Lauren Gordon and Daniel M. Shapiro
Lauren Gordon and Daniel M. Shapiro Interview Each Other
Part I: Dan Interviews Lauren
Dan Shapiro: Your chapbook Meaningful Fingers approaches pregnancy and motherhood from several angles, and the poems take on numerous forms. How did you go about choosing a theme and structure for each poem (or did the themes and structures choose you)?
Lauren Gordon: I did not originally write these poems to become a chapbook. Most of this manuscript was written as part of a NaPoWriMo, where you write a poem every day during the month of April. My daughter was eight or nine months old at the time, and I hadn't written a poem in about 18 months. So I wrote in stolen moments every day.
The themes found me, the forms came later. Writing and editing became really vital for me in a way that it never was, not even in my MFA program. The anxiety and fear and joy of motherhood and the grief of losing some identity all worked their way into my poems. It was a little bit of an exorcism, but it also helped me secure some semblance of self.
DS: How much of "the real you" went into these poems, and how much would you attribute to a "speaker" who's not exactly you? Does this distinction really matter?
LG: 99.9% of "the real me" went into these poems – or, "the real me" that was raising a nine month old. Today's "the real me" is not the same as that version of me. Without getting all Heidegger on being, it's funky putting this work out into the world when only 44.5% of me still connects to it in the same emotional space.
It's different with persona poetry. In one chapbook I'm Nancy Drew's mother, in another I'm Laura Ingalls Wilder. I get to use language to subvert and revere in a way that lets me inhabit an emotional space that I ordinarily might not. There is a safety in persona poetry even when it's being risky.
So, does the distinction matter to the poetry community at large? Probably not. At least, not until you're read posthumously and academically.
DS: The poems in your chapbook are very different from your "Little House" poems that appeared in Menacing Hedge. Do you have a particular goal as a writer? If so, how do your "Meaningful Fingers" poems, "Little House" poems, and other writing support that goal? (Or how do you see a connection in your work, even when you're writing about a variety of subjects?)
LG: Here is my goal: Continue writing and publishing and reading poetry for the rest of my natural life. I didn't get my graduate degree in poetry because it would open doors or get me an academic job or any kind of job. I was just going through a divorce and desperate to study something I loved, after having spent the last ten years as a non-traditional student plugging my way through school. I just want to write better and better poetry. And pay off this mortgage-sized student debt.
As for seeing a connection in my work, that's hard to answer. Every manuscript feels different to me. I try to group similar poems together, or I set out to write project manuscripts.
DS: Who are some of your influences?
LG: T.S. Eliot. Ezra Pound. Gertrude Stein. Lorine Niedecker. Mary Oliver. Martha Zweig. Philip Levine. I think Francesca Bell is incredible. I just read Nights I Let the Tiger Get You by Elizabeth Cantwell and couldn't put it down. Isn't there so much incredible poetry in this world?
DS: What are you working on now?
LG: I just finished editing a chapbook manuscript called On my Legs, my Heart, my Liver (I told you I liked Eliot) that is about alcoholism and the dissolution and rebirth of a marriage. It's much more contemporary in style and voice than I usually write. Borderline lyric.
I also finished my first full-length manuscript, but I am still living with a few different titles. I feel reluctant to send it out, which defies logic. These poems are mostly narrative. It's 70% published and I keep telling myself to get it to 80% before I send it out, but I'm hemming.
My Little House poems began as a series poem under the tutelage of Ilya Kaminsky and then evolved into a chapbook – then after a year of working on it, it became a full-length manuscript. Now after multiple years of tweaking it and suffering through encouraging rejections, I had my come-to-Jesus moment and cut it back down to a chapbook. I'm still mourning it. I can't find the right home for these poems and I feel depressed about it. I think I am going to retire it for now and concentrate on other projects.
DS: What do you consider "the poetry world," and how does your work fit into that world?
LG: I'm not sure how to answer this question, but I like it. I read about "our community" all the time and it's an interesting concept. I'm not sure my "poetry world" looks like Claudia Rankine's "poetry world" but it's a nice idea that we might all be in this together.
I go to a workshop group here in my small town and I am the youngest one in the group. These women are poets for pleasure. Not everyone is interested in publishing, not everyone reads contemporary poetry. I think I'm the only one there with a poetry education – and the workshops aren't always great. I don't always get what I need from them, and if I bring in poetry that is not immediately accessible, it's bad news. But I go back every time because no matter what I "get" out of it, I just love being around people who love poetry. It's the common denominator.
When I started sending out submissions, I started small with journals that had higher acceptance rates. Then I just kind of sandblasted my submissions. It was naïve. I was constantly under the impression that there was a top tier and a bottom tier in regards to publishing. It's hard to move past that hieratical thinking into more linear and long term thinking. I feel choosier about where I want to send my work, but in a way that is objective and realistic.
I think I have a much better understanding of how community works, more so than I did five years ago in my MFA. Community means buying a book from the press you're sending to, or reading journals from cover to cover. Community means networking and sharing poetry and poets that inspire you or move you. Community means writing reviews and interviews and staying critically active and evolved.
