Matt Erik Katch Interviews Megan Volpert

Jump to his Review of the desense of nonfense

1. the desense of nonfense is clearly an evolution of face blindness, which seems to have taken a distinctive poetic style and focused it. What would you say has had the most direct influence on this process? What influences are in the periphery that you consider essential?

Well, I think the most evident answer here is also the best: my first book has had the most direct influence on this book. Most of my poetry is written in response to things, which is why so many of my poems come in pairs. I cannot even let my own poems speak for themselves without writing more poems in dialogue with them.  Dara Wier said it best, that I “refuse to leave anything said alone.”  the desense of nonfense really emerged in response to criticisms of face blindness, and to a limited extent, could be considered a sequel.

There were at least three major critiques of the first book that I attempt to negotiate in this one.  One, people were always saying, “but what is it about?”  I began to realize that this impulse toward aboutness is a fundamental part of the way we engage the world, and it really irritated me. My first book was too often dismissed because it resists easy categorization, so I wrote this book to argue against that method of interacting with books. Two, which is related, is that people complained the first book lacks concrete images. Well, the first book is titled for a neurological condition that prevents image recognition, so those people obviously weren’t quite on to my game plan there. Nevertheless, I wrote this book to argue that a profusion of imagery does not necessarily help clarify matters or ease the mind in any significant way. Three, I was accused of overusing my “I,” and generally being too central in my own poems. But this is just a matter of camps, and a place where I tend to part company with old school postmodernists. So I wrote this book to make fun of the idea by using “we” instead of “I” and inventing characters or voices that, taken holistically, basically function as me anyway.  It’s strange, the lengths that authors sometimes go to in order not to discuss themselves, or to appear that they are not discussing themselves.  Not me; I love discussing myself.

My personal beef with face blindness is that it feels very choppy in ways I did not intend. This is probably a natural result of carving the book out of my grad school thesis. When I was writing over the course of those three years, I wasn’t doing it with the end product in mind. So in this book, I really aimed for cohesion. When I began writing it, I did a bit of outlining and consideration of what I wanted the project to say as a whole. So this book was always a book, even when it was only a few poems. I also did a fair amount of rewriting when I began putting the pieces of it together, to further solidify the connections between particular images or ideas.

When face blindness came out, I was just very unhappy with everything about it—perhaps having a sort of postpartum depression from the book. But then a friend said to me, “Megan, what are you crying over? There will be many other books!” In the moment, I hated her for saying that because I wanted my first book to feel singular and special. But in retrospect, she was completely right.  I think the only way to have a good sense of how to write a book is to squeeze out that first one and just get it over with. In this respect, self-important though it sounds, I am my own biggest influence.

2. Based on discussions I have had with other reviewers of your previous work, you don’t seem to be a big fan of positive reviews. Why? What does a negative review do for you that a positive review does not?

I am always grateful to people who enjoy my work, but positive reviews are rarely helpful, whereas negative reviews are very helpful if they are written intelligently. The worst sort of review is a negative one that is poorly written. I can respect any smartly presented argument, whether I agree or disagree with it. I am happy to lazily agree with positive reviews and willing to work toward improvement based on negative reviews, but an unintelligent negative review is just hard to take seriously.

In general, I am a very selfish and egotistical person. This means I feed off compliments, usually no matter how unintelligent those compliments are.  Positive reviews inflate my ego beyond its already basically untenable proportions. This makes my mind docile, and leaves me tempted not to produce fresh, innovative work. Positive reviews have a bad effect on my future poems to the extent that they make me undisciplined. I realize that positive reviews are fairly important to selling huge amounts of copies and more broadly spreading the word about my existence. As it regards those matters of marketplace, I am indeed a big fan of positive reviews.

