Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview with Stephanie Balzer on faster, faster


Stephanie Balzer is a poet, journalist and nonprofit professional who leads VOICES, Inc., a Tucson-based youth development agency that mentors young people age fourteen to twenty-one in the documentary arts. She earned an MFA from the University of Arizona in poetry in 2004 and has published two chapbooks: Revenant (Kore Press) and faster, faster (CUE Editions). In 2008 she was the University of Arizona Poetry Center Mary Ann Campau Fellow, and she will be a featured poet at the Tucson Festival of Books in March 2011. A poem from faster, faster can be read here.

Christopher Nelson: faster, faster is one of your two recent chapbooks of prose poems. I’m curious: what draws you to that form?

Stephanie Balzer: When I was an undergraduate English major at the University of Hawaii, I started taking poetry classes mainly because I had to fulfill a creative writing requirement, and I figured that poetry would be the easiest genre because poems were the shortest. I never set out to be a poet, and at that time I didn’t feel inspired to write. But one day I just decided to write a poem in a paragraph—maybe I had been reading Ron Silliman’s The Age of Huts. I brought the poem into workshop, and my teacher called it a prose poem; I didn’t even know the form had a name. I think it was my most successful poem at the time. I felt that the sentence and the paragraph made me freer than the line and the line break and the fragment and the phrase, but I’m not sure why. There’s something about the prose poem’s juxtaposition of poetic language with the quotidian that leads to playfulness. After my undergraduate work, I went on to become a journalist for about eight years, so I was reading and writing more prose than poetry. With time the form has come to feel like the clothes that fit me best.

Nelson: And what are the form’s unique challenges?

Balzer: It feels heavy. You lose the opportunities of the line break. Some of the formal decision making is taken away. Some of the visual possibilities are taken away. I block off my margins, justify them both; I don’t even think about that edge. And how to make up for losing the richness of the line break—I worry about that. To me, what makes up for it is breaking the mold of what we think a paragraph is. We think it has to be a unified whole. We think it needs a topic sentence. We think of it as being solidified. But visually you do lose something. All my poems look the same, and that eats at me a little. I’m interested in making something that looks different, but I fear that now I default to the prose poem form.

Nelson: What’s the old maxim about our shortcomings being our strengths?

Balzer: I think of that.

Nelson: I delight in the associations you make in the poems of faster, faster. In one we travel from Aristotle’s notion of history to a hairspray ad to the nature of mind to Chinese water torture to aging to the Gulf Coast hurricanes to the anthropomorphizing of defunct computers—and yet it all coheres, and the pathways between those associations seem almost logical. The prose poem has been described as the ideal form for mapping one’s thinking. And yet, a polished prose poem probably has only the appearance of being a map of one’s thinking, as it is a made thing, a revised thing, a contrivance. I’m interested in the tension between the original associative thinking from which a poem comes and the final, made thing.

Balzer: My first prose poem project, Revenant, was very contained; those poems are all linked by a dramatic arc, and they are focused on a particular theme and a specific geographic space. In Revenant I pushed a lot out. So in faster, faster I wanted to throw everything in. And I did want them to be a map of my thinking; that was an underlying presupposition of the intent. But I found that it was more like a crossword puzzle. I would consciously collect ideas—things I’d read, things I’d seen and heard and experienced. Then I tried to fit these together. Like in a crossword puzzle, I was filling in gaps and looking for connections and associations and themes. Writing the poems was like a game. There was definitely a sense of surprise and wonder that came about from some of these juxtapositions. When I eventually had a general cohesive architecture it became more of what we might expect of a poetic process: ordering ideas and creating internal movement with syntax and flow and pacing. And it’s funny that I’ve been writing these prose poems because I struggle with syntax and flow and pacing, and these are some of the main aesthetic values of the prose poem.

Nelson: I’ve also read your prose-poem chapbook Revenant. There are, of course, formal and stylistic similarities between the two, but the voices in them are quite distinct. I think that perhaps the greatest achievement of faster, faster is the voice, which effectively amalgamates several styles of thinking: pop-culture immersion, a self-conscious irony, confession, comedy, friendly anecdote, and an ethos that results from information inundation.

Balzer: I loved working on Revenant and being consumed by it, but with faster, faster I wanted to break from my idea of the poetic. I wanted my own anti-poetic voice. … I know poets who seem to have this ability to access something inside themselves, a depth of emotion or a sense of devastation. I don’t feel like I have that ability. I’m the kind of person who, if I broke my arm in a crowded room, I’d say I’m fine, and I’d smile. I don’t know how to access something that I know a lot of poets can. So in faster, faster I was trying to invite a lack of control because I wasn’t going to be able to find that emotion internally. I set out with a sort of reckless ambition to bring in as much as possible as a way to access something that I had only been able to circle around.

