Garrett Caples is a poet who lives in San Francisco; his most recent book of poems is Lovers of Today (Wave, 2021). He’s an editor at City Lights, where he curates the Spotlight Poetry Series.
His poems “Negative Wound,” “Fleet Week Eclogue,” “#115 AND COUNTING, A REVOLUTIONARY LETTER” and “Index to Revolutionary Letters” appear in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Negative Wound,” “Fleet Week Eclogue,” “#115 AND COUNTING, A REVOLUTIONARY LETTER” and “Index to Revolutionary Letters.”
A: These poems were written while I was working on the 50th anniversary edition of Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. “#115 and Counting” was premised on the idea of the “revolutionary letter” as a form; I think the final edition went up to #114, so my thought was that we might all take up the task, and the collective effort of subsequent poets might be classed as the 115th letter. The “Index” is exactly what it sounds like, insofar as I had to make an index of (sub)titles and first lines for the book, and during the process of revising this according the specs she left behind, various lines or groups of lines would leap out at me as potentially their own stanzas. So that one almost wrote itself and became something about the book and about Diane too. “Negative Wound” is something of a result of listening to and reading about Nina Simone during this period. “Fleet Week Eclogue” came from the hideous fleet week San Francisco is forced to observe every year, during which our own armed forces terrorize us with their goddamn warplanes. It’s a celebration of imperialism and death and ecologically unjustifiable. The title was borrowed from British symbolist John Davidson, who had a book called Fleet Street Eclogues (in reference to what had traditionally been London’s newspaper district).
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Hard to say; I’ve got a couple newer things since I sent you those that are more or less entirely rhyme-driven, though not necessarily end-rhymed. I also have a couple that are more inspired by work I’ve done this year on Ted Berrigan’s collected prose. Ted’s pretty good for giving you the itch to write, because he makes it seem like almost anything can become a poem. So I wrote a thing that would usually be the kind of thing I would write in prose but I made it into an open field poem. Like the #115 poem, I’m trying to get away from the left margin just because it’s goes against my usual habits.
Q: I’m fascinated by the way you seem open to being influenced by the work you do as an editor. Is this something you are deliberately attentive to, in part to, as you say, go against your “usual habits”?
A: I definitely try to break my habits when I notice them and don’t think they’re necessarily productive. That said, I don’t deliberately try to make myself do something that goes completely against the grain of my inherent inclinations. It’s a fine line, I suppose. I know, for example, my hewing to the left margin is mostly about not wanting to waste time when I’m generating text, as the words themselves are always going to take precedence over the layout. But when I can pull myself away from the margin, it can be generative in its own way, so that’s the left-hand margin is a habit worth challenging to see what comes of it.
In terms of the influence of my editorial activities on my poems, it various quite considerably, as I’m perfectly capable of editing something and not have it intersect with my own work. But if you’re dealing with giants like Ted and Diane, it’s inevitable that they’ll put some notions into your head about stuff to try. The short answer would be, being an editor, for me personally, is a subset of my being a poet, not the other way around, so it’s entirely natural for that work to affect the poetry.
Q: Were you aware of a shift in your work once you began working as an editor? Is there a line a discerning reader could catch in your work, demarking your output between your pre-editing to post-editing periods?
A: I would say no to both questions just because it’s essentially the same thing as when I engage with any poet I’ve read to the point where something of that poet enters into my work. Maybe editing makes a little more intense of an engagement because you need to think about the same bit of text often from more than one perspective, about how the text is situated on the page and in relation to other things on the page. You have to make decisions about things. And if you’re editing for trade press publication, you’re on a deadline and you have to get it done, so you might be forced to think about some text more than you would want to in ordinary reading, and that can lead somewhere. But ultimately it’s incidental whether I’m doing this as an editor or a reader. Poets I’ve never edited, like, say, Gerrit Lansing, have impacted my own work just as much. Mostly I’m lucky I’ve been able to work on projects like Revolutionary Letters and the Berrigan in close proximity.
I need to let new things into my poetry fairly steadily because if it doesn’t keep changing I get bored with it.