But intelligently written negative reviews are far more interesting to me for several reasons. One, I am a workaholic who constantly strives to do better. If you say my first book was crap, I will definitely send you a copy of the second book in hopes of redeeming myself. Two, genuinely constructive criticism is hard to find. Negative reviews alert me to problems with my current poetics, and help me channel future means of resolution for those problems. They point out my blind spots and say things that are not obvious to me, which is always delightful. Three, I strive to be at least minimally controversial in life and in art—to produce art objects that provoke strong reactions. Negative reviews are a symptom of success in that endeavor. Four, I just have more respect for somebody willing to print a negative opinion instead of a positive one. It doesn’t take much to tell a stranger on the street you like their shoes, because it doesn’t involve any responsibility unless everybody else thinks the shoes are hideous.  It takes a lot to walk up to that stranger and punch them in the stomach though, because everybody else then demands that you justify your action, and you’ve really got to have the courage of your convictions.  Yes, I realize this metaphor makes an argument that arrogantly assumes most people like my work—but hey, just look at the reviews!

3. Do you have any advice to poets emerging from college or graduate school that may be in need of that genuine constructive criticism that they can no longer obtain from class-related workshops?

Well, if you found genuine constructive criticism in your workshops at school in the first place, consider yourself lucky. That said, I do have some advice, but you have to be a bit of a masochist because the “criticism” angle is much more easily obtained than the “genuinely constructive” angle. 

One thing I do is stay in close contact with the few people I met in grad school whose opinions of my work I understand. This doesn’t mean I trust them to say the smart or right thing, but over the couple years we spent together, I acquired a sense of how they read my stuff and have a corresponding sense of how to listen to what they have to say. If you’ve already established a relationship with somebody like that, if you have openness to a particular person’s perspective like that, do your best to keep it alive after graduation.

I have this one friend who dislikes basically every type of poetry that I would say I represent, and she has been reading my work for years. Our conversations about poetry often end in the most basic of arguments about form or content, but I keep giving her my stuff to read because we have learned the best ways to be tough on each other and her resultant insights continually surprise me. I comprehend that she is not full of crap, even though we quite regularly disagree. This goes back to what I said about negative reviews.

Another thing is to relentlessly ask people what they think of your work in general, not poem by poem specifically. This really helps me to distill what other people consider to be the essence of my work. If there are trends operating or labels that seem easily applied, other peoples’ snapshot impressions of the work as a whole have a distance that allows them to see that more easily than I can. One sneaky way I accomplish this is that when giving a reading, I often ask the host to make up my bio, instead of providing one myself. It’s interesting to see what other people think of as your accomplishments, or how they choose to describe your work to others. This has done wonders for me in terms of defining myself in relation to the field. 

Also along those lines, you absolutely have to read. In place of dialogue with other grad students, I now find myself in dialogue with books and magazines.  You have to keep the juices flowing, not to inspire more writing, but to seek new perspectives to apply to your finished work. I read a lot of music reviews, a lot of philosophy, a lot of political blogs. I try to be aware of fresh approaches to forming my opinion, because absent the captive audience of fellow grad students, you have to spend a lot of time weighing in on your own work. In this sense, the best means of garnering constructive criticism is to take stock of what there is in the world, and then be honest with yourself about how you fit into it.

4. What or who are you reading now?  Are there any magazines that you have found to particularly interesting or insightful?

There are a few things I am always reading. Magazines I subscribe to are Rolling Stone, Out, Poets & Writers, sometimes Wine Spectator, sometimes The Advocate. Rolling Stone is my staple—every piece passes judgment, so it’s helpful in the way I discussed above.  I like Out because of its tone—it wants so badly to be a tastemaker, and helps me define what it means to be gay or rich in modern America. I like Poets & Writers because so much of what exist between those pages has nothing to do with my world of poetics. It often makes me laugh, and fuels me to get beyond mainstream stuff by providing a bit of a reality check about what exactly the mainstream is this days. I once subscribed to The New Yorker in hopes of a similar effect, but I found the first two issues so bloated and useless that I gave the remaining issues away unread to other grad students with heartier stomachs for it. 

