Friday, May 1, 2015

Bridging Writers - An Interview With Victor Infante

Victor D. Infante is the author of the poetry collection City of Insomnia from Write Bloody Publishing. He is an editor at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, an occasional contributor to OC Weekly in California, the editor-in-chief of the online literary journal Radius: Poetry From the Center to the Edge and a co-editor of the Best Indie Lit New England anthology series. His poems and short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including The Chiron Review,The Collagist, Pearl, Barrelhouse, Spillway, PoeticDiversity, The Nervous Breakdown and Word Riot, as well as in anthologies such as Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry, Spoken Word Revolution Redux, The Last American Valentine: Poems to Seduce and Destroy, MultiVerse: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry, Aim For the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry and The Incredible Sestina Anthology. He is an Aquarius, and all which that entails. 

When did you first encounter poetry? What poems and poets inspired you, first as a reader, and later as a poet? 

I think anyone who asks this question is looking for one thunderstruck moment, but the reality is that it was really more of a snowball. I was a voracious reader as a child, reading anything I could get my hands on. I suppose the first poetry that really “took” was when I bought a copy of Tyrannus Nix, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which lead me to reading pretty much the entire poetry section of my public library. (Which wasn't as challenging as you might think. The section wasn't that large.) Later, I encountered Marcia Cohee, at the venerable Laguna Poets poetry series in California, then studied with Ted Walker in England, saw Ted Hughes read in London and finally came back to the United States and saw Patricia Smith perform at Living Planet in long Beach, California.

Mallarme said, Poems are not made out of ideas. They are made of words. Yet poetry, like fiction, is a vehicle for ideas and emotions, and people often turn to poetry in times of personal or social upheaval. Why is poetry particularly effective in reflecting or exploring the human experience?

Poetry's the reflection of that experience, not a recounting of it. It's what that emotion looks and feels like, carved into a form in which that usually completely interior experience can be conveyed.

Your poems take a wide range of forms. How much do you consider form when you are writing? Do the forms arrive first? Or do your poems find their structure as you write and revise?

Honestly, I don't think about form at all until I have the idea down. Once I have an idea of what I'm trying to say, then I figure out the best way to say it. Form is a tool toward expression. Sometimes, a sonnet or a sestina, through the nature of their rhythms or repetitions, is the perfect vehicle for communicating your thoughts most clearly. If your forcing a poem into a form simply to do so, it's more often than not simply an exercise, and that usually shows. Now, there are some poets for whom those forms are the method through which they express themselves, and that has everything to do with their particular voices and not the forms themselves. I'm not that guy. I just write and figure it out as I go.   

In your poem, 15 Ways To Leave Your Labyrinth, you write, “Write with enough conviction and it will become the truth.”  How much of your poetry is about finding and conveying a personal truth? Do you consider your poetry “confessional” in some sense?

Oh, all of it is about finding and conveying personal truths, but I don't consider myself a confessional writer, by any stretch. There are times I've told more-or-less literally true stories or facets of stories in poems, particularly in City of Insomnia, where I discuss my father's death, but the literal truth has never been a goal for me in that arena. I'm more interested in capturing the texture of a particular emotional moment.

Poetry Slams have revived the art of reciting poetry. Is poetry primarily an oral traditional? What do we gain by poetry out loud?

You get a stronger sense of the music of the words, and of its sound and structure. But more importantly, there's a visceral connection that's made when you hear a writer recite his or her own work. Slam was important because it built a sense of excitement in an art form that had become stodgy and reclusive, and empowered groups outside of academia to create and share their own poetry in public forums, but the oral tradition aspect was almost an accidental rediscovery in the process. Back at the beginning, all slam ever asked of anyone was to not read their poems like they hated them. The power that came from people reading their poems like they cared about them surprised almost everyone, pointing to an aspect of the art form that was there all along, but which had been neglected for a couple decades.

Can you describe your writing process? How do you get from inspiration to completed poem? Where and when do you write best?  Do you keep a journal?  How disciplined are you about your creative work?

I don't really know that there's much to tell, honestly. I usually have a number of ideas at any given time, and they become a sort of buzzing in my brain. Writing is the only thing that quiets that buzzing. I do try to get up early and write every morning, which is really the only time I have to myself for my own work, but I'll be the first to admit that some days that works better than others. Between poems, stories and the newspaper, though, I have a steady stream of writing being published, so I must be doing something right.

Valery said, A poem is never finished, only abandoned. How do you approach revision, and how do you know when a poem has found its final form?

Sometimes when I read it and I'm happy with it, sometimes when I read it and I'm sick to death of it. I do like to take poems for a test run at open mics when I can, just to get a sense of how easily they escape my mouth and how people react to them.

You are also a fiction writer, a journalist, and the Editor-in-Chief of Radius, an on- line literary journal. How do these other writerly occupations inform your work as a poet?

It's not a separate process for me. It's all part of a whole. It's just that sometimes I'm using a hammer to work on the deck, and other times I'm using a hammer to break up kindling wood. Either way, I'm using a hammer. Differing amounts of force and control, but still the same tool. calls slam poetry a “democratizing force.” Does poetry need democratizing? And what about this kind of performance poetry might appeal to a wider, more diverse audience?

