Monday, October 24, 2016

TtD supplement #63 : seven questions for Buck Downs

A native of Jones County Miss., Buck Downs’ latest book is TACHYCARDIA, available now from Edge Books. His chapbook Shiftless(Harvester) is newly out from above/ground press. Buck is the poetry editor of Boog City, and works at Bridge Street Books in Washington, DC.

His poems “cloud of dust,” “full speed in partial-paradise,” “cabin in the shadows” and “skinny winter” appear in the eleventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “cloud of dust,” “full speed in partial-paradise,” “cabin in the shadows” and “skinny winter.”

A: I wonder if what I can “tell” “about” these poems adds anything for a reader. Most of what I know about them is fairly dataesque & not much, poetically speaking.

These were the first pieces to finish in the wake of all the work writing, editing and designing my latest book, Tachycardia. So they were written in early 2013, using a source text generated in 2009-10. Probably that lag is worth a comment, if only to say that it is fairly routine that I will write down an idea for a poem and not get back to doing anything with it for 2-3 years. I make a lot of raw source material, and I work slowly. The backlog is a way of life.

I think they may each be about some aspect of “coming to”; which phrase summarizes for me a quality of the most vivid kind of life: the moment of expulsion and entrance, as in the abrupt end of a dream or other state and a zone of enhanced forward vision and decaying memory. Mental states that are better than memory? Given the role that nostalgia has played in our species’ survival, can there be anything “better than memory”?

Q: When you say “source text,” it suggests your poems are reworked from earlier sketches. Is your process one of extensive editing, or more a matter of cannibalizing lines from unfinished drafts?

A: It is a process of brute-force typing. I have a little box that when I fill it with filled notebooks, I take the box and type up its whole contents, without edits or judgment. That typing yields an ~150pp word document, which I get printed as a bound galley at Lulu, and proceed to erase/cut & paste/collage that typing into drafts.

It is a procedural writing learned from the works of e.g., Ronald Johnson, Jackson MacLow, but moving in a decidedly different direction when the source text is not Milton or Joyce but myself.

Q: Have you worked exclusively from your own source texts, or have you experimented with others as well? And what are you attempting to accomplish when reworking these collages? Are you working to achieve a particular kind of linearity in your poems, whether a flow of logic or sound?

A: The workflow process I sketched out there has been what I've been building and doing since early 2001. I started using Lulu in 2005, because printing out 150pp docs on my inkjet printer & punching them for a three-ring binder is tedious.

The point to be made about the sum of changes and ideas that I now shorthand with the word “workflow”, I guess, is that the instant perception of thought is always a sufficient ground from which to begin.

I got a lot of joy back in the 20th century from learning what I would broadly call an appropriative tradition, from, say, Apollinaire and Tzara to Burroughs, Acker, Ronald Johnson, lots more. I decided to take up the toolkit I got from reading in this tradition, and use it on the artifacts of my own mind, rather than engaging with either the news of the day or works of literature.

I have a lot of faith in the intelligence of the people who read my poems, who read poetry of any sort. That faith liberates me from any obligation to linearity or logical flow, and allows me to concentrate on making something that looks attractive and sounds enticing.

Q: Is this a process similar to the ways in which you construct a poetry manuscript? How do your books get built?

A: I’ve more or less abandoned the idea of organizing a manuscript; one more place where I get to trust the material, and the readers. Poems now are simply stacked in chronological order, and if something seems like it’s out of place, it gets removed.

In writing the three books of Pontiac Fever and then Tachycardia, poems were collected up in batches of 23, and I call that a fascicle, of course. The first poems came to 23 in number and seemed to round off into a nice shape there, so taking the result as the path, I decided to try another fascicle of 23, and then a third. Three fascicles of 23 poems each is 69, enough for a slender volume of verse, and three sets of three fascicles each would be a complete work.

I did that again to write Tachycardia; this time it took three years instead of the eight+ that I spent on Pontiac Fever.

Q: With a small handful of books going back to the late 1990s, how do you feel your poetry has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: While I was primarily exercised in the tasks around designing and publishing Pontiac Fever and another three-book collection, the Assorted Books, I took the time to look at the material footprint of what I was doing, e.g., word counts and similar metrics. One thing that I found was my frequency of profanity was on a steady decline during the ten years 2002-12.

What it means to me is a chance to pause and reflect on the relationship between profanity and vulgarity. I believe strongly in something that O’Hara called “love’s life-giving vulgarity”, and I think I understand now that the class of vocabulary called profanity stands in for vulgarity in a way that pretty much prevents me from getting to where I want to get in the poem.

There’s more to say, perhaps, but really the short answer is enough: less profanity, more vulgarity.

Q: I’m curious about this: can you say more?

A: I’m not sure :) – I am working a hypothesis that profanity is a kind of permitted-but-off-limits-in-scare-quotes form of social expression. It’s a class of words that can have a strong polarizing effect. There’s a use value to that polarization, no doubt, or it wouldn’t persist. But my further hypothesis is that I can get closer to the disturbance and delight of the poem if I don’t settle for the vocabulary designated as “dirty words”.

Put more succinctly: dirty words keep me from getting to the dirt.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Sometimes it feels like I don’t have an appropriate level of devotion to anything that I’ve ever read before. Shouldn’t I be telling people what’s good? Luckily for me I have a pretty robust number of friends and colleagues who do that business a lot more ably than I can.

Name-checking is a kind of polarizing action too, so I’m reluctant to do any more of that than I already have. But I will mention two batches of poetry audio that were galvanizing and pivotal for me when I first heard them, and that continue to open up for me over time.

The first is a cassette anthology published by the Watershed Foundation called Poetry Potpourri: Selections from the Naropa Archives. That’s where I first heard, among others, Anne Waldman’s “Light and Shadow” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Ego Confession”, which are helpful points of entry for those two poets’ works and really delightful readings.

The second is the CD that accompanies the Exact Change Yearbook #1, published by Exact Change, of course. The recording of Notley’s “At Night the States” and Spicer’s “Imaginary Elegies” you find there are more or less everything I could ever want from a poem, I think.

I think you can find their latter-day equivalents at PennSound and/or Ubuweb.

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