Snapshot: Eric Baus
I first came across Eric Baus‘s work in early 2005 after a co-worker mentioned his name to me. Shortly after this I saw his book, The To Sound at St. Mark’s Bookstore. The cover caught my eye and it was published by Verse Press (now Wave) who had also published a book by Sawako Nakayasu which I was more than a little smitten with. I bought Baus’s book and have been eagerly following his work ever since. For me, Baus creates entire worlds within his poetry which are unlike anything I’ve ever known, yet there will be flashes of the familiar which roots the eye and mind to the the unfolding text. In the snapshot below Baus discusses his skateboard accident, where poems begin, his forthcoming book on City Lights, how the film Hoosiers ruined basketball for him, Voltron and a lot more. Enjoy!
“His Palms Become A Hive For Snow. He Feeds Them Blisters.”
SK: Hi Eric, thanks for taking the time to respond to these questions! I know you had a nasty skateboard fall a while back, are you all healed up now? What was the worst thing about the injury?
EB: Hey Steven! Thanks for asking! Yeah, I had a mild concussion, some face stitches, and a fractured humerus bone in my arm. I’m pretty much healed now. The worst thing was being on the ground for several minutes without being able to get up or see anything but shimmering stars. It was like a bad cartoon. The best thing was a complete stranger named Timmy who found me on the ground, lifted me up, helped me back to my house, and kept me awake and talking until my friend Richard arrived to take me to the hospital.
SK: Whoa, sounds really intense. I’m glad you’re recovering! Your first book, The To Sound came out in 2004 and is a combination of poems both in stanza and prose, your second book, Tuned Droves also contains prose poems and poems that seem to experiment with pushing the long line, and your most recent and exceptional book, Scared Text* is primarily (but not entirely) prose. Could you talk a little bit about what attracts you to either the prose or long-line format? Is it a decision you make before beginning the poem or something that happens during revision?
EB: I sometimes have an impulse to use a particular kind of sentence or a specific density of sentences per paragraph or per poem but prose itself tends not to be something I consciously have to make a decision about using. One of the reasons I’m drawn to prose is that the vocabulary and imagery and sound palettes I use seem to get lost or diluted somehow in lineation. The modular quality and the illusion of containment that working with sentences provides has always been attractive to me. I tend to begin in a microscopic or even willfully myopic mode that gradually builds outward and across the space of the book. Writing in sentences makes the shifts in scale that I use to make poems and sections and manuscripts easier for me to visualize and manage.
SK: This is a bit more of an open question, where does a poem begin for you?
EB: Lately, my poems are comprised of one imagined scene unfolding over the course of a few short sentences. The initial writing usually involves some aspect of error or distortion or projection or palimpsest: misreading, mishearing, seeing something out of the corner of my eye that isn’t there, encountering a word’s double, writing on top of a poem I’ve already written until it’s a new poem. Then there is often a stage of taking apart that original language, re-arranging it, de-contextualizing it, creating some rough boundaries for the connotations of the vocabulary, paring it down into a few clarified gestures that call out to one another, and (often) building a skeletal narrative out of that material. The other day I wrote a poem called “Starved Sun” that began when I woke up and saw the faint outline of a small deer shape projecting a larger deer head from its own head on my ceiling. It was like the deer was making a larger shadow puppet of itself above itself or like a thought bubble of a deer thinking about being a deer.
SK: Do you remember how long you worked on your first book? How long did you take to write Scared Text?
EB: I wrote a few poems that appeared in The To Sound in 1995 and the rest from roughly 1998-2001. Scared Text was written across maybe a 4 year span ending around 2010.
SK: I believe I saw an update that your fourth book has been accepted by City Lights Books? How did you wind up on City Lights? Does the book have a title? A release date? Does it explore similar territory as Scared Text, or is it completely different? In other words, Dear Sir, what can you tell us about your next book?
EB: The new book is called The Tranquilized Tongue.** Garrett Caples, a wonderful poet and one of the editors at City Lights, asked to see a manuscript a few years ago when I read in Oakland, and this particular manuscript ended up making sense for the Spotlight Series. I’m really excited and very grateful to be in such good company. It looks like now it will be released sometime in April of 2014. I improvised some constraints for the book to deliberately give it a different feel from some of my other writing. There are few, if any, personal pronouns and the sentences all begin with the word “The” and (I think) all of them are written in the past tense, with the exception of a few deliberate fragments. The poems are almost all single prose blocks. There are no sections, just individual poem after individual poem. Every poem has a three word title beginning with the word “The” (“The Exposed Storm” or “The Posthumous Glass” or “The Recessive Sea” etc.). When I was working on the manuscript, I wrote at least one poem per day and most, if not all, of the vocabulary for each poem was drawn from poems I had already written. That said, there was a lot of improvisation and mutation that happened during revision and I broke a lot of these self-imposed rules when I thought the poems needed it. I wanted to try get into unfamiliar territory with this book by going so deeply into some familiar aspect of my previous way of writing (in this case the vocabulary) that it would compress and fold into itself and somehow transform. Unlike my other books, the writing isn’t really driven by recurring characters or an easily identifiable speaker. In some ways, the consistent syntax and particular types of image constructions and the atmosphere created by the vocabulary do the grounding and embodying work that the figures/personages of the earlier books did. So, The Tranquilized Tongue has a different momentum from Scared Text but also, for example, the word puma shows up a handful of times and I think of it as the same puma from the earlier book. None of this is especially important to know if you’re picking up the book cold. Hopefully, a reader will be propelled by the simple structures of the book but gradually forget they are there. I like to think of the reappearance of certain patterns in the book as functioning the way counting backwards works when you get hypnotized. One minute you might be calmly counting in a room with beige carpeting and the next minute you’ve entered the strangeness of your own brain.
