Snapshot with Becca Klaver (in two parts)
Coldfront Magazine is pleased to bring you this two part interview with Becca Klaver conducted by Eva Heisler. In part one, Heisler explores Klaver’s relationship with LA and its influence on her book LA Liminal. In part two, Klaver will talk about the work she has done as an editor. Enjoy.
Becca Klaver on LA and Real Magic
EH: LA Liminal, published in spring of 2010 by Kore Press, is a playful, energetic series of poems that recollects a period of time you spent in LA. The book is also about coming of age as a writer. Although LA appears in your book as a mirage – a screen image, attitude, and free-floating threshold—could you begin by saying something about your local experience of LA? What neighborhood did you live in? How long did you live there? Did you go to LA just for school?
BK: I went to LA in 1999 to attend the University of Southern California, and after a year in the dorms, I lived for the next three years in the neighborhood surrounding USC. This neighborhood is technically South Central Los Angeles, but hardly: there’s a buffer zone around USC’s gated campus that’s constantly surveilled by USC police. There was pretty much nothing college-y about the neighborhood, though, and I didn’t have a car, so I relied on friends with cars for city adventures. I took public transportation, too, and people found this very amusing — or quaint — or something! In those years there was only one subway line, so the bus was usually the only option. An hour and a half ride to the beach is a long time, though, and so I felt pretty concrete-weary most of the time.
I’d lived in the same house in the suburbs of Milwaukee, WI my entire life, and I felt so intensely attached to my home that I was afraid to leave (I’m a Cancer!). I was a big believer in signs back then, and it was up to me to pay for my college education, so when I was accepted to USC’s Filmic Writing program (now called Writing for Film & Television) on a full scholarship, I never looked back. It seemed glamorous and miraculous. I wasn’t a huge movie buff, but I saw myself writing for teenage dramedies like those on the now-defunct WB network: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, Gilmore Girls. Once I started film school, I quickly realized that I had no interest in participating in “the industry”: it was cutthroat, misogynist, and generally not for the thin-skinned. My skin was pretty thin, and I valued that, so I became an English major halfway through college. I’d considered myself a poet more than a screenwriter all along, anyway.
EH: Many of your poems are preoccupied with place and with the idea of landscape, and with the contrast between the “concrete-weariness” of getting around and the Arcadian image of endless sun and sandy beaches.
In “Describing Description”, you reflect on landscape representation, specifically that of LA. The poem is in list format. There are 14 points, and the cumulative effect is an exploration of the internalization of landscape, or landscape as a trope for interiority. The narrator invokes Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal and then—oddly—internalizes it:
When I think hyperreal, I replicate skylines and horizons inside of me, I feel them right below my ribcage, I sling the nets of them over each new field of vision, superimpose them like a stack of film stills. (56)
What is interesting about this passage is that you take a concept—one that is really about disembodiment and simulation—and you respond to it with your gut. The concept is quite sharply internalized and becomes an experience of the body—a paradoxical conflation of surface and interiority. Later, the line “landscapes glow in my gut like alien probes” is a vision of the hyperreal as invasive.
BK: Thank you for reading “Describing Description” so closely, and for pointing something out that I hadn’t noticed before! That poem was an attempt to be very direct and “surfacey” about things I’d coded using figurative language elsewhere in the book: as #12 reads, “I’m also trying to be transparent but maybe I’m coming off opaque or phosphorescent” (you could probably make a link between Baudrillard and postmodern theory and an interest in surfaces, too).
As I was writing LA Liminal, I started to read other descriptions of Los Angeles, in theory and literature, and Baudrillard’s was the one that really got me. I could point to it and say, “That’s my LA.” For so long after I left, thinking about LA meant feeling that pang/ache below my ribcage — so, I suppose feeling that pang while reading Baudrillard was recognition, the same as you might get from a poem when a vague sense you’ve been carrying around with you suddenly matches up with language. The thing about poems is that “real” feelings, especially bodily sensations, that sound metaphorical sometimes need to be tagged, or else everything starts to sound like metaphor! But the visceral feeling was real (instead of hyperreal?).
