The Questions of Men
Interview By Krystal Languell
On November 16, I interviewed Carmen Giménez Smith via Skype. For the majority of the conversation, I interviewed her as Charles Simic interviewed James Tate in the Summer 2006 issue of The Paris Review; basically, I used Simic’s questions. The goal of repurposing Simic’s questions was to uncover something unexpected, some information that an interviewer of Giménez Smith wouldn’t seek. I wondered also how this interview might problematize the form, uncovering the more predictable question-formation and response process. There’s something of the attorney in a conventional interviewer—in the sense that a question is never asked which s/he doesn’t already know the answer to. It is not the point at all to conceptually ridicule Simic and Tate but to ask questions for which I could not possibly predict the answers. The only rule for the conversation was that it had to take place in real time, not via e-mail, and I permitted myself to skip questions (from the Paris Review interview) that didn’t seem fruitful. I, also, occasionally chime in with addendums and further questions.
CS: What is the subversive quality in humor that everyone is worried about?
CGS: Most people think that art is serious and so being not-serious doesn’t often pass as art., and I think there’s a certain level of self-effacement, a sort of good humor, and there’s a way of accessing more base things that people are uncomfortable with and it makes people uncomfortable to be see both debasement and lightness.
What was it like being in college without having planned to be?
It was sort of amazing but I was unprepared for it. I was a really abysmal student. And I really hadn’t planned for it, it was something my high school teacher said maybe you should try it and I was like ok I’ll try it and so I was giving it a shot, right? Until I started taking creative writing classes and I thought oh, I think this is good, and creative writing classes were the only classes, well and my English classes too, were the only ones that I did well at. The other ones, they were all disasters.
What did you do during your summer breaks?
I worked. A lot. When I was a freshman I worked at Macy’s and then I worked in an optometrist’s office for five years. I was very good at my job. No, I was actually terrible at my job. I was good at teaching people how to put in contact lenses, though. That I was good at. I could do that right now. I could teach you right now.
KL: Would you?
Well, sure, you have to like hold the contact and make sure the edges of the contact are facing this way and not that way. You teach people having their eyes wide and looking away and putting it on and then rotating their eyes. It’s been a long time. It’s been 20 years since I knew how to do this. It’s still in me.
Were you publishing already?
Yes. When I was in college, I was. I mean sort of local stuff and really small magazines. But I was publishing in college. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do.
You must have been reading a lot. What sorts of poets did you disapprove of?
I don’t think I disapproved of anything. I liked everything. Even if I didn’t understand it. If I didn’t understand it, I thought I’ve got to figure this out. I wasn’t a huge Wallace Stevens fan until after graduate school, but I could go with anything. I had a great first teacher, Aldon Nielsen, who introduced me to crazy stuff like Harry Matthews and Keith Waldrop, so he set me on my path. I don’t think that there was anything I really hated. I mean even Robert Bly, I was like, whatever. I liked it all.
What about Federico García Lorca?
Yeah. Lorca was great. I liked Lorca’s story, that he was kind of a folklorist. I dug that he liked New York, because I like New York.
Did you try any of the composition strategies from the Surrealist writers, like automatic writing?
Of course I did. I was a graduate student. [Laughs] I think you have to if you go to graduate school, I think that’s required.
Do you collect your images in notebooks?
I don’t really go with images; I go with language, so I don’t collect images per se.
So images just pop up while you are writing?
Who else were you reading in those years?
In college? I was reading everything. I was reading Li-Young Lee and I was really (and still am) into James Wright. What else was I really into? Carolyn Kizer and the Beats. I read a lot of fiction, though. Angela Carter was a big part of my education as a young college writer. I read a lot of Angela Carter.
Do you revise a lot?
Yes. I only revise. All writing is revision.
You’ve said that you spend three or four hours a day thinking about poetry.
At least. Yes. Yeah. When I’m awake. When I’m asleep it’s the whole time.
So it’s a form of meditation?
I’m too neurotic to meditate.
Were you always a reader of dictionaries?
Actually, I was, yeah. They’re good books. They have a lot of good words in them.
What about satire?
Satire. Yeah, I’m kind of a class warrior so the way I address that is through satire.
When did you first start enjoying jokes?
When I was two.
What makes things funny?
If I say them.
Is this the American condition?
Is what the American condition? This is the end of the American condition. This is it. It’s the end days. So it’s not the American condition anymore, it’s post-America.
Does that mean you don’t have a grand theory of where we went wrong?
Oh, I have lots of theories. But I think we just bought too much stuff and we’re getting fat and we don’t give a shit and that’s where we went wrong.