After Bush was reelected, I made a real effort to ignore the news and intentionally sealed myself in a sort of timeless vacuum of denial that I have only come out of in the past year or so, with the help of an unexpectedly rabid interest in the Democratic presidential primaries. Since Obama’s election, my interest does not seem to have dropped off and I still spend an hour or so each day keeping current. I do not watch much television or subscribe to any newspapers, so the vast majority of my news knowledge comes from the internet. I like The New York Times, Slate, and The Onion, but also tend to click through and to see what they think is important.

The issue of books is more complicated. To begin with, I always keep something from John Yau or Laura Mullen close by. Those are touchstones.  I never go to the library any more, so whatever I’m reading is something I’ve committed to having on my shelf. In general, I read a smattering of recent poetry collections, non-fiction pertaining to cultural icons and writers of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and a lot of theory or philosophy. I usually don’t read any brand spanking new poetry collections, partly because another one pops up every minute, but mostly because I have not done enough in the way of excavating my roots yet. So most poetry I read is at least two or three years old, but I’ve lately been into various poets’ collected works. For the non-fiction, I like biographies or essays more than autobiographies because that bit of distance makes things more interesting. For the theory and philosophy, I actually find myself lately reading mostly about the alleged death of these things. I consider myself a theory junky, so the supposed death of my love object is naturally cause for concern. Amidst all this, occasionally I throw in some old fiction, just as a palate cleanser. I really cannot stand most new fiction in any genre, so I usually end up going back to Jane Austen in the winter and Bret Easton Ellis in the summer. Then of course, because I am a high school English teacher, I have been reading certain canonical things like The Crucible on a loop for years now.

But I sense that readers are disappointed if the answer to this question doesn’t contain some very immediate tidbit from which they may draw countless strange conclusions about the interviewee’s inner psyche, and despite the fact that I will have long finished the book by the time this interview is in print, I do hate to disappoint. Currently I am in the middle of Harley-Davidson and Philosophy: Full-Throttle Aristotle, which is one of many volumes in the “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series from Open Court Publishing. Like a good portion of what I read, it caught my eye in a used bookstore. One of the essays is called “Christ in a Sidecar: an Ontology of Suicide Machines,” and though that particular essay was far from what I’d hoped, the title won my money. The book is quite good overall. So the reader should now feel tipped off to the idea that I am a motorcycle enthusiast, and hopefully from this more personal insight into my life, derive closure on the question of what am I reading.

5. In the desense of nonfense’s “About the Author,” the text states that your “work has a strong interest in the performative.” face blindness included poetry that you had performed in slam, and after a performance CD as well as competition at the National Poetry Slam, it would be hard to deny the influence; however, it does seem diminished in this new book. How do you see performance elements in relation to your new work? Do you perform these newer poems?

Well, there is performance and then there is slam. These experiences you’re citing are all in the category of slam, which I view as a subgenre of performance. During that phase in my writing, I think if you could mute the words of the poems and simply listen to the sound of me performing them, you would be basically unable to tell the poems apart. Now I’m going to say something essentialist but true: most of the “winning” poems in slam have a certain demographic-based sound, and they win by staying faithful to that sound or occasionally by turning that sound impressively on its head. This sound is easily imitated, as evidenced by all of those early poems I performed that, with the words on “mute,” could have passed for any other queer white girl from Alix Olson to Andrea Gibson.  I got completely bored with the sound of my own voice—no easy task for an egomaniac like myself to accomplish.

So it’s true that my newer poems do not display this characteristic slam sound, but I would say the influence of slam is there more than ever. Though I have taken great care with the page presentation, every piece in this book is also written with the intention of being performed aloud. The thing is: nobody knows quite what they sound like until they hear it directly from me. These poems definitely display the “problem” of many slam pieces, which is that they often don’t entirely work on the page. After every reading I do with this newer material, the majority of positive feedback I get revolves around my performance of the poems and not the poems themselves. The praise is so consistent that I am considering doing a companion audio book. Realize that this is in contrast to many “experimental” poets whose work flops in front of an audience because it all begins to sound a bit like static—for slam is not the only subgenre of poetics that has its own sound.