“Describing Description” also turned out to be LA’s favorite poem about itself. When I went back to LA in October 2010 for the first time in seven years, to give a reading at USC, my screenwriter friends threw me a party and late in the night we read “Describing Description” around the table in a circle, at someone’s request. When it was my turn, I was supposed to read the line “all my landscapes are internal,” but instead of “internal,” I slipped and said “eternal.” If you believe slips carry their own meaning, then I guess what I meant was that part of the feeling of internalizing landscapes is that once they’re in you, they don’t leave. That can feel as invasive as an alien probe, but it also interests me intellectually. So, I suppose “Describing Description” tries to say something about what it means to theorize your own feelings, which is perhaps a clinically or extraterrestrially invasive process!
E.H: You do such a nice job describing the experience of consuming film, of the afterglow of Hollywood narrative. In “Leaving the Matinee,” you write:
Your life becomes the protagonist’s, anyone’s, and the shiny sealed package of story is yours, is slathered all over your shaved calves like sunless tanning cream, and you are walking, marching alone across a bridge into the sunset, really you are… (42)
BK: I think so-called “Hollywood magic” is real magic. I tend to think of anything transformative as magical: I think that’s what magic is — something that can perform a conversion. Something that casts a spell and changes its spectator/subject. I’ll often have the feeling of leaving a movie theater feeling transformed, as if my every gesture were magnified. I told my partner Andy about this once and he attributed it to me being a very visual person Maybe it’s just being a poet or a woman, reading theory and watching movies and feeling those things later in your body, and then translating them out of your body into words. The body as an alchemical machine. It reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s “Planetarium.” I had these lines from that poem on my bedroom wall in college in LA, actually:
I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
What she’s describing is a healing process, and I think that spoke to me as an adolescent. Now I think that the translation can be fun, too, and doesn’t have to start from a place of pain.
EH: I’d like to ask you to talk about the title poem, “Los Angeles Liminal.” A complex poem, it moves from the experience of heat in mid-October LA to tabloid representations of “famous girls my age” to a moment in which the narrator throws Wuthering Heights to a childhood experience of “the vastness of my own backyard.” The poem ricochets among places but the center of the poem is the throwing of the landscape-rich Wuthering Heights:
I threw Wuthering Heights across the room
wild with the fever of schism
My professor explained where I was
scrawled liminal on the board
I’d love to hear you talk more about the experiences (“the fever[s] of schism”) that gave rise to this poem.
BK: I read Wuthering Heights in my first semester of college, in an amazing class with Joseph Boone called “Varieties of Love and Literary Form,” and it affected me as much as any book ever has. It also made me feel kind of nuts. I was doing a thing that I probably did throughout all high school and college English classes: I was reading the book as if it could be a code or a key to my own life. Looking for signs again: reading and writing as superstition. I’d start to see synchronicities between my life and the text all over the place. Not everyone reads books in this sort of mystical way, I’d learn later, and the truth is that it doesn’t happen to me much anymore, either. Or, I don’t do it much anymore. I’m not sure which it is — whether it happens to me or whether I do it on purpose — because it never felt like something I was choosing, exactly. In any case, it has to do with self-mythologizing your life: the idea that you are the center of a narrative and the book is peripheral. The book’s narrative attaches to your own. It’s a pretty adolescent impulse, one that I saw myself giving up throughout my 20s, but at the time it gave me a lot of pleasure, and a sense of literary and personal discovery.
As for the other myths in the poem: Los Angeles is a place that mass-produces mythologies, of course (“famous girls my age”). Then, the image of the childhood backyard is a myth in the form of an origin story. When you suffer from homesickness, the overwhelming desire is to return to the origin, but I couldn’t let myself do that. I was too ambitious — or, maybe “curious” is the better word. Wuthering Heights – especially Catherine’s deep longing for her home at the Heights while living at Thrushcross Grange — is for me the mythic text of liminality, of longing, of how you can be physically in one place but feel that you exist psychically in another. Like Baudrillard’s, it was another image I needed, and so when I got it, I had a moment of fever, and threw Wuthering Heights across my dorm room. It may be the only book I’ve ever thrown (that didn’t have someone to catch it on the other end, anyway!).
