Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Happiness and Magic: Interview with Justin Marks re his "A Million in Prizes"

The following's an interview with Justin Marks re his wonderful "A Million in Prizes." (the more time I spent with this book the more I enjoyed it. it's simple and complicated. smart and accessible. blah. blah. i highly recommend it).

Here's the Bio Justin provided:

Justin Marks’ first book is A Million in Prizes (New Issues Press). He is also the author of several chapbooks, the most recent being Voir Dire (Rope-a-Dope Press). He lives in New York City with his wife and their infant son and daughter.

Also, Justin's the featured poet at Tusculum Review this week. Check it out here.

RK: Early on in the middle section, [Summer insular], the speaker seems to be talking to the reader “And you/I know you.” And on the next page “A poem about summer/should be happy right?” Indeed. But the middle section of A Million is, generally, not happy. And neither is the book. But the speaker does know the reader. And the speaker, going into the middle section, has set up a lot of expectation. All “antecedents” have been removed, killed, set aside, muffled, murdered: God, childhood, selves, ambition, money. And the presumption is that a certain “form of magic” is going to be discovered/
encountered. Even though this is put in quite cryptic terms: “understanding reality as different/than it’s already unknown to be/a form of magic.” Ultimately, then, the casual reader is going to be disappointed. And by casual reader the one who really expects a summer of magic. A happy ending. Real fulfillment. Your thoughts please.

JM: I think in a lot of ways [Summer insular] is about--and is in the book specifically to--subvert pre-established expectations from the first section. A poem about summer should be happy. But just a few lines later it I say "Happiness / for example is lacking". That's a fairly ambiguous phrase. Happiness is lacking, perhaps from the poem, the book or life itself. On the other hand, it may simply be that happiness, as a feeling, isn't that fulfilling. It may be that happiness is indeed in the poem and the book, in life in general, but, like most other things, fades, is disappointing.

So, yeah, the casual reader may well be disappointed. But that seems to always be the case. In that sense, I don't think too much about a reader.

I try to apply the same ambiguity to magic, or maybe I am just being cryptic. I do believe in it, at least as I understand Spicer to have meant it--or maybe it's just that I want to believe. The only place I mention magic explicitly is in the first section of the book which, as you point out, is in many ways about failed ambition. So, I don't know. It's there as a kind of possibility (as are many other things, I think) but also, in part, as something already unknown. Already a kind of disappointmnet, at the least, and total failure at worst--a metaphor for the difficulty of making art, as well as being a person.

RK: Despite what I said in the first question there is a kind of happiness at play in these poems. Achieved in moments that are a kind of magic. Occasionally only and only fleetingly. I’m talking about Zen moments of beauty like “whiteness without end,/ but touched with such shading as needed/to keep things interesting.” Or “A clear plastic cup on my tray table./ Cold water almost perfectly still.” Or the short poem in its entirety: “Another painting:/six large shoreline rocks/(stanza break)no shore/no sea.” These are hopeless and hopeful. Formed and formless. Instances of a form of magic. The other way in which this magic is attained is through a Whitmanesque sort of loafing. A good example of this is where the speaker’s stretched out on a bus, sun through the windows, sleeping in bits and pieces: “I sing a little song to myself.” These twilight loafing moments of the mind in a kind of trance are another sort of magic that comes and goes. Briefly. Your thoughts on the magic and happiness in this your debut book.

JM: Whitmanesque. Nice. I'll take that comparison any day. Thanks!

But to answer your question: I'm glad some sort of happiness and magic got through. Actually, that sounds moronic. What I mean is: I'm glad not all the ambition of the book failed. That there is some sense of hope. The loafing, the dualities of form and formlessness, hope and hopelessness...these are qualities I find difficult to talk about in ways other than I did in the book. I love Whitman's work, he's certainly an influence, but I've never thought of my work as Whitmanic. I feel an affinity for a lot of zen philosophy and beliefs, but I'm certainly no Buddhist. The only thing I can say is that maybe these qualities in the work are the strains of those influences and affinities coming through.