Then more broadly, a lot of the sound qualities are built into particular word choices, line breaks and so forth. I was raised in slam, so the bulk of my understanding about how to approach a live audience or craft a poem that performs well is based on the informal but extensive education I received as part of the slam community. There is a funny anecdote to illustrate this. Last year, I attended a reading that involved several poets whose work fits basically into a category with mine—edgy indy ladies in their twenties or thirties each with a book or two apiece. The audience was practically asleep by the time the last poet took to the stage, but then this last woman completely killed. All other things being roughly equal, why did this one woman fair so much better than the preceding poets? Turns out, she spent a few years in the slam community.  I have increasingly noticed this trend: many slammers are hitting the academic circuit because they have such a clear performance edge over the poets with more traditional or formal educations. Jennifer Knox and Jeffrey McDaniel particularly come to mind. Michael Theune, at Illinois Wesleyan, has written some interesting things on the subject of this cross-pollination.

But I digress; let me summarize. One, I still cherish my slam family and am deeply indebted to the education I garnered through that community. Two, I am no longer bored with my own readings, which is a sure sign of the performative longevity of these newer poems.Three, slam poets in general seem to be infiltrating academic circles with great success.

6. Slam has been undeniably popular on the college scene for awhile now, but that success on the academic circuit seems to be a different issue than slam poets having success in academic circles.  Academia is often very forgiving to the performance value of experimental poetry writing due to a less vested interest in it.  In spite of this context, what values do you see in the definition of successful poetics, or what do you consider qualifies a poet as successful?

This question is so painful, and so treacherous. I am twenty-seven years old.  I’ve published three collections with solid small presses, have toured a large chunk of the country, been nominated for a few awards, hold seats on a couple of important local boards, and have a teaching career. But there is the endless feeling of not doing enough, not working hard enough, not garnering enough recognition. Is this normal?

On my last birthday, I asked a writer who knows me very well: when did she think I’ll feel successful? She didn’t hesitate, and said that I would be fifty-five years old.  I thought she was kidding at first, but she was quite serious. It’s worth noting that she herself is not yet fifty-five. I asked her if she felt successful; she hemmed and hawed and ultimately deflected. So I called up another writer friend of mine who is past fifty-five, still a workaholic, and easily qualifies as successful according to pretty well any definition. When I asked him if he felt successful, he said felt proud but that he wasn’t sure if he was successful.

I don’t think any writer feels successful. It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition. I do often feel proud, but I do not expect to ever feel genuinely, permanently successful as a poet. Pride is something you can generate internally, but somehow, success does not seem to come from within. Certainly though, whatever small instances of success we achieve as writers or as people, nobody is going to just hand them over to us. Nobody has ever really called me a successful poet, but you know what people call me all the time?  Ambitious. Most often, this label is applied as a warning or insult.

Now, I am extremely adept at criticizing myself. It enables me a fair amount of immunity to the sting of criticism from others. But this label makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up a little, because I’m not even really sure what it means to be ambitious. Does it mean I’m young, or naïve or impatient?  Does it mean I’m unprofessional, or tacky or obnoxious? Does it mean I’m overstepping the perceived limitations of my demographic as a Jew, or a queer or a woman?  Does it mean I have no sense of humor, no sense of finesse or no sense of compassion? Does it mean I have high expectations, or unreasonable expectations or unreachable expectations? I don’t mind saying that all these shoes can definitely fit sometimes.