“Los Angeles Liminal” arrives at the end of the first section of the book, a section of “myths,” because it’s both the beginning and the end: it’s the end of self-mythologizing and the launch pad for what comes next. The following two sections try to explore other ways of organizing experience. The second section of “dream-scripts” tries to mash dream logic with film logic, logics that rely heavily on sequences of images. And then, the final section of “poems” is the inevitable place to land in my first book of poems, I guess! It’s not as if I’m saying that the earlier sections aren’t poems, but they aren’t poems in the same way the ones in the final section are. The poems in the final section are the ones that I feel trust the alternative logics and narratives of poetry; they’re the poems that no longer require the neat closure of story. So, part of the story of coming of age as a writer in LA Liminal is the story of someone very seduced by traditional narrative (as in, Aristotle’s Poetics, Syd Field’s screenplay formulas, Freytag’s triangle, the trajectory that goes exposition –> rising action –> climax –> falling action –> dénouement), who then becomes disillusioned with it. This is, I suppose, what college and exposure to critical theory did to me; now I’m in a PhD program, and maybe one day will sort it all out!
EH: Your poem “The Safety of Exposure to Signals” is in part about listening to the radio, about the companionship of the radio and its distractions. The radio signals are described as “armor.” What you are evoking, I think, is an aural landscape inhabited by the narrator. Could you talk more about the aural landscape of LA, or aural landscapes in general? I ask because you have such a keen ear for the disembodied chatter that surrounds us, as in poems such as “Signs & Slogans”, “Ext. Los Angeles – Night”, and “Trying to Talk to My Teen-Age Self.”
BK: I love overheard sidewalk sound-bytes and slang and witticisms and epigrams and hearing (or saying) the inappropriate-yet-true thing. I think paying attention to all of that stuff, or producing it, is a big part of the poet’s job. Part of the reason I wanted to be a screenwriter in the first place was because I loved dialogue: my favorite works of fiction in high school — like Salinger’s — were the ones that relied on dialogue heavily; my favorite poems were speech acts, persona poems. I’ve probably only grown to love “chatty” poetry more and more; as an MFA student, David Trinidad gave me my first real introduction to the first- and second-generation New York School poets, and Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, and especially Alice Notley have taught me a lot about how to put a self in a poem that’s not really a mythical/confessional nor a real/autobiographical self, but something of each of those, with plenty of performative energy on top.
EH: What music were you listening to while drafting the poems in LA Liminal?
BK: I’ve actually written a piece about this for the Book Notes section of the music blog Largehearted Boy. You can read it here if you like.
EH: Several poems mention diary entries, such as “Page Limit” (a poem not about word count but about the existential limits of tracking one’s life) and “Ars Diarista” (“I was the Great Red Memorializer / X-ing crimson plot points on the map of my life”). The present (as in the here-and-now) is one of the most difficult of “places.” “Ars Diarista” concludes “O the present is a present inside a present inside a present.”
Could you speak to the relationship between diary-writing and poem-making? How do you know when entry becomes poem?
BK: At some point I realized that my compulsive diary-keeping — which began when I was around nine or ten, and reached its apex of grandiosity when I began reading the diaries of Anaïs Nin during the summer before I moved to LA — was hindering more than helping me. And this has everything to do with living in the present, as you point out. The greatest diarists, like Nin, tend to live their lives in a dramatic way, one that provides fodder for the diary. And then, of course, they fictionalize and amplify “real life” later, as they’re writing. The more I thought about these issues, the more I felt uneasy with the idea of anyone living her life in order to write about it later, and became afraid that I was doing that, or would begin to. At the same time, I had to acknowledge that what I wrote in my diary was a partial, distorted, cherry-picked representation of my life. This is always true of diaries and memoirs, but there came a point where I just couldn’t sit comfortably with the idea anymore. By keeping a diary, I was trying to give my life a structure and a neatness that just didn’t exist.
After that, I found myself feeling newly capable of sitting with the messiness, and experiencing the desire to do so for the first time, and this is maybe when I figured out what it meant to be a poet. I’d written poems since middle school, but the relationship between diary-writing and poem-making was much closer during those years. Later, in college, in LA, I realized that poetry was the form that could accommodate experience in a way that didn’t require oversimplification, or a search for higher truths and master narratives. When I was young I wanted everything to make sense, and that demanded autobiographical prose narrative writing; when I got a little older, I abandoned adages like “everything happens for a reason” and allowed myself to accept the unpredictable and the illogical. That new worldview required a form, and that form was poetry.
