Monday, October 5, 2009

Interview with Charles Jensen & Juliana Spahr

The Writer's Center is pleased to partner with Folger Shakespeare Library on bringing this special discount to Writer's Center members. Here's an interview between The Writer's Center's director, Charles Jensen, and Spahr. Following the interview you will find some information on the event, which includes a discount for Writer's Center members.

Both This Connection Of Everyone With Lungs and Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You are concerned with ideas of place. In the earlier book, you explored some ideas of sovereignty as Hawa’ii is both its own place apart from the U.S. and a state of it. In the later book, you explore the separations we experience as individuals because we can’t conceive of earth as a shared or common place for all people. How has “place” become such a significant presence in your work?

I think it probably has everything to do with Hawai'i. And with the interesting and complicated pressure that Hawai'i puts on its writers to think about what it means to be in Hawai'i. But poetry itself has a long tradition of being local, the form where the flora and the fauna are catalogued, where the names of the winds are preserved, etc. And I'm interested always in the sort of work that poetry can do, or does, that other genres and forms can't or don't.

You’ve worked in long sequences or book-length pieces, expansive works that, while they encompass or embrace many ideas and places, remain both intimate and specific. What brought you to writing in longer forms and what opportunities or surprises have you found there?

The modernist tradition. And the idea in modernism, which modernism gets from the epic, that poetry is a place for exploration of large ideas. That it can take on a lot of information and sort it in interesting ways. And I think those might be both the opportunities and the surprises. I'm interested in poetry as a genre for thinking, for inquiry as Lyn Hejinian puts it.

Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You seems concerned in many ways with the “public” world (the world of laws, of culture, of people in groups), but there seems to be a kind of narrative distance between the speaker of the poems and their subjects. The speaker of This Connection of Everyone With Lungs is equally concerned with world wide events, including the gathering aggression of impending war, the stock market report, and tabloid gossip, but the book is so internal it seems like a true departure from the earlier work. Were you consciously working with ideas of inside and outside in these two works, or did the focus of each book come more organically as you wrote? And how did you arrive at the form of the “day book” or journal as used in the later collection?

They happened organically. But when I was writing the second one, I often thought of it as a revision of the first one. So I've thought of Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You as a book where I attempt to think about what it means to be local. And This Connection as a book where I attempt to think about what it means to have the global constantly intruding, insistingly changing what it means to be local. And the day book form was very literal. I sat down to try and chart out, through poetry, what I saw happening in the news. It was an experiment to see if poetry could help me understand the war that was inevitably coming. And I'm not sure it did finally. Mainly though I was attempting to work with lyric. Which I wanted to do because I had spent so many years dismissing lyric, see it as individualist, as convention bound. And so I was trying to think about why I had misunderstood lyric. And to think about how one of the interesting things about lyric is that it is all about building empathy and intimacy between humans.

This Connection of Everyone With Lungs is, naturally, a book about the interconnectedness of the human race, despite our best efforts to remain sovereign from each other at every level. The book feels almost Whitmanesque in scope and in address—was his influence a tangible one for you? Is this collection a modern-day revisioning of Whitman’s Americana poetry in Leaves of Grass?

It wasn't directly. I always feel more sympatico with Gertrude Stein.
But, of course, I'm using his catalogue. Which he, of course, has stolen from the epic and other forms. And many of my concerns are similar...this question of human connection and attempts to extend it.

This Friday you’ll receive the O. B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library in recognition for your excellence in writing and teaching. What benefit does teaching have for you in your poetic practice?

Oh, it is another way of learning from other humans, with other humans.
When it is working. I'm also always suspicious of teaching, or at least teaching in institutions. Which when it isn't working feels riddled with unproductive hierarchies and unflexible conventions. Or here is the thing... I learn a huge amount from teaching. I've got no reason to doubt that. But I always feel I could learn more, learn better, from a less institutional setting. Teaching is always a pay to play game. Which doesn't disqualify it, or them, but means it is never as egalitarian as one might wish. And the pay to play aspect of it constantly infects its pedagogy. That said, it still might be the best model we've got right now for people talking with each other. It could for sure be more. But it is still something important. Undeniably.


As a special offer, members of The Writer’s Center may purchase $9 tickets (a 25% savings) to the 2009 O.B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize reading and ceremony honoring Juliana Spahr at Folger Shakespeare Library on Friday, October 9 at 7:30pm.

Order tickets online at and use coupon code FPTWC, or mention The Writer’s Center discount when ordering tickets through the Folger box office, 202-544-7077. Service charges apply.

The O.B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Award honors an American poet whose work and teaching are informed by the spirit of inquiry, imagination, daring, and scholarship of former Folger director O. B. Hardison, Jr.

Juliana Spahr is an associate professor of English at Mills College and recipient of the National Poetry Series Award for her second collection of poetry, Response (1996). She has published six other books of poetry including her latest, The Transformation (2007), a lyric prose memoir. Spahr is also the author of Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (2001), a scholarly study of contemporary poetry that fosters a value of reading as communal, democratic, open process. In addition to teaching and writing poetry, Spahr is also an active editor. Her collaborative efforts with other writers and poets have enriched and extended how we think about contemporary writing and teaching.

A free seminar precedes the poetry reading at 5pm.

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