Steve Harris Interviews Paula Koneazny

Steve Harris: Paula, when reading your biography, I couldn’t help but think of Wallace Stevens. Like Stevens who worked in the insurance industry, you also have a day job — in your case, as a tax consultant. Similarly, you also are living a rich literary life, writing both poetry and reviews of a high order. How do you strike that balance? Is it difficult? Or do you find that these two aspects of your life — the creative and the work-a-day — complement each other?

Paula Koneazny: I haven’t found that my work life and my literary life complement each other at all. On the other hand, the sense of being out of balance that such irreconcilable pursuits engenders probably does influence my writing. It contributes to the disjuncture, the ellipsis and fragmentation in much of my poetry (but then, what contemporary poet doesn’t feel at least a little bit out of joint?). About ten years ago, when I was getting an MA in English at the local university, a professor brought to my attention that I incorporate a lot of numbers and mathematical references in my writing. I hadn’t noticed this before, but had to admit that it was true. So, there may be a link between tax accounting and poetry after all!

SH: You live in Sebastopal, California, a relatively small town, close to San Francisco, which has been the birthplace of many modern poetry movements, such as the Beats and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets. In everything I’ve read by you, I’ve been struck by your unique and innovative voice, so much so that I wonder to what extent these various movements, or particular poets within these movements, have influenced your own development as a poet? Could you tell us a bit about your own beginnings as a poet?

PK: When I was a child, I was certain that I would grow up to be a writer, but I abandoned that idea soon after entering the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate. I think I felt at the time that I couldn’t both write and live in the world, and at the age of 17, I chose the world. I returned to writing quite late, in my forties, having come to realize that since I was living the life of a writer anyway (well, the solitary aspects of being a writer), I might as well do the writing. I enrolled in Creative Writing courses through the local Junior College. After three or four semesters of these workshops, I felt I was writing the same poems over and over again, and I started to look for a new direction. I happened to hear the poet Gillian Conoley read at Johnny Otis’s club in Sebastopol. She had recently joined the faculty at Sonoma State University as Poet in Residence and English professor. I was impressed with her poetry and decided to enroll in the Masters program (Sonoma State has an MA rather than an MFA program). The real turning point for me was a Postmodern Poetry reading series in 1996 that introduced me to such contemporary poets as Michael Palmer, Paul Hoover, Carol Snow, Brenda Hillman, Donald Revell and Jane Miller. I realized that I wasn’t obligated to write lyric or narrative poems expressing or describing personal emotions or experiences. Instead, I could use poetry (and it could use me) to explore the world, which I found (and find) to be a much more interesting project. You asked about the influence of Bay Area literary movements on my poetry. Although I was living in San Francisco in the years that L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry as a movement was most influential, I was completely unaware of its existence. However, aspects of language poetry (lower case) certainly do appear in my own poetry, for example, the consideration of language as language and the political nature of language, the idea that the reader participates in creating the poem, and an openness to formal experimentation.

SH: While talking with you earlier, you mentioned that you like to think of yourself as a “writer” as opposed to a “poet.” Do you feel there’s a need to distinguish between the two?

PK: I prefer the term “writer” simply because I don’t think “poet” is really explanatory in my case. Also, I sometimes use “writer” in explicit rejection of the notion that to be a “poet” is a higher calling. I liked what Claudia Rankine had to say about genre distinctions when I heard her speak at the University of San Francisco in 2007: “the older I get the less I’m interested in genre distinctions . . . . Whatever form works, works. I’m just interested in creating a thing.” As an aside, I find the so-called poetry wars (as I’ve been exposed to them in the pages of American Poetry Review) tedious. I think the world is big enough for all kinds of writing. Although perhaps the university system is not!

SH: There seems to be much debate these days as to how to define some forms of writing, such as prose poems and flash fiction. Rather than argue for greater definition, you seem to avoid or reject the definitional trap. In the Winter/Spring 2005 edition of Double Room, you said you resist classification of much of your writing, and, in fact, you “want the borders to be blurred.” Could you expand on that thought? Do you think it’s useful for journals to dedicate themselves to these emerging forms or does such dedication to form invite an unintentional rigidity?