Mainly though, I work hard, and I do so unapologetically because I basically don’t have any idea how to stop myself from working hard. I think it is super fun to work hard! It would be nice if this hard work, this ambition, ultimately generated what other people think of as success. Instead, it often just generates more of this clucking noise, “oh, that Volpert is so ambitious.” But it is futile and idiotic to feel out a definition of any success now, for when I reach its marker, I will surely decide that a better definition lays elsewhere. So I try not to think too fiercely about the nature of success, lest I plunge myself into the territory of the radically unfulfilled, when in fact, I am actually quite happy.

7. What habits have you developed that help you to write effectively?  Have these habits changed from your slam career to your first book to this newest book?  Is there anything you do purely out of habit or perhaps, superstition?

I really dig this question, because the “effectiveness” of my writing process seems so much more within my control than its “success.” Yes, I have several habits and they have changed a good deal over time. I don’t think any part of my writing process is simply out of habit or superstition; the process seems to evolve largely out of the requirements imbedded in the types of poetry I’ve written.

During my slam days, I wrote pretty exclusively with an ink pen in one of those little black and white composition notebooks. I did the bulk of my writing late at night in any location, and generally when I was either inebriated or angry about something. There was always a kind of firing up process to beginning a new slam poem. I would go on my gut, and start them without really knowing how they would finish. Sometimes I would have two or three drafts going for different poems all at once. In most cases, I would finish a piece over the course of two weeks.  When I had a mostly finished poem, I would record it on a microcassette player and listen to it with headphones incessantly while walking around on campus all day. This was good for spotting flaws in the rhythm or rhyme structures that I could go back and fix, and also for the preliminary memorizing that was essential to competition. I’d also air it at one or two open mics, so I could get some audience feedback. When the final draft was complete, I’d begin blocking for an hour or so in my apartment every night, and continue listening to the microcassette all day. In about a month, the piece would be ready to slam.

Nowadays my writing habits are nothing like that. I still keep the composition notebook around in case of emergencies, but I hardly ever write with pen and paper anymore. I have a well known preference not for shape poems exactly, but for symmetry in the line breaks. Even with my very neat penmanship, how those line breaks would translate into typeface is not precise enough for me to make adequate language choices while drafting the poem. So I write mainly using my iBook in my office, and when I’m away from it, sometimes I jot down notes in my phone. I mostly write in the morning or afternoon, never when angry and seldom when intoxicated. I let an idea germinate in me for a few weeks and often do some research or accumulate inspiration by reading some particular thing that will help the ideas for the piece take shape. Then I will sit for as long as it takes to accomplish a nearly final draft, which is usually two or three hours.  After I’ve sat there and banged out the thing, I read it to Mindy, my wife. She doesn’t much think of herself as a poet, but she is a great student and—bless her heart—gets a kick out of learning anything I’m up to. Mindy has been the first audience for every poem I’ve written since grad school. Anyway, I let our thoughts on the piece sit for a day. I stare at the poem for a half hour or so the following day, and the poem is finished after I make any minor adjustments. Then it eventually gets sifted into the rotation for readings, the pile for submissions, the working draft of whatever manuscript, et cetera.

I think there is one thing that has not changed much, and that’s my tendency not to substantially revise. The vast majority of my poems are pretty much sprung whole on the first go around. I trust my instincts, and to adapt what my friend said earlier, there will be many other poems. What Dara Weir said is so true—perhaps I don’t revise much because I am always prepared to use some future poem to be in dialogue with and to answer for the mistakes of a previous poem. So when you look at the body of my work as a whole, there is a real sense that it is all one book, undergoing revision constantly.

8. What’s next for the highly ambitious Megan Volpert?  Are you already onto your next project?  What are you interested in tackling in the future?

Yes, there is always one project in the pipe, one in the hopper, and at least one on the back burner. In the pipe is a manuscript in progress. It’s an alphabetically organized analysis of the intersection of mainly French and German theorists, and pedagogy. I’ve wanted to write a book about teaching for awhile now, so this is definitely an essay on my philosophies of education, but it is also part memoir—a bit of a bildungsroman chronicling my own education. Usually I am comfortable with the confessionalism label, but I expect that much of what I’m working on now will be deemed so surprisingly accessible that the more mainstream label of memoir feels like an appropriate description. Andrei Codrescu graciously asked to serialize twenty of so of these poems in Exquisite Corpse, so much of what I’ve done for this manuscript is already in print.  I expect the project to take two or three more years to complete, and I hope to see it printed in time for my thirtieth birthday.