DS: How are you able to switch back and forth between the personal task of writing poetry and the public task of promoting (i.e., selling) your chapbook?
LG: It requires compartmentalizing and using two different sides of my brain. There is never enough time to manage everything so it always comes down to prioritizing. I am a highly organized person so that is to the benefit of marketing what I create. I struggled with it at first. I was very grossed out by what I considered to be the "business of poetry" and the cronyism I witnessed. I am mostly over it now. A friend told me once to stop treating poems as precious things and I hang on to that, especially when I workshop or send out submissions. I go through binges of creating and submitting and usually they happen in separate spaces.
DS: Do you have any other books or poems coming out soon? If so, where can I find them?
LG: I do, thanks. I have a chapbook of persona poems written about Nancy Drew and her missing mother called "Keen" coming out this fall with Horse Less Press. I have another chapbook forthcoming with Yellow Flag Press that is a series Ars Poetica. Two poems will be in the August issue of MiPOesias, one poem with Sugar House Review this fall in their anniversary edition, and one poem with The Midwest Quarterly's special "work" issue in August.
Part II: Lauren Interviews Dan
Lauren Gordon: I just want to start by saying that I loved How the Potato Chip was Invented. It's an awesome mix of pop culture and persona and finely crafted poems. It feels especially close to my heart because I grew up in Southern California in the late seventies and lived there for a few decades, where celebrity sightings were par for the course. It wasn't a big deal that my ex-boyfriend's mom was in rehab with Mel Gibson, or that our family was friends with a friend of Bruce Springsteen – that kind of thing. So to read a poem like "Bob Dylan on the Set of a Victoria's Secret 'Angel' Commercial, Venice, 2004" is pure nostalgia (because omg, that commercial) and joy. The Dylan persona voice in this poem is so totally believable.
Dan Shapiro: I've been a huge Dylan fan since the 1980s—I've seen him in concert three times, even though the first two shows were terrible—but I don't like how a large chunk of the 1960s counterculture transformed into The Man without acknowledging it. (I first realized this when I saw Dennis Hopper in an ad for financial consultation.) That poem was my attempt at addressing this transformation, and in the poem, Dylan just kind of accepts commercialism as a necessary evil.
LG: You asked me a question about how much of "myself" winds up in the persona poems, and I'd like to know your answer to that, too. Also, I'm interested in what you do to get into the voice, especially since these vignettes are rooted in reality. Do you pull from memory, or is research involved? (I had wiped that Bob Dylan commercial from my memory - how do you recall that kind of ephemera?)
DS: With the exception of Charles Nelson Reilly, I don't think I have met any of the people who appear in these poems, so I speculate about how they would behave as regular people. In some cases, I start with what seems like a joke, such as Max von Sydow serving as a pitchman for Ikea. But then the poem turns serious, and readers might realize they have underestimated the celebrity's depth. In my normal life, I tend to joke more than a lot of people, but ultimately I tend to be serious. Maybe the playful opening helps to establish an easy mood, which may lead to trust; I don't do this consciously, so I don't know. Anyway, I suppose the poems structured in the funny-first/serious-second way are based on my own behavior patterns. So even though the word "I" might not represent me, my personality appears throughout the book.
Regarding your second question, I used a lot of events I had remembered as starting points. The Victoria's Secret ad struck me as so absurd when it came out; Dylan appears like a ghost in it, as if he wandered onto the set and they just let him stay there. In many cases, I researched celebrities' biographies and found facts that have made audiences laugh because the facts seem outlandish: Lon Chaney got sick from swallowing snowflakes; Werner Herzog tortured Klaus Kinski by eating chocolate in front of his face; pretzels and nachos were served at James Brown's memorial service.
LG: The arrangement of the sections in the book seems very organic and natural, especially because it would have been so easy to arrange in a chronology. Can you talk about what it was like to put an order to these poems? I know this is a "shop talk" question, but it feels important, as if the first section informs the reader how to read the book.
DS: I had discussed the order with the book's editors, David McNamara and Brian Mihok of sunnyoutside press. I really had no idea how to arrange the poems, but when I brainstormed and at one point suggested putting them in chronological order, David and Brian strongly disliked the idea. (I think they ended up letting me come up with whatever I wanted as long as the poems weren't in chronological order.) I knew the game show poems had to be together, and I thought they would work best in the middle. I also remember thinking it was important to break up the intensity of poems, so a lighter, sillier piece would follow a couple of more serious pieces.
LG: A lot of the poems are humorous to me, and humor in poetry is a hard thing to pull off I think because you risk a poem being clever – and there are entirely too many "clever" poems out there right now. "Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in Murder-Suicide" walks the line but finds its redemption in the conversation about power and gender and celebrity that seems to be the connective tissue in this book. I would love to hear more about the thrust of these poems; what do you hope a reader walks away with after reading this book?
DS: I would hope a reader would question what it means to be a celebrity and consider what celebrities have in common with regular folks. It doesn't make sense to disrespect or revere someone simply because he or she is famous. Most of the poems in the "Match Game" section stem from my disgust with critics who have referred to the panelists on the '70s game show as "washed-up celebrities." Several of the panelists had acted in and directed plays on Broadway, but they enjoyed a drink or two before filming the game show and therefore appeared to be buffoons on occasion. Nearly every panelist on that show was sharp. Fannie Flagg was on there, after all.