PK: For me, borders just are blurred, irrespective of any desire on my part. In whatever realm you look at, be it the borders between languages, nations, and landscapes; or those between so-called races, ethnicities, and genders; borders are ambiguous. And almost everything of interest to me resides in that “between.” However imprecise, I savor terms like “indeterminate prose.” In any case, “purity” is an illusion. Hybridity (in literature and in life) is and probably always has been the real norm. I imagine that the decision to dedicate a journal to, for example, prose poetry might stem from a concern that prose poems are not getting enough page space in the literary press. This concern may now be outdated, as prose poetry has, I believe, become mainstream. However, as far as I’m concerned, anyone is free to design a journal around a principle, theme or perceived form if that’s what gets him or her charged up to do the work involved. Perhaps creating genre rules just means keeping the submission volume down to a manageable level.

SH: In that same Double Room comment, you also said that you don’t want to engage in storytelling in your writing (which you have labeled “indeterminate prose”). Why? And how do you avoid it?

PK: It was probably a bit disingenuous of me to say that I don’t want to engage in storytelling. It might be more accurate to say that I’m either not very good at it or simply incapable of it. Narrative fascinates me, however — how we get from A to Z, from 1 to 10 — all the action implied in a verb. One could almost say that narrative is built into most verbs. In my writing, I often do incorporate what I think of as narrative elements, for example, characters, dialog and progression through time and space.

SH: One particular poem of yours — “two peas in a pod” — provoked both admiration and discussion among us at Avatar. It seems like a L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poem but, then again, something else seems to be going on. Could you tell us a more about the composition and form of that poem?

PK: To the best of my recollection, “two peas in a pod” began with my reading a newspaper article about the fact that to some biologists brain and mind are looking more and more like synonyms. That brought to mind a discussion in a graduate theory class a decade ago about the difference, if any, between an author’s intention and the meaning of a literary work. One student offered the following analogy, which I think is an interesting one: he said that an author’s intention and meaning are like the two faces of a coin, the same thing, yet different. There is only one coin with two faces. One can even imagine those faces as lying in the same plane, as having no “thickness.” “two peas in a pod” is a language poem in the sense that it engages words as words and explores meaning as a form of hair-splitting, if you will. In the poem, the words hunting and seeking are different, but just how they are different remains conditional. In that uncertainty, they mirror the words brain and mind. It is around those “conditions” that the poem turns.

SH: I have spent some time reading and re-reading your chapbook, The Year I Was Alive. As a collection, I find it to be one of best post 9/11 efforts I’ve read. The collection seems to be charged with a deep anxiety. This sense of uncertain dread, amidst the bland plainness of suburbia, really jumped out at me in the opening poem’s first section:

“The old arguments at least were honest. Now, even the inventors of dictatorship — their tastes in industrial scenery and tranquility so dead — are plagued with uncertainty. My assignment is to peel back the edges and clip the illustrations (I cut the tiniest rectangular peepholes). Whether or not Our War has begun, the new man in authority mows the grass in our big backyard. . .”

To what extent do you feel 9/11, the ongoing wars, and the never-ending Government paranoia have influenced your writing?

SH: I’m impressed that you went to the trouble to read my chapbook. Your doing so prompted me to re-read it myself. Yes, anxiety, dread, and a post-apocalyptic mindset certainly drive those poems, along with a sense of playfulness, I think, as if the poems are playing in rubble. In fact, even The Year I Was Alive didn’t get me to the bottom of my anxiety. So, I decided to write more directly into that obsession and began another long project called The Death of the Beautiful Subject (I didn’t know that would be the title when I started it). This long poem or series of poems begins with the line, “I return to the theme of anxiety.” The anxiety in question is a “combination dream” that has both personal and communal sources, equally private and public: confrontation with my own mortality (to use Don DeLillo’s term, the “white noise” of existence) and the deaths, both real and imagined, of my loved ones as well as that communal dread based upon history and current events which focuses on actual and anticipated bombs, wars, murders, etc.