SK: Like a lot of writers you spend most of your days teaching, working on lesson plans and grading papers and your partner, Andrea Rexilius is also a brilliant poet. Do you find it difficult to make time to write, or do you write every day?
EB: I don’t usually write every day. I do try to read poems or listen to recordings of poets every day. There are always good readings going on in Denver and I try to go to as many of those as possible. If Andrea is writing a poem sometimes she’ll read it to me and then I’ll feel like writing something too. I don’t need the kind of sustained blocks of time that a novelist or even a different kind of poet might need. I use the time in between writing poems to let myself forget my original relationship to earlier drafts of a poem. I love finding a draft of a poem that seems like it was written by someone else.
SK: In addition to the publication of your fourth book, what else are you working on?
EB: I’m working on a new poetry manuscript that I’m about 20 pages into right now. I talked about it a bit here. I want to do some more writing on audio recordings, especially about the sonic environment in recorded interviews with poets. I’d like to finally revise and send out a critical essay that I wrote about Nathaniel Mackey. I’m going to teach at Naropa this summer and that also involves writing a brief talk. I think mine might to deal loosely with ideas of granular sound synthesis and/or musique concrete in relation to poetics.
SK: What is your astrological sign?
EB: I am a Pisces sun sign with a Cancer moon and a Cancer ascendant. The rest of my chart has a ton of water in it too.
SK: Who or what were you in your past life?
EB: A pool of green algae.
SK: What is your spirit animal?
EB: Virginia the cat. She is all that is good in the universe. A close second would be the pangolin.
SK: If you had to play professional basketball would it be for the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, or the Indiana Pacers?
EB: The 76ers. Growing up in Indiana kind of poisoned basketball for me until about my mid-20’s. I hated the movie Hoosiers with every microbe in my body. When I started watching basketball again I watched the 76ers and Allen Iverson blew my mind. I am surprisingly not that bad at most sports that don’t involve crushing other people with your body. However, I suck pretty bad at basketball. Andrea and I bought a basketball a while ago and we went to the park a few times and I couldn’t make a basket in under ten tries. It was really fun to play HORSE though, even though I lost every time. So, I would play for the 76ers under the condition that we played HORSE and that I could skip practice.
SK: Would you rather be He-Man or Skeletor?
EB: I think my aesthetic/body type is clearly more Skeletor. A freaky occult figure is so much more compelling than some macho guy with a sword doing good deeds.
EB: Ray Eames. She was a total genius.
SK: Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, or?
EB: Sonic Youth’s album Sister, which is one of the reasons I’ve always liked that word. I love twenty-two seconds into “Schizophrenia” and I especially love “Catholic Block” as the soundtrack for Santa Cruz Streets on Fire. Listen to it here.
SK: Voltron or Megatron or a Thunder cat?
EB: Voltron. Who wouldn’t want each of their body parts made of a different person?
SK: Would you rather be a famous unicorn or salty old dragon?
EB: I feel very connected to lizards and lizard-like creatures. I would be a salty old (small) (bearded) dragon. I mentioned the pangolin before, which is actually like a scaled anteater but it sort of looks like a dragon. I had a pet iguana growing up because I was allergic to everything else. You can take a bath with an iguana and they just stare up at you from underneath the water for like a half hour at a time, holding their breath. That’s way cooler than whatever unicorns do. Iguanas have a pineal gland in their heads that is a functional eye that tells them when a bird of prey flies over. Unicorns just have a horn.
SK: Romantic lead in a comedy, crazy killer in a Tarantino-type flick, or that “dude” in a sci-fi feature who inspires hope by swearing earth is out there and you’re going to lead them to it?
EB: Definitely number 3, which seems like a Battlestar Galactica reference, right? Edward James Olmos is a Pisces. You can see it in his eyes.
SK: Yes, absolutely a not-so-subtle reference to Battlestar Galactica- haha! Last question, in your life you have known trees. Deciduous or coniferous?
EB: In the field behind my backyard in Indiana there were big, tall deciduous trees that would shimmer their leaves in great patterns. Now I live in Colorado where there are lots of beautiful coniferous trees. I love to look at the stillness of trees right around the tree line in the Rocky Mountains and breathe that really thin air. But, if I was forced to answer one or the other I’d probably say deciduous.
* Read Coldfront editor, Nick Sturm’s mini-review of Scared Text here.
** Listen to Eric Baus read some poems from The Tranquilized Tongue here. The recording also features a reading by Dorothea Lasky and a joint interview with Baus and Lasky conducted by poet Cynthia Arrieu-King.
Eric Baus is the author of four books of poetry: Scared Text, winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry (Colorado State University Press, 2011), Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009), and The To Sound, winner of the Verse Prize (Wave Books, 2004). A new book, The Tranquilized Tongue, is forthcoming from City Lights as part of the Spotlight Series. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
Steven Karl is an editor for Coldfront Magazine. His first book, Dork Swagger, is forthcoming from Coconut Books in the fall of 2013. He lives in Miami, FL.