Friday, March 3, 2023

TtD supplement #234 : seven questions for Kathy Lou Schultz

Kathy Lou Schultz is a literary historian, scholar, and poet. She is the author of The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka (Palgrave), as well as four collections of poems, recently Biting Midge: Works in Prose (Belladonna) and Some Vague Wife (Atelos). Her first poetry collection, Re dress (San Francisco State University), was selected by Forrest Gander as the winner of the Michael Rubin Poetry Award. Her poems are published in Bombay Gin, Cleaver Magazine, Fence Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Hambone, Marsh Hawk Review, Miracle Monocle, Mirage #4/Period(ical), P Queue Literary Journal, New American Writing, and other journals. Her poetry manuscript in progress in tentatively titled Mother(g)ood: A Report from America.

Schultz’s articles have appeared in numerous scholarly journals including Contemporary Literature, Jacket2, Journal of Modern Literature, Plume Poetry and anthologies: Some Other Blues: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka, The Companion to Modernist Poetry, and From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice. New work on Askia Touré’s Songhai!” is forthcoming in Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics and a solicited article on Claudia Rankine and Muriel Rukeyser will appear in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century American Poetry and Politics. A book on Claudia Rankine is scheduled for release in August 2023 from Lake Forest College/Northwestern University Press.

Her poems “To: ‘To Elsie’:,” “A rouse is a ruse is a rose” and “Class (A Manifesto) Again” appear in the thirty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “To: ‘To Elsie’:,” “A rouse is a ruse is a rose” and “Class (A Manifesto) Again.”

A: “To: ‘To Elsie’:”
The poem is an epistle that talks back to WCW’s “To Elsie,” tossing images back at it, by only using words from within the poem itself. First, let me say that Spring and All is a gift, but this particular poem has always bothered me. My reaction is visceral and fiery. For me, this arises from the use of working-class caricatures in the poem: “mountain folk from Kentucky,” lusty railroading men, and finally “Elsie.” The poem isn’t really to her; rather, it is tossed somewhere in her direction. She’s not even a person, she’s “some Elsie” (emphasis added). Sure, William Carlos Williams, too, is “some doctor,” but he’s constructing a field of knowledge about “the pure products of America” through the prism of the “broken brain,” “ungainly hips” and “flopping breasts” of a mixed-race woman who works as a servant in his house. The poem can be read as a critique of class, race, and capitalism; after all, Elsie reveals “the truth about us” but Elsie is dehumanized in this process. Elsie isn’t “us.” She’s “them.” The poem also invokes the “I, Too” of Langston Hughes. (I have an ongoing catalog in my head of poems either addressed to “America,” or that use “America” in the title.) I also attempt to emulate Williams’ carefully sculpted link breaks. Spring and All and Paterson are genius, but that’s also why I’ve obsessed over “To Elsie” for 15+ years. (Or, I could say something smartish but vague about rewriting female figures used in great male modernists’ writing—and I may actually continue to try to do that—but the first part of my response is more honest.)

“A rouse is a ruse is a rose”
This is another poem in conversation with a poem: using Gertrude Stein’s language to engage and re-read Stein. There is so much energy and so many diverse language concepts in “Sacred Emily” to rediscover when you go back to the text, though the line “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” floats about in one’s head in perhaps a vague way. This re-immersion in Stein allowed me to recapture some of the sassy sensuality and humor in my earlier work. It’s a mode that reconnects me to my body and makes me feel alive (in contrast to the dissociative deadness brought about by big life changes and the daily horror show of current events).

“Class (A Manifesto) Again”
This poem exposes the undercurrent of thought of a working-class person who has made it into spaces where they don’t belong. Or, should I say “I”? I was born in a place so remote that there is no hospital and it would take you days to get there--if you could find it at all. Find Burke, South Dakota on the map. Go. The majority of people don’t realize that there are locations like this in the U.S., have no idea what life is like there, or if they do, they don’t associate them with me. I often am in places where I don’t belong. And class rage is real. And class privilege, or lack of it, persists. Most professors (and many poets and artists) are from middle or upper-middle class, educated backgrounds. They have generations of college and graduate degrees behind them, access to resources, and choices I never had. One goes along through daily life thinking that they’ve “made it,” or that they’re “equal” now, but that gets thrown back at you in unexpected moments. So one is many things at the same time: a person with racial privilege, from a working-class background, now “educated,” unexpectedly a mom, now living in a violently misogynistic place that makes no sense, reviled by some for being in an interracial relationship or for experiencing sexual and gender identity along a continuum when people would be much more comfortable if you would just “pick a side.” People mainly want you to shut up about anything that doesn’t support their narratives and expectations—but these narratives and expectations are propped up by assumptions, rather than actually getting to know a person. This poem is also a clapback to those who thought they could intimidate me or who tried to make me feel small or ashamed. Also re: “dynamite in their skulls,” all credit to Calvin C. Hernton.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: “To: ‘To Elsie’:”
I place this piece with, “Below these bluffs,” a poem I wrote for my son, and for/after Elizabeth Treadwell, who I think is one of the best poets of my generation. I place these two poems together, because in each I think I got something right in the form. https://www.aspasiology.com/kathy-lou-schultz-in-response-to-elizabeth-treadwell.html