SH: Paula, in our conversation, you noted how much you enjoyed composing longer literary “projects.” Some of these projects are available on your website. One of these projects, “Installation,” appears in this issue of Avatar. Could you tell us more about these projects? How did you develop them? How do they fit into your overall writing? Do you think the internet provides a larger and more flexible canvas for your creativity, especially when it comes to these projects?

PK: The first long project I did is one I call “Sentence.” For one year (not a calendar year, but one beginning on May 20th, 2001 and ending on May 19th, 2002) I wrote a sentence a day. I followed various rules, which I modified as I went along. Ultimately, when I was revising this project, I settled upon the rule that I could make changes to individual sentences, but I couldn’t throw out any sentence in its entirety or replace it with a new one. Consequently, some of the sentences are more interesting or satisfying than others. I learned so much from this project, even though the work as a whole may not engage readers. 9/11 happened a few months after I’d begun “Sentence,” and, along with the events that followed, definitely influenced the project. “Sentence” gave me a taste for taking on longer writing projects like The Year I Was Alive and The Death of the Beautiful Subject, both of which also were written with time constraints. It is difficult to get such longer works published, particularly when they can’t be easily broken up into one or two page segments that can be submitted as “poems.” I hadn’t considered internet publishing until I decided to put together Installation as a sort of chapbook illustrated with photographs. But, I couldn’t afford to buy Adobe Publisher and I wasn’t able to figure out any of the available free publishing programs to the point where I could print a book on paper. However, I still do have a bias in favor of books as objects that can be held and touched. I like the tactility of print media. I want to keep the hand involved.

SH: Before I discovered your poetry, I read some of your reviews, which I feel are far better than the average poetry review. You seem to get into the skin of the poet you are reviewing, displaying a perceptiveness and enthusiasm (quietly controlled) that leaves the reader wanting to read the poet. (Your review subjects must love you.) How long does this reviewing process take you? When you set down to do a review, are you drawn to particular poets, or particular styles of writing?

PK: I began writing book reviews with the encouragement of C. S. Giscombe, a poet whose work I much admire, and whom I first met at a Poetry Center reading in San Francisco a few days before 9/11. When I introduced myself to him after the reading, he recognized my name from short reviews of his books that I had posted on Amazon. As he was (and still is, I believe) an associate editor at American Book Review, he suggested that I write reviews for that journal. Almost a year went by before I was able to get in contact with him again and before he assigned me my first books to review, Winter Mirror, by Paul Hoover and Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stephanon. Since then, I’ve reviewed on average two or three books a year, now mostly of my own choosing. I’ve also branched out to other publications. My choice of books is somewhat accidental. Either I already admire a poet’s work, or something about a promotional blurb or title will intrigue me. Occasionally, a small press will send me books out of the blue. Since I write slowly and spend a lot of time both reading and thinking about a book, I don’t propose or submit many reviews. And I don’t do negative reviews. If I can’t find anything interesting to say about a book, I won’t review it. In order to justify taking time away from my other pursuits, I have to enjoy my own writing of the review as much as I appreciate the book. I approach a review more as a reader response essay or a riff off the poet’s work rather than as criticism. Also, I read books of poems as books, rather than as a series of individual poems. This may at times be unfair to a particular poem, but it’s how I read and, thus, how I review.

SH: Where do you feel you’re headed as a writer? Are there new areas of writing that you want to explore?

PK: Of course, I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but it hasn’t happened yet and probably never will. I have a hard time sustaining projects that last longer than a year and most novels take longer than that to write (certainly, there are some notable exceptions). I’ve been exploring combining photography with writing, although usually I find that a photograph stands on its own, and text adds nothing to it and vice versa. I may try to put together a series of photos and texts that neither illustrate nor decode one another, but rather work side by side, each moving the group forward, cooperatively, yet independently. I’m also very interested in translation and bilingualism. I’ve written a few poems in which I first translated for myself the poems or prose of certain French writers. I use excerpts from those loose translations to compose my own poems. I’ve also played with translating my poems into French. When I talk about translation here, I’m not referring to the kind of translations that are publishable as such. I translate quite literally, and then I tweak the language for my own use. It’s too early to tell whether or not this series will evolve into a bona fide project.