JULY 7, 2014
HELLO AND WELCOME to my new poetry column, “Five Questions and Five Answers with Dorothea Lasky,” where I (you guessed it!) interview a new poet each column about their poetry, poetics, and other related issues. In it, I hope to broaden the discourse surrounding contemporary poetry.
The first poet I have chosen to interview is the absolutely electrifying Cassandra Gillig! Here is some information about her:
Cassandra co-edits Big Lucks Books with Mark Cugini and Same Text, a revival press started to reprint Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journals, with Nathaniel Otting. Her poetry album, Sex Beach, was recently released by Black Cake Records, and her mash-ups can be found on her blog or band camp.
Cassandra created a mash-up with one of my poems, “Who to Tell,” and Beyoncé‘s “Drunk in Love” specifically for this column, and I am so honored. The link is below.
Without further ado, here are five questions and five answers:
You have done some really cool mash-ups of poetry and hip-hop songs that places like The Poetry Foundation and NYU Local have written about, where you did things like mix Frank O’Hara’s “Ode to Joy” with Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” to create the new song “Ode to the Best I Ever Had.” I think when I first saw these, I realized we were soulmates. I think a lot of people felt this way, which means something for how important hip-hop is to contemporary poetry. What made you decide to do this, and do you have plans for any future mash-ups?
Thank you for the compliments! My soul is way honored. I originally started making the mash-ups with my own poems. I was interested in the way that you can manipulate an audience’s emotional response to a poem by putting music behind it. Eventually I started working with recordings of other poets because it was more fun (I am a bad poet — no good — it was boring). I have always found that my favorite poets are ones who are so impassioned and invested in the things they are saying that it almost sounds like they’re singing. You’re a good example of this. Poets Dana Ward and Alice Notley are another two that quickly come to mind. Some poets have such a ridiculously good sense of rhythm in everything they write. Actually, people have a natural rhythm that arises during conversation that many don’t notice. Like, some say that iambic pentameter “perfectly fills the lungs,” thus is an accurate reflection of the natural rhythms of human speech. And it’s true if you think about the way that you’re generally drawn to speak. So a lot of poetry is written to a meter that — whether consciously or not — plays into that really pleasing cadence of conversation. Poets are a lot more cognizant of this than other writers, I think. Anyway, the mash-ups made all of this terribly evident to me, and this discovery really ended up being what carried the project along, kept me trying out new poets and new songs. This will be an experiment that goes on for forever, since it’s something that’s very much changed the way I look at poetry. I will keep making mash-ups until I die, or until I get sued.
I think we both might agree that swagger is a very important thing to consider when writing and reading a poem. (We do, right?) How do you define swagger?
Oh, a poet’s swagger is so important! I think that the most “successful” poets have always been ones who manage to navigate between arrogance and humility with ease. Arrogance often makes the poet, and it isn’t necessarily that the person herself is arrogant. It’s simply that she knows when to employ it to her advantage. I’m thinking back to when Walt Whitman made his dick bigger in a reprint of Leaves of Grass. Or when another poet came up to me at a bar and told me he bought a gold chain to “rebrand.” There is a vulnerability that manifests in both of these actions, but they are also statements of self-importance. These small moments and small statements frame a poet’s body of work; these engagements with the public sphere. So when I think of a poet’s swagger, I think of exactly that — arrogance mediated by humility. Also, I love the whole “poet be like god” thing — the idea that poets speak on behalf of the gods and are ordained by the gods, themselves. Engaging with this tradition — this idea — creates the kind of poet swagger I love to see. Poets need to recognize that they aren’t gods, but that they need the power and importance of gods to get their messages across. I think that if you aren’t important to yourself, you will never be important to anyone else.
Do you think the New York School poets in particular are kindred of hip-hop artists? I have always thought this: the naming of names, the elements of gossip, the surprising breaks into high lyrics abruptly from the mundane, the conversational, the everyday. Do you think there will ever be a New New York School? And if so, what might this look like, and do we even want this to happen?
I think about this a lot, actually. Rappers and poets are similarly self-referential and intertextual. Like, there’s a similar way of being “in the know” — being able to decipher allusions to people, places, and things. And this is something that makes the study of poetry, or the study of hip-hop, really rewarding. For example, it is pretty common to read one of O’Hara’s most famous lines, “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible” and not pick up that “Grace” is a pun on his friend Grace Hartigan’s name. You lose out on the cleverness. Similarly, if you listen to the song “The Language” by Drake, there’s this bit where he talks about eating dinner with Italians. Ostensibly nonsense, but if you are up on your Drake friendships, you would know that he hangs out with Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli. Anyway, the craft of hip-hop songs and poems, in that way, can be so intricate and impressive. And these things really make me want to listen to more music and read more poems — they make me care about the artists. These works are beautiful creations even if you can’t fully understand each and every facet, but if you do, it’s such a weirdly satisfying and exciting thing. It feels like detective work. I think the New York School’s passion for the boring, and the quotidian, and the conversational lives on in both hip-hop and poetry. We are all living in the shadow of Frank O’Hara. New York will be a closed door to all artists in 10 or 15 years, and even then there will be a New York School. The NYS taught us that we can talk about ourselves and talk about the world in a way that glorifies our own banality. I don’t think that will ever go out of style, nor should it. That idea is sometimes what keeps me going, because it is an idea that is so real. What do I have if not myself and other people and the world around me?
Do you like to gossip? I wouldn’t mind hearing a story or two, if you are so inclined. (There is no one here reading this, don’t worry. Oh yeah, and the juicier the better.)
Oh my god, I was just thinking about this earlier today. I LOVE to gossip, but almost exclusively about poets. I discovered that the reason I enjoy reading about poets so much is likely that this is my own little version of People magazine, not that I’m really cashing in on some new interpretive insight. If you can find someone who loves talking shit about Kim Kardashian more than I love talking shit about William Carlos Williams, I will give you a trophy. I’m working on this terrifyingly ambitious mapping out of 70s and 80s Chicago poetry with these two really talented and beautiful poets, Stephanie Anderson and Jen Karmin, and we have been contacting all of these poets from that era and trying to reconstruct their social circles (since there’s a criminally small amount of information out about them). I keep finding really juicy shit and I just want to call up Stephanie and Jen and spill like it’s some new bit of crazy about a mutual friend, or something. For me, it all has the same urgency and forbidden feeling as gossiping, but somehow I get to write it off as “academic research.” This will be the thing that saves academia. We will get together sometime and gossip; it is very important to my poetics.
There have already been a lot of poems written in 2014 and we are not even halfway through. What will your favorite 2014 poem look like? What is the title of one poem you might write in 2014?
This year is the year of Hannah Weiner. It will be a fantastic year. I made you a quick powerpoint of all of my desired poems for 2014.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of the forthcoming ROME (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2014), as well as Thunderbird, Black Life, and AWE, all out from Wave Books. She is also the author of several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Press, 2010). Her poems have appeared in POETRY, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker, among other places. She is a co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013) and is currently an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.