Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941/48 (Rutgers UP 2014). Poetry chapbooks include It’s Fab (Origami Poetry Project 2023), No Devotions (LJMcD Communications 2023) and a forthcoming full length, Not Akhmatova (Ben Yehuda Press). His chapbook Send $19.99 for Supplements and Freedom: Collages and Uncreative Writing, is brand-new from above/ground press.
His poems “King of Kong,” “Row Your Cab,” “Practice Makes Kenny G,” “Australia” and “Stuffed Unicorn” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “King of Kong,” “Row Your Cab,” “Practice Makes Kenny G,” “Australia” and “Stuffed Unicorn.”
A: This group of poems is all over the place! I started writing 30 years ago, with a 15-20 year break in the middle, but I've only had any “success”, even by poetry standards of success, in the last couple years. That means I have a lot (a lot!) of poems lying around I never got to publish. It’s a heterogenous blob of abortive semi-experimental burble, of which these poems are a small unrepresentative cross-section.
I think “Row Your Cab,” is the oldest one here; it’s from 1997 as near as I can tell. I was reading/thinking about/inspired by/parodying the New York Schol poets, especially John Ashbery probably, (though I don't know that it sounds much like him) and maybe Ron Padgett? I just picked four words I found funny/weird and wrote little nonsense glorps with them. I was young(er) and thought I was feisty.
“Australia” is I think from a year or two later—maybe 2000-2001? The main influence here is the Chicago theater troupe Barrel of Monkeys, which worked with children to write very short stories and then turned them into these amazing nonsense surreal stream-of-consciousness short short plays. I found their work wonderful and exhilarating, and wrote a bunch of prose poems trying to capture that manic, bonk-your-head-like-a-coconut energy. I think we had also taken a trip to Australia around this time, so we had in fact seen tree cows in the wild.
Fast forward to 2022, when I’m writing poems with the vague, unexpected hope that someone might publish them. I saw Penny Lane's wonderful documentary “Listening to Kenny G” at the end of 2021. The movie pushes you to think about why certain art is supposed to be bland and mainstream, and explores just how weird Kenny G is as an artist who in some ways seems to like practice more than music itself. As a Jewish maybe neurodivergent artist obsessed with repetition and process, it really spoke to me. So I wrote a poem about that. Not sure why the goldfish are in there, but I guess they seemed right.
“King of Kong,” was inspired I think most directly by the movie “The Reef: Stalked” which I reviewed at the Chicago Reader. But also inspired just by the general Hollywood thing where we're always imagining some monster as a threat to the planet when it's been clear for a long time that the biggest threat to the planet is us. Also I enjoyed fitting all those weird supervillain/monster names into a sonnet.
“Stuffed Unicorn” is part of a series of I guess quasi-cubist, Gertrude Stein-inspired sketches of small objects lying around our house. Not sure if my wife bought the plush toy for our daughter or if she just thought it was cute and wanted it for herself? In any case, these were great fun to write.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: I think my poetry is united in that I tend to pick up a fairly specific influence or idea and then run with it. Which means that it can look pretty different depending on what the influence or idea happens to be.
Right now I’m writing a whole bunch of nonense/surreal/New York school sonnets which take snippets of language from various places and turn it into word slurry. Clark Coolidge’s “88 Sonnets” was the most direct inspiration—though I think I’m only going to get up to 61 or so, I’m running out of steam. They’re related to “Row Your Cab,” though they work more like the poems in the chapbook I’m publishing with you, “Send $19.99 for Supplements and Freedom.”
I also just wrote a bunch of dada sound poet things somewhat inspired by the poems of petro ck who edits the wonderful site dadakuku, and somewhat, though more abstractly, inspired by Basho’s famous frog poem. They’re not much like anything I’ve written before...though the repetition echoes the Kenny G poem a bit?
Q: You mention an influence from the New York School; what is it about their work that strikes, that you wish to engage with in your own work?