This ties into everything I said about self-mythologizing and a distrust of narrative, which is the poet’s distrust par excellence. I think this distrust is sometimes misunderstood as dislike: the truth is that I’m nostalgic for the time when I could unselfconsciously consume a neatly-told story. Who was it who said you’re never really nostalgic for a place, but for a time? Well, I think that’s true. In LA, I became nostalgic for a time when story seemed like magic, like a salve. I also heard it said, in film school, that studying narrative structure would cause you to never be able to blindly enjoy a movie again. You’d always be looking for the plot points, and you’d know when they’d arrive, almost to the minute (see “Film School Dropout” in the book). Because I was a peculiar combination of diarist, screenwriter, and poet at the time, I guess what happened to me was that this inability to enjoy traditional narratives became true not only of movie-watching, but of life in general. As comforting as it seemed, I could no longer watch my life as if it were a neatly plotted story of progress.
EH: A few years ago, you collaborated with Arielle Greenberg on an essay-conversation about Sylvia Plath and the girl-poet. “Mad Girls’ Love Songs: Two Women Poets—a Professor and Graduate Student—Discuss Sylvia Plath, Angst, and the Poetics of Female Adolescence,” published in College Literature in the fall of 2009, discusses the reading and writing habits of young girls and their complicated encounters with Plath. What I found particularly fascinating was the attempt to understand and articulate the kind of energy that appeals to girls who are sensitive to language but also emotionally high-strung. Usually the adjective “adolescent” or “juvenile” is negative, implying dramatic posturing and intellectual immaturity, but you two managed to take very seriously a certain kind of reading and writing in the shaping of a young girl’s identity.
On p. 199 of the essay, you talk about the difference between describing the teen-age self in retrospect, from an adult position of irony and embarrassment, and enacting teen-age sensibility in a poem that, as Arielle puts it, documents but does not judge. You write: “This seems to be the challenge particular to writing poems for/about teenage girls: how do you write about melodrama or write drama into your poem without letting it all dissolve into treacle?” (200)
This is a wonderful question that I’d like to put to you. How do you do this as a poet? Many of your poems—such as “Slippery Slope,” “Teeny Tautologies,” “Fabulists in Love”—evoke the imaginative intensities of teen-age girls. Can you talk about the challenges and pleasures of channeling the verbal and emotional high-jinks of teen-age girls?
BK: Thanks for thinking that I was able to accomplish that channeling at all! For me, the poems that are especially for teenage girls in LA Liminal are “Trying To Talk To My Teenage Self,” “Epic Girlhood,” “O Drama,” and the title poem, but I’m happy to know there might be others, too. I’m not sure that they don’t dissolve into treacle, but that was a risk I needed to take. I remember a friend reading the manuscript and telling me that I might want to go back and take a look at how many times I included the words “heart” and “ache,” which made me laugh. I did go back and look, and maybe I changed a couple, but mostly I kept them.
Arielle and I have talked about the risks of melodrama, and I also learned about taking those risks in David Trinidad’s workshop. His advice was to let my poems come to the surface. I took that to mean that I should decode some of my most metaphor- and metonymy-dense poems. Learning to speak/write more directly was an important lesson, and maybe that impulse opened the floodgates of melodrama in some places. Honestly, if Kore hadn’t decided to publish the book, I’d probably still doubt that I could get away with the level of “gush” that I sometimes include. That gushiness might make some readers uncomfortable, and I get that, because at a certain point it made me uncomfortable, too. In many places, you’ll find the heightened emotion of a “confessional” poem served up in nontraditional form. LA Liminal is a weird combination of the theoretical, the experimental, the achy, and the gushy, and many people probably don’t know how to read that, but those are modes in which I live and write, so learning how to be more direct meant letting them in.
Stay Tune for Part 2.
Becca Klaver is the author of LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and the chapbooks Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost press, 2009), Nonstop Pop (Bloof Books, forthcoming 2013), and Merrily, Merrily (Lame House Press, forthcoming 2013). She is a founding editor of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books, and a PhD candidate in English at Rutgers University, where she is writing a dissertation on experimental women’s poetry, feminism, and the everyday. Born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Eva Heisler is an art critic and poet who currently lives in Germany. Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic, a book of poems, is forthcoming from Kore Press. Drawing Water, a book-length poem on the line, is forthcoming from Noctuary Press.