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Alan May Interview

   

 

Alan May’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Orleans Review, Double Room, Willow Springs, E-ratio, Kulture Vulture and others. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama. His book Notes toward an Apocryphal Text, a collaboration with the artist Tom Wegrzynowski, was published in 2006 by Port Silver Press. You can find out more about the book here.  

   

 

Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 25 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones In High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email  Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year.


Berry's solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Strange Parlors, Naked as Rain and the Animal Beneath, Shadow Resolve and many others. With Bare Knuckles he has recorded four albums, Trouble In Your House, Alabama Dust, Doppelganger Blues and Root Bound. With the ambient experimental group Ascension Brothers he has recorded numerous albums including All Souls Banquet, The Wedding Ball and Pillar of Fire (which served as soundtrack for a series of plays by Ray Bradbury) and most recently Transfigurations Blues.

Ongoing projects include book four of Brambu Drezi (which will include a video for each section - the opening sections are available now at YouTube and Vimeo.com), a collection of short poems, an online and print biography of the poet and critic Jack Foley, an album of experimental ambient music with Chris Mansel under the name Impermanence, an album of acoustic songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry and Van Eaton under the name The Cahoots, and an album of alternative rock songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry, Ben Tanner, Max and Kirk Russell.

 

 

 

 

JB: As the culture moves further away from print as its central medium how do you think poetry will adapt? There are of course many kinds of popular poetry by way of the various forms of popular music. There are also sound poets, performance poets, and slam poets and many poets that publish in both performance and print. If the audience for poetry as a textual form has diminished greatly does it matter for poetry generally? For the culture at large?

 

AM: I think there are a lot more poets out there experimenting with new ways of presenting their work, and they probably won't be as marginalized as they have been in the past. As for sound, performance, slam, etc., I guess poets will continue to explore new ways of writing, but I think poetry (poetry without accompanying visuals or sound) will somehow maintain its tiny territory within the public consciousness.

 

But I shouldn't paint such a bleak picture. I don't think the audience for textual poetry has decreased, at least not in the past ten years. Especially if you consider electronic texts. I'm amazed at the “usage” (forgive the librarian jargon) online journals and e-zines get. It’s astounding.

 

And then there are those really amazing hand-made journals that are popping up. They are a delight to hold and read. Spell, and string of small machines are good examples.

 

If the audience for textual poetry decreases, I'm not sure what it means for society. I like the "warm" mediums of printed text and visual art (I would love to touch a Chaim Soutine or to at least view some of his work in person…). I guess what I’m saying is that poetry’s aims and abilities differ from other genres. I don't know how to better describe this. I'm guessing (hoping) I'm not alone in feeling this way.

 

JB: With regards to your own work, do you think it benefits your audience to hear you perform the work or do you feel the work is complete as it is in print?

 

AM: I would hope the work is complete in print, and that readers can lay claim to it without my help. My friends tell me that my physical presence adds to the work, but I'm not sure what to make of that. I suspect that readers in general rarely read poems aloud, which, to my mind, is the preferred way of reading. When I was teaching, I always read and had the students read the poems we were studying aloud, sometimes several times. I was amazed at the results. It was really rewarding to see the jocks, baton twirlers, slackers, stoners, etc. suddenly get excited about something they weren't supposed to care about or understand. And I had nothing to do with it really. The poems were doing it.

 

JB: I remember reading your work a decade or more ago. At that time the poetry was rich with what seemed to be personal history, occasionally brutal accounts. In your more recent work, particularly in Notes Toward an Apocryphal Text, some of that personal history remains, but it is only part of a broader, deeper field that includes visionary, even hallucinatory elements. What happened in the interim? What provoked the change?

 

AM: I was very reckless at that time, and I think that was reflected in my writing. To sum it up, I didn't like the world very much. Then a very gradual change happened. I found validation (to some degree) through writing. After my wife and I had a son, I realized the personae of the drunken, suicidal poet wouldn't work anymore (and I was starting to find that personae very tedious, anyway). I guess I’m still cynical and fairly morbid in my focus, but there are other things to write about now.  In the end, though, I don't really want to write poems about my kid learning to walk or ride a bicycle, either. I don't want to use that part of my life in that way. (Though I will admit that revisiting children’s literature, fables, myths, etc., helped me to focus on some of the stranger, more ridiculous elements in literature. I love it when language triumphs over narrative. The Dr. Seuss books are a good example of this.)

 

And then during the 2000 election, I got angry when I saw the neo-cons hi-jacking Christianity. I think it was even more troubling to me than for the average person because I had been raised in the conservative Christian environment. Even though I didn't have the hook, the line, and the sinker in my mouth any more, I felt angry that politics had entered the pulpit with such force. And the hypocrisy of said politicians was and is unbearable.

