any collection of poems. The story of Pecan Grove taking the manuscript is actually kind of interesting, maybe, for anybody who has a manuscript making the rounds. It's one of those very lucky things. We sent the manuscript to Pecan Grove and didn't hear anything from them for maybe six months. During that time Dan and I had trimmed the working manuscript quite a bit. So I emailed PG and asked if we could sub in the shorter version of our ms (thinking they'd rather read a 60-page ms than an 80-page ms, right?). It turned out that they had rejected our manuscript, but we'd never gotten the rejection. Amazingly, though, they said they would be willing to read a shorter version, and then they accepted that version. So I guess the "no" that we didn't receive was more like a "maybe." Thank goodness we didn't receive it! I would never in a million years have tried again if I knew they'd said no! As for working with them, in the last couple of months it's been ... what's the word I want ... "emotional"? I hate that word. But I don't want to say it's been sad or bad. It's been very good. But Palmer Hall, the editor at Pecan Grove, has had some serious health problems. We didn't know the details until he started blogging about it at http://medicalexperiencesmemoir.blogspot.com/. Reading the posts, I felt apologetic that he had to think about our book on top of all the tests and treatments. But then I thought maybe his Pecan Grove work was a good distraction—like the blog itself—sometimes scary health things need to be combated with making art, right? But all that aside, Pecan Grove really knows what the heck it is doing. I mean, the Library of Congress record for Interruptions appeared in WorldCat (the national library catalog) even before the book was officially out. That is just the coolest.
DS: I feel like we had less frustration because there were two of us. It was easier to share setbacks and much more enjoyable to celebrate success together. Collaborations cause some publishers to scratch their heads, and they're entitled to do whatever they want to their heads. Pecan Grove has been putting out high-quality books for some time, and Jessy and I were consulted regularly during all phases of Interruptions. We were lucky to be able to work with Palmer Hall and Louie Cortez.
Me: Who are the standouts in the poetry world right now, do you think? Who will history remember?
JR: I did a project in library school predicting the six contemporary poets whose names would live on, a very scientific kind of project looking at journal publication, book publication, appearance in textbooks and anthologies, and so on. But the six poets on my final list were not poets whose work did anything for me personally. They weren't my favorites or even poets whose work I liked. So ... that isn't really an answer ... that's more like a complaint. One time Dan said that if he didn't write poems he would be "a full time complainer." I think about that all the time!
DS: I will start negative and grow positive while answering this: I have spent countless hours reading poetry online and in print, and I see a lot of poems that do no more than blend contrived "heavy" language (deliberately complex vocabulary alongside "husks," "ribs," "[fill in the blank] the size of dinner plates," etc.) with either trite themes or no themes at all. I don't believe poetry should be defined by a singular bland voice; I believe it's supposed to question boundaries, blend genres, or otherwise expand. I hope history will remember the people who make sacrifices, e.g., people who run their own small presses because they want to make things nobody else could make. Jessy and I both love journals such as Forklift, Ohio, because they are innovative conceptually and physically. They seem to be the products of fearless people.
Me: You use a lot of humor in these poems. Do you find that "the poetry world" responds well to humor?
DS: Jessy and I have talked a lot about how to keep our poems from sounding like jokes and how we don't want to be considered "stand-up poets" at readings. Not long ago, I read a poem that was a series of fake, third-person autobiographies that were outlandish (with zombies and pet ocelots), and I got almost no laughs. Yet afterward, people told me they loved the poem; it was the most fabulous thing they had ever heard me read. I always thought the best way to show that you love a funny poem is to, um, laugh. But perhaps I haven't evolved with the times.
JR: Luckily for us there are multiple poetry worlds. I think there's a poetry world that would find our work frivolous and discount it. And then there's another world -- the world we actually want to get into, maybe are already part of -- where people are going YES! CHEETOS! or whatever. And there are many other poetry worlds too.
Me: If you met David Bowie on the street, what would each of you say to him?
JR: I would tell him that my friend Amanda and I went to see The Linguini Incident TWICE in the theater when it came out and that we both have it on DVD now and we still like it, even though it seems like nobody else has ever heard of it.
DS: I would tell him to get off his indolent posterior and make another album, lest I punch him in his blue eye to make it match his non-blue eye. Or perhaps I would just drool and be a non-hero—just for one day.
Me: What are you each working on now?
JR: Together, we've been working on some diagram poems based on diagrams in The Exploratorium Cookbook, a science museum handbook published in 1975. By myself (does that sound forlorn? but it really isn't) I'm working on a collection of poems to be titled Injecting Dreams into Cows, forthcoming from Red Hen in 2012. I just saw the cover design and it's fantastic. It has a shark!
DS: I am trying to get my first full-length solo manuscript, Sasquatch Job Interview, published. As you probably guessed from the title, it does contain humor, so we'll see how the poetry world (or which of the multiple worlds) responds. With new writing, I had been going through something of a dry spell, but I just wrote a poem I would describe as Stéphane Mallarmé meets Norman Bates. It has potential. And I'm not sure if this counts as work, but I plan to bask in the green glow of Interruptions for an undisclosed period.