Q: With a handful of poetry titles and a collection of essays under your belt, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: That’s a hard question because I don’t have terribly grandiose ideas about my poetry. My ambition is the self-contradictory one of wanting to fully realize whatever it is I do as a poet and wanting it to continually change. I would say the difference between The Garrett Caples Reader (1999) and Complications (2007) is fairly vast as it was still early on, then the going to Power Ballads (2016) also seemed like a leap. Lovers of Today (2021) is maybe less dramatic a transformation but it’s also the least amount of time between volumes for me. And realistically the changes grow more subtle as I go. Right now though I’ve got a few new things going on that I’m excited about because I hadn’t written much poetry since the last book. I spent most of 2021 writing fables, as I think of them—fiction, but I don’t like to just say that because it’s nothing like contemporary American fiction. But I’m finally back on the poem.
Q: What prompted you to move into fables? How do you see them utilizing, or even morphing, the genre? And what brought you back into poems?
A: The fables began gradually, insofar as I wrote one, something I called “Parable,” that appeared in Power Ballads as poem, and I do think of these as more allied with poetry than with contemporary fiction, which is why I’m resisting that label. I wrote a couple more before I finished Lovers of Today but I held them back this time, partly because I originally conceived Lovers as one of those sprawling, messy books that were fashionable in poetry prepandemic, but ultimately turned it into a tight volume just because I realized I don’t like being sprawling and messy in poetry (that’s for the rest of my life). So I held them back.
These newer ones coincided with reading some work by Kit Schluter, a poet and translator living in Mexico City right now. Kit’s been writing these things he calls “cartoons” for the same reason I’ve been using the word “fables,” because they’re allied with the poem. Kit’s a translator of Marcel Schwob, who was one of those prose writers who hung out exclusively with poets and whose work, generally classed as fiction, sits uneasily within that genre. Plus he’s been working on Latin American writers like Mario Levrero, and something about his Levrero translations opened up my mind a little bit in terms of how to make such a work. Between handing in my book to my publisher and its publication, extending to the end of 2021, I wrote very little poetry as such, but I wrote six more of these fables. They’re a lot more time consuming than an ordinary poem, so for me, that was a year of creativity spent on those six. And they pretty much stopped coming to me after the end of 2021, so I feel like I have a short book of them, when combined with the earlier three.
I suppose the main influences on this work have been Schwob, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and other French symbolists, Latin American writers like Cesar Aira, Borges, and Bolano, and Oscar Wilde. A lot of different things. I don’t what their place is within the genre as such, but the fact that I’m almost incapable of not writing in the first-person surely affects the proceedings. The genre as a whole tends toward third-person writing.
What brought me back to the poem, as I suggested earlier, was working on Ted Berrigan’s prose. Due to all the supply chain issues affecting publishing, I had to do nothing but Ted for much of the first half of 2022 in order for it to be published in September. Reading that collected prose is an education. So around May, I started up on poems again with a renewed sense of their possibilities imparted by Ted. They’re nothing like his poems but they came out my encounter with him.
Q: Are you noticing a difference in the poems that are currently emerging, after having run through the gauntlet of both Berrigan’s prose and your work writing fables?
A: I don’t think the fables have had too much bearing on the poetry, only insofar as I have a separate, parallel practice going as a prose writer in general. What happened with the fables is that I finally achieved a sense of improvisation and non-drudgery in the writing of what I’ll broadly allow is fiction, even though I’ve been shirking that label for the aforementioned reasons. I’ve written fiction before and it’s always necessitated a certain amount of drudgery. If you have narrative ideas, you have to get from point A to point B, and anytime you have to follow a certain trajectory in writing, it becomes less creativity and more work. But somehow writing the fables was virtually all creative improvisation, like my poetry is. I can’t fully explain why or how this happened, but it’s another reason why I ally these pieces with poetry more than fiction.
As for the poems emerging now, they’re different but it’s maybe too early to tell what they are. I think Ted’s prose was more of a mental reorientation as opposed to a stylistic or formal influence. But no one would look at these poems and think “Ted Berrigan,” except that I ended up mentioning him in one of them. That poem is called “Moist Aches” and it’s online somewhere at Blazing Stadium if anyone is interested in look at it. That poem is all rhyme generated, so not very Ted at all, though the title came from an autocorrect on my phone when I was trying to type “moustaches.”
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Philip Lamantia and André Breton are always the touchstones for me. Wittgenstein, except that I never read him anymore. (At a certain point you really do throw the ladder away.) But what I learned about language from reading him is something that’s never gone away and has enabled me to write the way I do. How’s that for an answer?!? What a jerk! But I swear to god it’s true.