“A rouse is a ruse is a rose”
Stein, Stein, Stein. My poems in Some Vague Wife (Atelos) are divided into three sections, each with an epigraph from a woman modernist: Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf. I’m still trying to listen to what these writers have to say to me. Sometimes transmissions are garbled, but the spirits want you to play.

“Class (A Manifesto) Again”
My poem, “Core Curriculum,” published in Marsh Hawk Review, Fall 2020, addresses some of that same material—but “Core Curriculum” is much more poem-y, built out of neat quatrains employing some fierce enjambment. https://marshhawkpress.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/MHR-Fall-2020.pdf

Writing about embodied experiences of class is difficult, unless it’s content-driven by recognizable working class professions, like mining, often about male experience.

Does anyone understand what I’m writing about? Do they care, or are they resentful, and want me to be quiet about it? Am I messing things up for them? Who is my audience?

“Core Curriculum,” by the way, refers to the first two years of study at Columbia University in NYC. The “Western Tradition,” etc. It’s about my experience of encountering all of that as a working class, rural, first-generation college student, and as a young woman beginning to articulate a feminist critique and vision. And why were the authors we studied all very particular kinds of white people? I began working in Black Studies at the same time I discovered feminist studies, when I was 18, 19 years old. I was very purposeful about it.

So, these poems consider, in part, what it meant for me to encounter that “Western” tradition, as an experience of being “educated.” I still have those books, and as a scholar, I study the epic, so it added up to something. But I was always one working off campus “in the community.” People found this so amazing. How do you reach “the community”? I am the community! My dad is the guy trimming the lawn with amazing precision, but you don’t see him.

Q: With a handful of poetry titles over the past twenty years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My first book, Re dress, was an accident. San Francisco State University ran a book contest every year and my friend, Catalina Cariaga (we were both in the MFA program) convinced me to enter. I wasn’t ready for all of that, so I thought, I’ll do this as an exercise in how to put together a manuscript, laying out all the pages on a big table and seeing what might cohere or surprise. I really took pleasure in that process of making, meditation and silence. But then I won—poet Forrest Gander selected my manuscript for the Michael Rubin Award—and I panicked! There’s no going back and “fixing” it at that point. Ha. But I look back it now and I’m amazed at how bold it is, how it thinks about sexuality, everyday life, form, white space, and found material. I also participated in the book design: I chose the photos and the ink color and worked with photographers (Lori Eanes, Deborah Allan) and designers (Jim Brashear, Glen Helfand) on the palimpsestic overlay on the cover, the trim size, the book flaps (I love the book flaps!) where the blurb, author photos & bio are printed.

In addition to Gander, Kevin Killian, Robert Glück, and Myung Mi Kim wrote blurbs for me. Bob and Myung were two of my primary teachers. How lucky I was! I prize that time in my life and the writing community: even when it was fraught, it was wonderfully alive. Gander compares my work to Stein and Rosmarie Waldrop. If only. I want to build on that potential and what lives in the book, reclaim the audacity to go full speed ahead into that charged material, busting and remaking form. You see in there the combination of prose, fragment, collage, and highly sculpted lyrics. I want to figure out how to do that again.

Jill Stengel made the chapbook Genealogy for her wonderful a+bend project. Genealogy is a long poem that actually is my most autobiographical collection in terms of recounting events. I want to include it in a full-length book. I’ve had a couple nearly-successful manuscripts that presses were interested in, but I need to revisit that project. I’ve spoken a bit about Some Vague Wife above. All thanks to Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz for including me in their fantastic series. I was still funny in that book, while thinking deeply about literary history, and the other obsessions of my work: gender, sexuality, class. It has all that weird prose in there too, which is maybe my true form, but then the experimental sonnets are pretty good. I’m still figuring out form!