 

Then 9/11 happened, which produced a weird kind of mirror image (one that's admittedly somewhat refracted and distorted) of the aforementioned hi-jacking. Due to all of this, I became kind of obsessed with religion and history—an obsession that also caused me to reconsider literature and the way language and text can be used to manipulate others.

 

JB: The poems in Notes Toward an Apocryphal Text seem to have retained some of that religious background, including specific scenes in church where an "angel baby" plays an important role. Can you address how religion has influenced your poetry? Also, is there a specific moment of origin for some of the characters like the angel baby, the speaker’s brother gone mad with a shotgun, the general, and so forth?

 

AM: Most of the poems in the book are, I think, trying to address religion. And I guess I tend to separate religion and spirituality. In the name of religion we send children off to kill "infidels" or anyone else who has a different set of ideas or values. In the name of spirituality we see ourselves as part of the world around us, we transcend materialism to help those in need. In some of the poems, too, I think the speakers are troubling “deaf Heaven,” which might in some ways parallel the act of writing poetry.

 

There are definitely specific points of origin for some of the characters. In the case of “El General,” I started out with this weird, dangerous, and yet, somehow, pathetic speaker. Suddenly I realized I was channeling a certain American president. I created the speaker in "Light Coming through the Shape of the Moon" based on a few people I knew as a child and young adult. My father suffered from severe mental illness and an acquaintance of mine had psychotic breaks in his early 20s. It was ultimately very hard for me to write about this stuff. A fellow poet and mentor of mine had been looking at sections of this messy long poem and said, you need to find a single image or character to, as Richard Hugo put it, "anchor the abstraction." If I remember the story right, apparently Hugo immediately corrected himself and said, "No, you have to anger the abstraction." Not long after that, I was going through some pages I'd written and put aside. A baby angel showed up in one of the sections, I remember thinking to myself, did I write that? It’s funny, but actual occurrences of violence are often too weird and ridiculous to put on paper. In some ways, I think surrealism (or maybe even magical realism in the case of the poem you mention) helps readers objectify violence. And the dream-like elements in surrealism can help with the suspension of disbelief. When intelligent, sensitive human beings see violence, I think very often the immediate reaction is to think to oneself “Did that just happen?”  

 

JB: The title Notes Toward an Apocryphal Text suggests Wallace Stevens' "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." Is there a direct connection to Stevens' poem or his poetry in general?

 

AM: I'm a big fan of Stevens' poetry, and I’m sure Harmonium especially had a lot of influence on the book, but I wasn't intentionally trying to reference his work (I guess I did, didn't I?) Anyway, I like the idea of an incomplete work with some very dubious speakers. And I thought it was interesting to try to produce a religious text and to tip my hand that I was doing it. Not quite Joseph Smith, but getting there, in a fun sort of way.

 

JB: What are the circumstances of your writing? For instance, is there a time of day, any sort of preparation or ritual, or perhaps even any coincidental event that opens you to what Jack Foley called "the necessity which caused the words"?

 

AM: I have to actively seek a quiet place and time. And I almost always begin by reading other poets. I guess they provide the necessity Jack Foley mentions.

 

JB: Tom Wegrzynowski's rich symbolic painting works so well in collaboration with your poetry. How did you discover his work? Were you friends before you knew one another as artists?

 

AM: I first saw Tom's paintings when I worked at UA's main library. I would frequently walk around a little bit during my lunch break, and I always like to see what was going on in Woods Hall (that's where most of the art classes are taught and there's a gallery there). I saw Tom's paintings and I was floored. I felt an immediate connection to the work. I went back a few days in a row, and then I asked around, and I was finally able to meet him.  Not long after, I convinced him that we should put some of our work together.

 

JB: Now that you have a book in print, available to anyone, how do you proceed? Is Notes Toward An Apocryphal Text the culmination of a period, an approach, or the opening to the way you will work from now on?

 

AM: I think it may be the culmination of a period. For a very long time I was focused, off and on, on getting a book out. This had a negative effect on my work. With the publication of Notes..., I now know that I don't have to worry so much about trying to fit in with what publishers want. (Right now Tom W. and I are collaborating on a group of illustrated alphabet poems for a children’s book titled, tentatively, Reality Is the Horse You Rode in on; Poems for Adult Accompaniment.)

 

In terms of writing, if I set out with a particular purpose and style in mind, then I’m usually unhappy with the result. And ultimately, I think writing should encourage my own mindfulness and attention to the moment. I want to get back to that, and not worry about where I'm headed.

 

 

 

 

 

copyright © Alan May & Jake Berry