Do you believe in God?
These poems have lines. But readers still wonder what is this? Is this poetry? What do we call it? How do we classify it? Can you respond to that?
Yeah: fuck off.
KL: What distinguishes this book [The City She Was] from your other recent work?
I like the tone of this book. I do think it’s funny and dark in a way that’s really exciting to me. It’s located. It’s about San Francisco in the early aughts during a time when the world was really changing and started feeling a little overwhelming for the speaker. And so it’s about the saturation of the city and being a young woman and trying to figure shit out and making a lot of mistakes. There’s a part of Ovid’s Poems of Exile and he’s lamenting—he’s in exile and it sucks, but he’s also lamenting the loyalties, his friendships, what it feels like to be away. When I started writing the book I thought it would be interesting to think of someone being in exile in the place she is. I mean exile is sort of a dark, charged political thing. But I think there are different kinds of exile, and this is like a psychological exile. And that’s what sometimes happens when you live in a city—you’re surrounded by people and you are kind of navigating it on your own, and maybe even trapped there.
KL: Is this a narrative book?
I don’t think that you could follow a story. Some of it is really fantastical and not-real. It’s pretend. It’s a figurative world, and a fabulist world sometimes. And a sinister world. And I mean, I’m a poet. I like figurative language so I think that plays a big part in how it works.
How does this book fit in to your body of work?
It’s a different book because I know more about writing since I wrote the first one, more about what I want to say and how I can say it. I keep working at it and I do things I wanted to do but wasn’t able to. The language is really different. I feel loosened away from this more traditional lyric and I’m trying to play with the lyric a little bit more. I think I’m going to be struggling and questioning and interrogating the lyric for the rest of my life and so this is just one experiment in that.
What does that mean for you — interrogating the lyric?
I’m thinking about time and subjectivity and how a speaker creates different subjectivities in the lyric. And also the more technical aspects and how you can push against it or resist it or create a kind of celebration of what I’m calling a writerly lyric, like Roland Barthes’ idea of the writerly. That’s vague, but those are the ideas I’m thinking about. Another manuscript I just finished [titled Be Recorder] is all about distilling the language and the idea of litany and meditation. So I’m thinking about what the next thing is going to be—maybe a bit elegiac. So the whole universe of it. I want to spend time in every galaxy. Are there galaxies in universes or is it the other way around?
I think you had it right. Well, and we don’t know about anything outside our universe so who knows?
The truth is out there.
Maybe. I don’t know. What does that even mean? Because of what I chose to omit from our model interview, the source of which I’ll reveal to you when we’re done, I’m wondering if in your life you feel that your childhood and your parents continue to have some impact on your writing.
Yes. Bring Down the Little Birds was the first volume of writing about my mom. The next poetry project I’m going to do is a book that deals explicitly with her Alzheimer’s. I feel like I’m processing stuff. I’m obsessed with my mom and that’s a big part of it. I think my autobiographical work gets coded or played with or I deal with it in my non-fiction. I feel that’s a more appropriate place for that.
This is a different book from the one you got the Howard fellowship for?
That’s something else. The Howard is for a book that I’m writing about failure and so that’s about my dad.
[Laughing] So the Alzheimer’s book is non-fiction?
Well, that one’s going to be a hybrid. I’m thinking of someone like Kristin Prevallet and also Susan Howe, Eleni Sikelianos. That kind of thing. Brenda Coultas. Those are the writers I’m thinking about when I’m working on the next poetry book.
I want to make sure I ask you about class identity and whether you feel you are a poet of the working-class. And also what you feel your relationship to the Occupy movement may or may not be as a poet.
I’m a professor. I’m part of the middle class. I’m not going to pretend that isn’t the case. I’m really fucking lucky that I have this great job and I’m able to support my family. But that’s not how I grew up, and so I’m really preoccupied with the idea of how lucky I am to be in this situation. But it seems to me we’re becoming like a South American country in which these huge disparities in class harm people. It’s upsetting to me.
The Occupy movement: I admire the ideas. It’s distant from me because I’m not there, I can’t see it. And I’m not doing anything about it. I mean sure I could post stuff on Facebook about it but that’s not really doing anything about it. And I’ve got to figure out how I can do something about it. I just haven’t figured that out yet.
Krystal Languell is the author of Call the Catastrophists (BlazeVox). She was a semi-finalist for the 2010 University of Akron Press Poetry Prize and a finalist for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Founder of the feminist literary magazine Bone Bouquet, she serves as a collaborative board member for Belladonna* Series as well as editor-in-chief at Noemi Press.