If you'll excuse me, the question is filled with a lot of false premises. Poetry was always “a democratizing force.” It's the co-option by elites and academics, by commercial presses and universities that's the aberration. When beat poetry was marginalized in the '70s and it appeared, from the perspective of white cultural bias that poetry had become the sole province of academia, it was actually alive and well within the African-American community. Later, the mantle was picked up by punk and hip-hop. Slam was simply the next and arguably most successful in that post-beat line, whereas all Academia did was preserve where the art form had been. 

I don't want to come off as anti-academic. I'm not, and the situation is far better these days than it was in the '80s, but whenever I hear some of this line of questioning, the cultural biases become clear. It's all rooted in the idea that somehow slam took poetry to the streets, as though that were new. I love slam, and I love its central philosophy that an audience has a right to an opinion about art. But when American poetry had appeared to be virtually dead and had been crystallized like a fly in amber, it was actually alive and well in the African-American community through artists such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Sekou Sundiata, Wanda Coleman and, yeah, Maya Angelou. There's your democratizing force!  I often wonder why we talk about the onset of slam and bringing “poetry to the people” or however we're referring to it these days, when we talk about the rescue of poetry from being an almost dead art form, why we don't talk more about who we were saving it from, and who carried the art form through the darkness. That strikes me as far more interesting a story.

Also, an aside: “performance poetry” is a bit of a misnomer, albeit a widely used one. There is poetry, and it is sometimes performed aloud for an audience, but I find attempts to separate it from the bulk of other poetics to be .. unhelpful.

Poetry has been compared to music in its ability to evoke meaning and emotion through sound. As you compose, how conscious are you of the sound on the page?

It's not so much a comparison as it is that they're directly related art forms. There's a reason we call the words singers sing “lyrics,” as in lyric poetry, after all. But the goal is essentially the same: To evoke an emotional response through tone and structure. For the poem, of course, that's only one level of the scaffolding, with the literal and figurative meanings of the text being two more. Music has some advantages on this trick, with a wider range of melodies and harmonies available to deepen the sound, but at the end of the day, the goal's the same.

Radius is dedicated, in part, to exploring “how poetry exists in the world.”  What do you see as the role of poets and poetry today? Is that role constantly evolving?  How does our increased connectivity affect poets and poetry?

Well the simple answer is that the role of the poet is the same as its always been: To celebrate life, mourn the dead and to warn. I think a lot of my younger compatriots may conflate the poetry of change with change itself, or with actual action, but at the end of the day, a poem isn't there to change the world. It's there to touch a soul. If the poem can make one person's experience touch another person's, to create some bond of empathy between disparate persons, then it's done its job. Whether this happens in a slam or in a book or on YouTube is irrelevant.

But I'm afraid a lot of poets these days are trying to quench their thirst by drinking the ocean, and the result is both frustration that their messages seem to take strong hold in a given moment, and then vanish from their audience's ear. A big part of it is the transitory nature of the medium and the attention spans of modern audiences, and a lot of it is the rhetorical nature of a great deal of American political poetry, where in the message supersedes the metaphor, if you will. 

But I also think these poets might not give themselves enough credit. They may not be changing the world – the world is a stubborn cuss, after all – but many of them have saved lives and souls on an individual level, and the importance of that can;t be overstated.

Mostly, I just wish American political poets would pay closer attention to their counterparts in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where the stakes the poet plays for are literally matters of life and death. Bravery in the face of authority in the United States is laudable. Bravery in the face of authority in Iran is heroic.

But the Internet is an amazing gift, and the youngest generation of American poets today has had an immense advantage in being able to seek out pretty much any poem or poet they've heard of. The learning curve is far accelerated than it was when I was young, an that's making for many young poets creating some startling work.

Poetry, like fiction, is to co-creative: it expands beyond the page in the hearts and minds of the reader (or hearer). Who is your audience? Do you write with the reader in mind?

I suppose there's a hypothetical reader on the other side when I write,  but damned if I know the first thing about her.  I just try to make the words pretty and the thought process clear, and hopefully she likes it. If not? Well, then I guess there's always the next poem.

What poets are you currently reading? What poetry have you read that you struggled to get through?

I'm currently reading Dark Sparkler, by Amber Tamblyn, Pelican by Emily O'Neill and Fat Girl Finishing School, by Rachel Wiley.  Looking forward to reading Five Poems by Michael Fisher and Heavy Honey by Rushelle Frazier. I don't think I've had a problem getting through anything in particular, but a lot of the most prominent literary journals today have had some bad publishing habits lately, publishing poems they'd disregard entirely if the poet wasn't famous, so I'm taking a hiatus from reading those journals for a while.

What encouragement or direction would you give aspiring poets?

I think the important thing is to go out and find a place for yourself in the poetry community. It's a hard trek – there's not a single centralized poetry calendar for New England online anymore that I know of. But for the Worcester area, places such as the 7 Hills Poetry Slam monthly at the Sahara, the Dirty Gerund Poetry Series Mondays at Ralph's Rock Diner and other readings are worth checking out. Keep checking out different places until you find rooms that “click” for you, where you feel comfortable. And then listen. Write, sure, but listen and read absorb. When you hear something you like, ask yourself why you like it. Artists learn from examining the work of other artists. Pay attention.   

Bridging Writers is an occasional series interviewing local writers, editors, publishers, and other professionals working in the field of literary arts. 

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