Nelson: I’m curious about your notion of the anti-poetic. What does that look like for you? Is that the everyday diction, the pop-culture allusions, the sense of it being so very much of the contemporary world?

Balzer: Yes. And I worry about those things because, I guess, it’s an evaluation of my own life, which does contain a lot of the pop-culture material and detritus that piles up onto everyday experience. And what’s poetic in that? I feel like I lead a very anti-poetic life. I have to work. I’m not a teacher of poetry. Poetry doesn’t have a day-to-day resonance in my life. Poetry is often very absent from my life. So I was trying to figure out how to marry day-to-day life with the poetic. I was trying to bring poetry back in. So the anti-poetic is my attempt to access what was really poetic for me. And it involves a lot from pop culture. I had to figure out how pop culture separates, or doesn’t, from my existence. I had to figure out how it diminishes my existence while I have a craving for it.

Nelson: I imagine that for many readers faster, faster will be more engaging than a lot of poetry because it is so deliberately of this time, and in it there are numerous references to people and things from contemporary pop culture. I’m interested in hearing about how you see faster, faster in relation to time. My assumption is that a poem that alludes to pop culture is one aligned to ephemera.

Balzer: I think that the poems are obsessed with time. I guess everything I write tends to be about time, maybe because I attach so deeply, and because the passage of time and the impermanence of things makes me very sad. This plays out in odd, obsessive ways, like I’m always thinking about buying timeless things. If I buy a purse I think, “This is the timeless handbag; I’ll never need to buy another one ever again.” And then I’m really disappointed a year later when I want to buy a new one. So attaching to people or ideas or things, then discovering that that attachment is unimportant—that’s really painful. Maybe there’s an attempt in these poems to immortalize or to bring in these concerns. But I’ve worked hard to write about this material in such a way that pop-culture references aren’t obscure, regardless of whether the reader has, say, seen the same reality TV program as I have.

Nelson: I’d like to go back to the topic of voice. We writers frequently invent voices for our different projects. Some of those voices, from my experience, feel more distant from the idea of self I identify with, and some feel very close to it. It is tempting to say that these close voices are more me and therefore more authentic, but I think that is less and less true for me. I wonder if there is actually something very much me in the more remote voices.

Balzer: faster, faster is the project where I began inventing more voices. … There’s great devastation right now. And there’s a lot of richness within that devastation—sadness and joy and all the rest. I started with the idea of America. I wanted it to be very American. Of course there are thousands of ideas that are American, but for me there needed to be a sense of tone driving it. faster, faster is totally driven by tone, and, overall, I feel that tonally it represents me. And because it is driven by tone, I was able to manipulate things that previously I might not have. “That didn’t happen” or “that’s not how it was” or “that’s not real”—I felt the freedom to manipulate these experiences and things I’d seen and heard. Tone is driving, and that allowed me to invent more, and to use the fake to get at the real.

And I struggled with the pronouns, the I and you, and how to fit them in so that they would form a cohesive sub-narrative. And I think about a reader’s perspective and how those pronouns play into that. I didn’t want it to be cerebral or abstract or an entirely mental experience.

It’s interesting how you’re living two lives when you’re writing. In Revenant, the arc of discovery was driving. I was building this arc, and I thought, “I need to get out of this somehow.” I wanted it to end; I wanted it to have closure. I wanted a beginning and middle and end—or a kind of homage to that idea. And I really did live in a house in which I lived a lot of experiences in the poems, and at one point I decided I had to move, actually physically move, because I wanted to end the manuscript.

Nelson: That’s a dramatic way to get closure.

Balzer: [laughter] Yeah.

Nelson: I read faster, faster as brilliant satire, as a sort of critique of a culture in which we are inundated with often trivial information. You write: “I confess: my state of mind is America.” From the beginning of this project, did you set out to write a satiric book?

Balzer: I probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate it that way at the beginning. It began from a sense that I was going crazy and the world was going crazy, and from a sense there was an inability for us as a culture to define ourselves differently, and for me personally to define myself differently. It was like we were all caught in a stream that was going to a not-good place, but there was no way to shift it, especially as one person. It was a sense of powerlessness, of being disempowered—and maybe satire is related to that.