Belladonna in NYC published my last chapbook. I love Belladonna! Biting Midge: Works in Prose arrived in my mailbox after I left Philly for a job, and I never made it to the reading in NYC (I’m still sad about that) because by then my life had blown up and I was too sick to travel. Being so far away from my writing communities in the Bay Area and the Northeast: Philly, NYC has really thrown me off my axis. Not only am I separated from poets and publishing projects and attending fantastic readings nearly every week, unrelenting trauma and toxicity alienated me from my own work. I didn’t think that was possible. It’s miserable. But there is a new project, tentatively titled Mother(g)ood from which some work has been published. There’s a long piece in the “Hybrid” section of an issue of Miracle Monocle, published by the Univ. of Louisville, and a shorter one in Bombay Gin, both based in prose blocks. And I want to start publishing a journal again. Those issues of Lipstick Eleven that my friends and I edited and published together are pretty great.

Q: You almost make your work sound like an ongoing sequence of random occurrences, ranging from deliberately-prompted projects to certain accidents. How do your poems or poem-projects usually begin? How do poems find themselves grouped into chapbook or larger manuscripts, if at all?

A: Poetry and life are random and accidental, but my answers probably reveal more about how I felt about writing the poems, rather than the work that I actually did. Feeling vs. doing.

In Genealogy and Mother(g)ood, I write with the purpose of constructing long poems that I intend to be a set of serial poems. Genealogy came together rather quickly (or so it seems to me now). I kept making additions until it felt “finished.” I wrote it in San Francisco, the only place I’ve ever really felt at home, but between my past and then-current selves lay a large gulf of understanding  and experience: the picture on the cover of myself and two siblings with my dad on the farm. Reconstructing that experience is challenging because I don’t really remember it—though I deeply feel it, a gaping loss my father never really got over. Mother(g)ood goes to the heart of one of the deep sicknesses in the U.S.: the hatred of women and the obsession to control our sexuality. The patriarchy fell on my head harder than ever before when I had a baby in the South. The deep disregard for women is illustrated that by the fact that the U.S., a wealthy nation, has the highest maternal mortality rate among “developed” countries. I don’t especially want to write about this, but I have to.

Tremendous crisis can affect one’s ability to remember and the memories you do have are strangely fragmented. When I was younger, I could stick with a project from beginning to end, writing on the bus on the way to work, during lunch (my version of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems), or thinking about lines and sounds while at poetry readings, at the doctor’s office, etc. I always had a notebook, recording everything. Now, I find poems on my computer that I have no memory of writing. None. So it becomes a process, then, of gathering the individual poems and seeing how they speak to each other, like I did with my first manuscript. These types of collections are less popular now; however, many books have themes and audiences seem to want that.

Q: What brought you to constructing long poems/serial poems? Do you work through accumulation, or have you a specific direction in mind before you begin?

A: As a reader, I’m interested in long form works that can’t be contained on a single page. (That was one of the primary aims of Lipstick Eleven: providing space for long poems.) I’ve been in love with Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead for decades, even as her work went in and out of print. Contemporary icons include Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Nate Mackey.

I’m less interested in those short poems whose aim is a “gotcha” or “Ah…” at the end. Though of course many shorter poem are brilliant; Amiri Baraka’s poems have taken you somewhere by the end, but certainly not where you expected. I work by accumulation, followed by often painful revision. I don’t know where I’m headed in advanced. The poem reveals itself to you as you work. The same goes for scholarly writing.

Q: I’m always fascinated by American/Canadian conversations around the long poem, given the lineages of these particular threads might share common markers, but have otherwise wildly different trajectories. What do you feel is possible through the form of the long poem, as opposed to a collection, suite or otherwise-bound assemblage of shorter pieces, that might not otherwise be possible?

A: The long poem allows an extended explorative space for world making, the creation of unique extended forms, and the use of multi-media. Important eras and writers include: American Modernism (William Carlos Williams), 30s Modernism and the lineage of documentary modernism (Rukeyser, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Claudia Rankine), Midcentury Modernism (Langston Hughes in the 50s), women who published and published in HOW(ever) and HOW2 (Kathleen Fraser, Beverly Dahlen), Language Writers (Lyn Hejinian), Black Arts-era epics (Askia Touré). Hughes’s multi-column ASK YOUR MAMA: 12 MOODS FOR JAZZ with it musical instructions, Mackey’s epistles, or Hejinian’s versions of My Life require a long poem format. I also love Canadian writers Gail Scott, Lisa Robertson, and Nicole Brossard. The long poem continues to delight and obsess: I was invited to speak at an international conference on the long poem at the Univ. of Basel in Switzerland. Rachel Blau Duplessis gave a keynote.

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

A: In addition to the writers named above: Emily Dickinson, Harryette Mullen, C.D. Wright, Claudia Rankine (especially some of her earlier work), George Oppen, Myung Mi Kim, Erica Hunt, Juan Felipe Herrera, Paul Celan, Tyehimba Jess, etc.

No comments:

Post a Comment