LG: Another thing that makes the read so interesting to me is the prose form. Some poems have an almost blurb-like quality to them, as if you're reading headlines on gossip magazines while standing in a grocery store line. Then there are poems like "David Gregory Fills in for Matt Lauer on Today, 5/11/07" that is written as a dialogue between David Gregory and Martha Stewart. This poem is so uncomfortable that I find myself thinking "is this real? Did this really happen?" Then there are poems like "Incarnations of the Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme Action Play Set" written as a cinquain with deliberate meter. When you created the poems in this book, did you have an idea of form before you began writing or did it happen more informally?
DS: I was a journalist before I was a poet, and the journalistic mindset sometimes turns up in my poems. I thought of a number of the pieces as if they were news stories, so the prose form suited them best. The poem about Don Knotts starts out like a magazine article but then becomes more clearly poetic. The title piece, "How the Potato Chip Was Invented," might not be a poem at all. It's more of a botched news item, in part because in real life, I had visited a potato chip factory and watched a documentary there, but then I forgot most of the facts in the documentary. The Fromme piece had to be more succinct to create an eerie mood and to imply rather than spell out that she could be a sympathetic character. The Gregory/Stewart piece has actual dialogue from an episode of Today. It bothered me that one of the toughest political reporters had turned into such a softie, so it made sense for him to break down momentarily during the interview and forget that he had become a softie. (In that piece and on the real show, Stewart wins, of course.)
LG: Do you have a favorite celebrity or do you find yourself drawn to any particular era of Hollywood?
DS: I could answer the first part two ways: 1.) When I watch a movie, my favorite performers are often people who don't seem like they could've been real. Fred Astaire was a sort of magical being in a way that Gene Kelly was not; it's harder to believe Astaire actually brushed his teeth or did the laundry or whatever. Christopher Walken has seemed magical, too, especially when he was younger or when he dances. He doesn't move like a normal human being. Peter Lorre couldn't be real, nor could Joan Crawford or Cary Grant. Helena Bonham Carter is not real in the Merchant-Ivory movies. I remember just staring at her and not paying attention to Howards End at all. So my favorite celebrities could be people who seem to have special powers and exist only on the screen. But if they were truly magical, perhaps they wouldn't be celebrities. Or… 2.) My favorites are the ones I could meet for a beer because they're actually real people who clearly show integrity, compassion, and other good qualities. The other night, I was watching a documentary about the film Nashville, and I decided Keith Carradine was a good guy. I can't remember what he said exactly—maybe that he had been intimidated by Lily Tomlin—but he just came off as a great person when he had no reason to prove he was. Jodie Foster is that way, too. My favorite era of Hollywood would be the 1970s, by the way. Vietnam, Watergate, and other events made an imprint on so many great movies: The Parallax View, Network, All the President's Men, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon… I could list them for a long time.
LG: I just realized I didn't mention any of the Match Game poems, which are so incredible. "Elaine Joyce, Lower Left" is a stunner. You manage to write in a feminine voice so beautifully and create this imagined persona of a very real person. Did you ever see that episode of the game show Pictionary where Erik Estrada accidentally punched Bill Maher in the face? I was talking about that episode with a friend who is younger than me and had no idea what I was talking about. It broke my heart a little. Do you ever worry that your poems might go over the head of the younger reader because of the references? "Elaine Joyce, Lower Left" is a beautiful poem whether or not the reader knows who she is or what Match Game was – but it's not the same as having the mind's eye visual of her sitting at the long table with that wonderful grin.
DS: I don't worry about the poems going over people's heads because the themes don't hinge on names or dates. If people like the feel of the poems, they can look up specifics later. Anyone can Google. People don't need to know who Elaine Joyce is to understand what's going on in that poem because it talks about how she lost her husband, Bobby Van, and anyone can identify with the loss of a spouse. Plus, the reader would've rooted for Van earlier in the series—there's a poem about him struggling to make it in the Catskills—so that sets up the sense of loss in the Joyce poem. I am not interested in writing "timeless" poems because to me, timelessness often suggests lack of specificity or new ideas. If I were to write a tree poem or a break-up poem or a love poem that is appropriate for any era, it would have no relevance to the culture I know and care most about, which is the culture of my childhood or other times in my life. I am trying to figure out where I fit in my past and present environments, and I prefer to use specific cultural markers for those environments.
LG: What are you working on now and where can we read more? What is next for Daniel Shapiro? (I couldn't resist asking that E Entertainment type question.)
DS: I've written a chapbook-length series of heavy metal fairy tales. Each poem will have its own drawing; May-Lan Tan is illustrating the book, and she is fantastic. I just sent the manuscript to a publisher. I'm also working on another celebrity-oriented series, in which the speaker is unsure whether or not he is Woody Harrelson. And there's another series of poems based on creepy etchings by Max Klinger, a late 19th-/early 20th-century artist, but I've barely started those.