RK: I’ve just started seeing a psychiatrist/therapist so I’ve got lots of new terms and ideas in my head. Always dangerous. (If you've just bought a duck you seem to see ducks and duckish behavior everwhere. Duckish designs. Moods. Broods. etc. etc.) But, anyways, I want to talk about the "psychological" arc of A Million in Prizes. The book begins with muted ambition. A kind of gathering manic energy. With a goal of magic in mind. The summer in which this is going to happen though becomes, in spite of its moments of magic, increasingly morbid. Not the summer we expected at all. (Or maybe it is if we paid attention.) A crashing down into a depressed state. But the book is jolted back into brighter awareness and energy by being hit by a car in “The Voice Inside the Cheerleader’s Megaphone). A place where “inner gaze” makes the speaker “dizzy” and later on in “Home Again” where the speaker is “adept at never truly sleeping.” Lack of sleep’s a clinical symptom and trigger of manic phases. And psychotic episodes. Episodes of paranoia. (excuse me if I’m not quite accurate here, clinically.) And, indeed, the speaker in “Home Again” is absolutely paranoid. And in the next poem “False teeth” the speaker knows that he “was a really paranoid and neurotic kind.” These last poems are also the most surreal. Spectalularly surreal. Documents of borderline psychotic states that the artist sometimes treads. So in a sense for me the book’s a kind of Bipolar journal. Am I totally full of shit here? Imposing my current preoccupations on yr book? Your thoughts please.

JM: You are completely full of shit. (Kidding.) There certainly is a journal quality to the book. A friend once said I could hand the book to my shrink and he'd have all he needed to know about me. Which is true. And not.

That last section of the book is the result of another struggle to do something different. At the time I wrote it I definitely felt there was an energy gathered that I'd suddenly found an outlet for. I'd been spending a lot of time worrying about how my work fit into the larger contemporary conversation. What kind of poet was I? SOQ? Post-avant? Did it matter? I wanted so badly to be "cool," but at the same time not to simply imitate all the other cool kids. Then I went to my first AWP conference. It was in Austin, TX that year. I was hanging out with some friends talking about all this and I just decided, "fuck it," I was going to write however I wanted. That's when the more manic/surreal energy started coming out. Maybe that's why you're reading the book as a bipolar journal. It sort of charts my development as a writer over a five year period, a time when I and my writing changed a lot, essentially went from a more quiet, restrained style to something looser, more free.

RK: If I remember correctly "A Million in Prizes" nearly didn't get published. You sent it out to contests and open-reading periods and made inquiries. But nothing happened. Then when you were about to scrap it and start anew you got word from New Issues. Unless you're extremely fortunate it's tough, very tough, to get a manuscript (especially a first manuscript) published. Contests are at best a difficult lottery system and at worst a scam. And finding a press outside the contest route is extremely difficult too. Your thoughts on the system? What can be done? And what advice (beyond "persevere") can you give writers trying to find a home for a first manuscript?

JM: Well, that’s not exactly accurate. I had started a new manuscript, but I hadn’t given up on A Million in Prizes. I had, however, given up on contests, for basically all the reasons you mention. My intention was to focus on small presses. I was convinced I could find someone to believe in the book and publish it. I was also seriously thinking about publishing it myself. I think the whole idea of “vanity publishing,” at least among many contemporary poets, is being given the lie; that is, really great poets are starting small presses and publishing their own books. Ariana Reines is one example. She started Mal-o-Mar Editions and published her second book, Coeur de Lion, on it.

And that’s essentially what I think about “the system.” There’s no reason to adhere to it. I mean, you can if you want, but you don’t have to to be taken seriously. You can start your own press and publish your own book and, if the work is strong enough, it will be taken just as seriously. I realize that may sound hypocritical of me to say, since I did wind up having my first book come out by winning a contest, but I can assure you I won’t be sending my second manuscript to any contests. I mean, with lulu and such, it’s fairly affordable to self-publish. If I would have taken all the money I spent on entry fees—an average of $20 per contest, and I entered at least 70 contests, so that’s about $1,400—I basically could have covered the cost of publishing the book myself.

But that’s just my opinion. A book is a deeply, deeply personal object for the writer who created it. Self-publishing may be an unacceptable option for many. But if you feel your book is really ready, and your goal is to reach an audience, but you’re not having luck with contests or simply want to avoid them all together, I think self-publishing is a great option.