A: It’s a somewhat anxious influence...John Ashbery’s snooty impenetrability irritated me for a long time, though I think I’ve more or less made my peace with it now. But my creative writing program at Oberlin didn’t really focus on a lot of avant garde experimental traditions, and the New York School poets were the people I knew about/had access to who saw poetry as a game or a series of weird jokes and pratfalls rather than as an expression of sincere romantic suchness. I like sincere romantic suchness too, sometimes, but I can also find it restrictive and oppressive. A lot of my poems are more head than heart (though I’m pretty passionate about the head) and the New York School was one way of finding that out or exploring that.
I recently read the wonderful Craig Dworkin/Kenneth Goldsmith anthology from 2011 Against Expression which is about uncreative appropriation/collage writing. That’s more my jam, and I wish I’d known there were people out there doing that when I began my own collage experiments in 1998-99 or so. But I didn’t, and the New York School was the closest I could get. So I appreciate them for that, even if I wouldn’t exactly say I feel like that’s my tradition.
Q: Which leads into the obvious question: who would you consider your tradition?
A: I guess I did set myself up for that. What Craig Dworkin calls uncreative writing—collage, appropriation, erasure, and so forth—really speaks to me. But that also means I’m just a packrat and often just sound like whatever I last read.
Q: I’m curious about your engagement with “collage, appropriation, erasure, and so forth,” as you say. What do you feel is possible through such forms that might not have been possible otherwise?
A: I should say first that my engagement with uncreative writing is in large part that it just sends me; it’s pretty visceral. When I first saw Rory Macbeth’s poem *The Bible (alphabetized)* which is just what it says and has like six pages or something of “be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be”—I just love that. What a crazy thing to do.
So there’s that. More theoretically, I think uncreative writing is a way to get away from a romantic confessional “I” and turn words or language into a game, or a mockery, or to bounce different language bits off each other and watch them clash or melt.
I just released a chapbook from LJMcD Communication called No Devotions which is a bunch of erasures of Mary Oliver poems. I really don’t like Mary Oliver much for all the reasons you wouldn’t—glib exhortation makes me itch. But at the same time I appreciate and respect that a lot of people get something from her. Manipulating her text is a way to make fun of her writing a bit, but also to try to find something in it that speaks to me or that I can appreciate the way other people seem to.
Would it be possible to do that in a more confessional vein? I mean, maybe (I just sort of did it in the above paragraph, right?) But for me it was more fun and more meaningful to try to talk about it in a way that took me out of the equation, perhaps because that mirrors the way I feel like I’m not really able to enter into Oliver’s poems.
Q: I like that example of Macbeth, a name I haven’t heard before. The piece you describe reminds me of finding, some thirty years ago or so in a Canadian literary journal as part of a special “sound poetry” issue, someone had reworked the words of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in alphabetical order, so the recording begins “a a a at at at an,” and so forth, thus striking the narrative out entirely for the sake of seemingly-arbitrary sound. Absolutely marvellous. I’ve been years attempting to figure out who that was and try and get my hands on a recording of it again, but no luck yet.
So how do you approach a poem, then, in terms of composition: do you approach from the level of sound or of language, or of seeking a way to mangle and manipulate and simply see what comes?
A: The Macbeth is in the anthology I mentioned, Against Expression, along with lots of other goodies.
I wanted to add to my last answer that uncreative writing can often be algorithmic-my Mary Oliver erasures remove all words with a letter of my name—and that makes writing a poem into a kind of puzzle or filling in a form. It feels like playing Tetris or crossing things off a list. It’s very comforting (which is what some people get from Mary Oliver, I think)
Which is a segue into your next question…I approach poems all different ways I think?
I guess they more often start with an idea than a sound or image, but that can be a topic I want to write about (as with “King Of Kong”) or a procedure (like “Row Your Cab”) or something I want to imitate. I get a lot of ideas reading poetry, where I’ll want to respond to an argument or play with a style.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I don’t have a great answer to this! As I said, I kind of jump off of whatever next thing I’m reading at the moment, rather than going back to things. I’ve got a project inspired by Anna Akhmatova which involved revisiting her work a lot over the past year or so, and a similar thing with Adelaide Crapsey’s cinquains. And I’ve been returning to that Against Expression anthology I mentioned on and off since I got it a year or so back.