Then in the hopper, I am researching Melrose Place. No kidding. Every Saturday while Mindy is on the elliptical machine, I watch a couple of episodes and take ridiculous amounts of notes. I plan to do a chapbook, a study in the evils of heterosexual courtship ritual as evidenced by this giant of 1990s television drama. I’ve always wanted at least one my projects to turn out more explicitly queer than any of them have seemed to so far, but I do think this Melrose Place idea will be the one to finally clinch it. On the back burner are several other interests for the future. I seem to be accumulating a large number of thick books on Andy Warhol that I have no time to read, and there are now so many that it can no longer qualify as just a summer project. I am up to something there, stockpiling these books for some reason, but I do not yet know what will happen with them. I would also like to do a collection about motorcycling at some point, but probably it will be at least ten years before that idea feels approachable. Likewise in the distant future, I hope to someday do a homolinguistic translation or tribute, or write a book explicitly in parallel and in response to somebody else’s book.

But those are the writerly projects. Increasingly, I also find myself willing to take on administrative and fundraising projects. This summer, I am likely to do another total revamping of my web presence to more adequately reflect the personality and direction of my newer work. I am also Co-Director of The Atlanta Queer Literary Festival, which is a position I take very seriously.  Guiding AQLF so it can thrive and expand is no easy task, but I hope that in ten years, everyone involved can look back on the work we did and judge that we have built something substantial and powerful with what resources we had.  For awhile, there was a rumor—started chiefly by me—that I was contemplating starting up a small press or online magazine. Let me assure all that I have regained my senses, and no such printing project will be forthcoming. I am too selfish to spend that much time working on somebody else’s poems, and besides, there are only so many hours in a day. I am trying very hard to preserve some free time in which to actually have a small life beyond poetry.

9. Now that glitter is no longer among your hobbies, have you replaced it with anything?

More steel! But that’s actually a fairly deep question, referencing the bio from my first book, which said, “hobbies include glitter and steel.” There is a great story here.

In college, I lived among some bad feminists. Militant lesbian separatists convinced me that anything I perceived as traditionally girly ought to be shunned. I still dislike pink, and for a long time, I feared glitter. But eventually I was no longer militant, lesbian or separatist enough to hang out with the militant lesbian separatists, and I began to approach glitter with caution. It was more of a metaphor for showbiz than for femininity, and I love showbiz. I was doing slam and got increasingly outrageous on stage.

Then in grad school, I met Laura Mullen. This is one of the best early testimonies to why our friendship is a lasting one: I had a big Texas tour lined up, and to wish me luck, Laura put a tiny container of glitter in my office mailbox. This is great, because she had no idea that I was so opposed to glitter.  She just sort of intuited how to challenge me. For two or three years, I would always perform with glitter on. When I stopped slamming, I stopped using the glitter.

I also changed neck gear. Ask anybody who knew me in college or grad school, and the first thing they’ll describe was that I had this terrifically imposing leather dog collar with spikes on it. I depended on it for a gimmick and for making an intimidating first impression. When I finished grad school, I tucked the dog collar into a drawer, where it has rested ever since. The dog collar was replaced by ten strands of stainless steel.

This move from glitter and dog collar to stainless steel is certainly a symbolic one. I used to be all flash and no substance, poetically and often personally.  I was everybody’s best Saturday night ever, then forgotten by Monday morning.  There is a more mature kind of structure now. My approach to poetry and to life has become scientific in many ways, and though no less frenetic, it has a bit of staying power. Steel is just as shiny as glitter, but steel is more disciplined.



photo cred: Rob Friedman