RK: I just read a few of Charles Wright's poems in the latest Valparaiso Review. They're good. But same-old Charles Wright and his famous and accomplished back-porch and back-yard staring up into the night sky pessimism. The one thing I've admired about you and your poetry is that it keeps changing. You're not afraid to dive into new styles. New approaches. Can you tell us a bit about the work you've done since "A Million in Prizes?" Chapbooks published and forthcoming? New full-length manuscript(s)? Where on-line, perhaps, you could find some newer work?

JM: Ha! Well, if there’s only one thing to admire about me and my work, I’m glad it’s that . But, yeah, change is immensely important to me. I mean, when you settle on one style and do it over and over book after book you’re kind of saying you think that style is so great, so interesting, that people want to see a whole career’s worth of it. For some poets, that may well be the case. I love Ashbery, and he’s been writing essentially the same book for—what?—50 years. In that sense, I guess it’s just a matter of taste, but to be honest, I’ve tired of even Ashbery. So change, for me, is very important. If my style isn’t changing then I’m not developing as a poet, and development, for me, is of the utmost importance. At the same time, though, I don’t think my new stuff sounds so different that it comes across as written by a completely different poet. It’s a complicated balance/issue.

Regardless, yeah, I’ve published some new stuff since A Million in Prizes came out. I had a mini-chapbook (it amounted to about a 5 page poem) called Voir Dire come out with Rope-a-Dope Press [http://rope-a-dope-press.blogspot.com/2009/03/voir-dire.html] in February, 2009. As I said earlier, I’ve also been working on a new manuscript. At this point, it’s a collection of sonnets, some of which have appeared in the following:
Six Finch (2)
Sin Review (2)
Harp and Altar (2)

I’ve also been working on this prose memoir-ish thing called Na├»ve Melody, some of which you can find here: I’ve thought about publishing it as a chapbook, but it needs more work. I’ve also been thinking about ways to break it apart and fit it into my new full length manuscript. We’ll see.

For some time now you've been a part of the small press world publishing an impressive collection of chapbooks through your Kitchen Press. But it seems that you've moved on from Kitchen Press and are now involved, along with some other poets, in a new venture publishing full-length collections. Can you tell us a bit more about this? Who are you publishing? Just poetry? Open reading periods or just by your solicitation?

JM: I have moved on. Me, Sampson Starkweather, Chris Tonelli, Dan Boehl and Matt Rasmussen have started a press called Birds, LLC. Our first two books are The Trees Around, by Chris Tonelli and The French Exit, by Elisa Gabbert. We’re planning to have both of them out in time for AWP in Denver.

It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while, but only just got our act together on. Our plan is to publish our own books, as well as other people’s. It’ll probably be solicitation only, at least at first. We’d like to publish two books a year, one of our own books and one from someone else we solicit. We haven’t determined an order yet, but my personal guess is that either Sampson’s or Dan’s book will be one of our 2011 releases. I know they both have books that are really close to being done. So, we’ll see. But I’m super excited about it.

The big motivation for me personally came after A Million in Prizes came out. I just couldn’t bear going through that whole process of finding a new publisher for my second book. I kept thinking how awesome it would be to just have a publisher ready to publish your book whenever you had a new one, someone to build an actual publishing relationship with.

We also wanted to bring back the idea of having editors that work closely with poets on their manuscripts, which to my knowledge isn’t standard practice any more. Our structure is that there is a lead editor who works one-on-one with the poet to really polish the manuscript. The rest of us read the manuscripts and offer our thoughts, and then the lead editor relays those to the poet. The poet and lead editor handle things from there. I’m the lead editor for Chris’ book. I’ve read and commented on it so much already over the last four years that he’s been working on it, and I felt like I really “got” what he was doing, so I wanted to be his editor. Sampson is working with Elisa on hers.

With all that going on, plus being the father of nine month old twins, having a job, and recently becoming a homeowner, I’ve had to put Kitchen Press on the back burner. I’m putting out Elisa Gabbert’s My Fear of X and after that Kitchen Press will be on hiatus. I’m not saying it’s gone for good, but for now my energies in terms of publishing are devoted to Birds, LLC.


Sampson said...

"Be awesome, and do dope shit." Should be your tattoo.

"I loaf and invite my soul...observing a blade of summer grass."
I hadn't thought of it, but that pervasive aesthetic of loafing is totally Whitmanesque.

Kitchen Press said...

right next to the tattoo of the poetry bear shitting in the woods.

talk about loafing!!!

Poetry @ Tusculum said...

Great interview. Thanks!