Some of the reflections are very personal: about an addiction to (or a fascination with) pop culture and ephemera that results from the media—and I was a part of the media. There’s a sense of spectacle, and an individual and cultural addiction to that spectacle. How do we even go about changing that?

But there are things that I wrote that I edited out. I had to learn to write satirically. I had to use a different set of muscles. I didn’t want to move into a vein that was too personally critical of individuals in my life. What would resonate culturally—what would indict us culturally but not be an indictment of a specific individual? There’s definitely a sense of an anonymous or a cultural you that I’m writing about, but finding that was a challenge. And, you know, where’s that line of being inappropriate? And are people going to know that this is satire? And because I’m still writing in this project, maybe I’m not far enough away from the poems to say.

One of the intended audiences is definitely fellow poets and fellow writers who I feel are not addressing something within me that wanted to be extracted. Why are we not talking about what is political and important?

Nelson: And what about the characters that appear throughout—Danny, Mark, Barbara, Boyer, Morgan, and others? I love their presence. They make the poems pleasantly personal and the tone conversational, inviting, and intimate.

Balzer: They’re different from characters because they don’t have back-stories or identities. They’re sort of disembodied, but often what they say in the poems they really did say. I’ll have people in my life who’ll say, “Don’t put that in a poem.” They’ll see me writing something down—especially Morgan, who’s a close collaborator and friend. He’ll see something in my expression, or he knows my aesthetic well enough to know that that might be something I’d include in a poem, and he’ll say, “You can’t use that in a poem!” But they’re all people who push me to different levels of thinking. Often what they say has struck me as very wise and germane to the project, and I see how it could lend an idea a greater resonance. I didn’t ask for permission, really. I just put them in there.

Nelson: One effective thing that their presence does is broaden the vocal range. And I see them as having an important role in the satire. There are moments when the poems become dialogic, when the speaker says one thing and then Boyer or Morgan or Barbara comments on that. It’s an effective rhetorical device that allows you to sort of veil a satiric statement behind what appears to be an innocent informal exchange between two close friends.

Balzer: Each poem has a lot of phrases—“I read,” “I heard,” “I saw”—and I’ve edited some of those out, and I’ve left some of them in. But I wanted a sense of the individual almost at the mercy of an environment. I wanted more of a bombardment, rather than coming out and directly saying what I know or think. I didn’t want that poetic stance of omniscience. I wanted the opposite of that. So rather than me appropriate their ideas, which I could have done, I used direct quotes. Plus I wanted to convey a sense of learning, or being unsure of knowledge, and including these direct quotes, these other voices, was a way to enrich or contradict or strengthen some of the ideas. And I wanted to undercut what I had thought of as my position as a poet.

Nelson: Which takes us back to what you previously said, your intention to do something deliberately anti-poetic. This has a wonderfully ironic consequence: in doing something anti-poetic you created such a poetic thing.

Balzer: I’m always wondering, “Where is that boundary?” How can I use language in an unpoetic way and still have an emotional resonance in the poem? That’s the direction I’ve been pushing, and I’m still working it out. Right now that’s my personal journey as a writer.

But there’s a difference between a personal development and a development of the genre. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make poems travel as far as I can. I don’t know if advancing is the right word because it might not be linear, but making new, doing something new in the genre, versus doing something new as an artist. I admire poets like Charles Bernstein and Bernadette Mayer and Ron Silliman; their work has traveled so far.

Nelson: Writers talk about playing traditions forward. Your poems do this in how they are so clearly of the contemporary moment, and that’s not easy to capture; it’s a fleeting thing. And also the complicated, delicate, and successful amalgamation of voices—or qualities of voice—plays the tradition forward. And then of course we should acknowledge that the modernist dictum to make it new has been tyrannical in some ways.

Balzer: I just went to the Cézanne exhibit at the Phoenix Museum of Art. It was such an interesting exhibit because it was so much about process. It wasn’t only interested in the finished works of the master Cézanne. The idea that the entire canvas doesn’t have to be painted was something that Cézanne introduced, and I feel like I want to move further in that direction. If I have anxiety about my poems now it’s that I feel the entire canvas is painted, and in a sense I want to leave more of the edges showing; I want to let the pencil lines and brush strokes be more visible.

Nelson: So faster, faster as a chapbook is not the terminus of the project. You’re intention is for it to grow into a book-length collection.

Balzer: I want it to. I probably have seven or eight poems in the project beyond the chapbook. And I don’t feel that they’re becoming overwrought or that I’m writing in a formula. So we’ll see.

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