The Art of Entertaining: A Conversation with Elaine Equi
By Jack SkelleyJune 16, 2021
Although rooted in the New York School of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Alice Notley, et al., and devoted to the Objectivists, especially Lorine Niedecker, she goes where her curiosity and awareness take her. As engaged with contemporary culture as Equi’s poetry is, her writing is based on a very traditional literary virtue: wit — and she doesn’t believe that entertaining writing is necessarily superficial.
Equi’s most recent collection, The Intangibles, gets deep into atomized media and consciousness. Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Award and shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Other collections include Sentences and Rain, Surface Tension, Decoy, The Cloud of Knowable Things, and Voice-Over, which won the San Francisco State University Poetry Award. Alas, her arch, edgy volume on Little Caesar press, Shrewcrazy — which I personally typeset! — is out of print.
Although we had nurtured a lifelong affinity, she and I had not connected in years. Our Zoom reunion was happy with rediscoveries. (An early L.A. performance by her and her spouse, Jerome Sala, took place in my old Venice bungalow.) During our conversation, we surveyed our decades-long love for the canons of contemporary verse as well as our ex-punk cravings for creativity.
JACK SKELLEY: Your verse mines the general culture (high, middle, and low) including a broad range of movies and music. So are you a “pop poet”? Are there others in the same camp?
ELAINE EQUI: When I was starting out, Pop Art seemed so fun and witty — it was intriguing to think what a poetic equivalent of that might be. The poet Jerome Sala (now my husband) and I had just met and were doing a lot of readings in bars and art galleries, which was not as common then as it is now. We both knew we wanted to create work that would appeal to a crossover audience, not just literary types.
When Dennis Cooper invited us to read at Beyond Baroque in the early 1980s, we were excited to meet a whole group of L.A. poets who all seemed to share that aesthetic and loved pop culture as much as we did and celebrated it so blatantly in poetry. Even before meeting Dennis, we had seen a copy of his magazine, Little Caesar (the issue with Iggy Pop naked on the cover), with a poem of mine in it, and we recognized a kindred spirit.
I still incorporate TV and movies a lot. In fact, a poem I just wrote the other day about indoor weather draws on scenes from Citizen Kane, The Amityville Horror, and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. But pop culture today feels much more diffuse — it’s more personalized and targeted. Songs and bands and TV shows can’t have the same impact they used to.
Pop culture is spread out over different devices and platforms. There are viral videos and memes and poetry that is written for and shared over Twitter and Instagram. I don’t share my opinions much on Twitter, but occasionally I like to post lines or little scraps of language. I like to play with the space between a short poem and a tweet. For me, there are often things that seem too slight to be a poem or maybe not. I like details, lines, fragments.
Here’s an example called “Crayon”:
Weather colors the day.
Breath inflates our aches.
Bobbing along the surface.
Why must I always
finish my sentences?
It’s as if
and now can’t stop.
You have applied ekphrastic verse to find new meaning in films and songs. “A Guide to the Cinema Tarot” playfully transfers well-known movie scenes to the concept of Tarot cards. What attracts you to ekphrastic forms? And to Tarot cards?
For me, ekphrastic poems present a way to enter imaginatively into pictorial space, whether it’s a painting or photo. I came up with the tarot card project because someone had invited me to contribute a poem and image for a special issue of a magazine on film stills. I had just bought a new camera and began happily to create my own film stills, basically screenshots, by watching and pausing a bunch of my favorite movies.
When I’d get an image I liked, I would study it until it seemed to speak to me. I think it’s a fairly common sensation to think that someone or something on a screen is addressing you personally. It was a highly addictive activity and turned into something of a hobby.
Doing the tarot deck gave me the confidence to take more of my own photos and write caption poems to accompany them. I like the way the image and the poem each convey information differently but in conversation with each other.
There’s also something that’s just very satisfying about the combination of a poem and a picture. I think haiku was often traditionally displayed with a beautiful ink drawing. In a more kitsch setting, greeting cards or postcards, even ads, often pair images and short texts in cool ways.
“Blue Jay Way” and “Astor Piazzolla” extend this format to music. The final couplet from “Astor Piazzolla”
Sway on stiletto heels
Through the winter’s white heat
compresses much about that Argentinian composer’s tangos. Why and by what means do you attempt to draw meaning from music?
I wish I understood music better. No one in my family plays an instrument. I know that’s no excuse. I did study flute briefly in college (a Jethro Tull– and jazz-inspired moment). But music is a mysterious other to me, even though I love listening to all kinds of it. And more and more lately, I like writing to it. Being of a more sedentary nature, I like the way it stimulates and simulates motion — invites dance — or mental travel. And then there’s the whole idea of tempo.
I’d like to play around more intentionally with language that’s written or should be read at different speeds. I know poets who did that it the ’90s, but it would be new to me.
What is the role of (your) poetry in addressing the big issues/disasters we all face as members of society? The Intangibles deals in many ways with “digital culture.” After four years of Trump maliciously dominating US media-consciousness, how do you avoid it?
I think poets should reflect upon the cultural moment we find ourselves in. It’s hard not to, even if you are more oblique in the approach you take. The last presidency was so depressing — a lot of apocalyptic imagery and metaphors crept into my work, and I noticed that in other poets, too. There was a feeling that things just couldn’t continue the way they were going.
As an overall theme, I am interested in how digital culture is changing the way we communicate. I wrote about it in a playful, sci-fi vein in an earlier book, Click and Clone. In The Intangibles, I talk more specifically about some things I didn’t like — the high levels of distraction, our changing sense of public and private, how we “share” what we share. I wanted to observe and complain about how we were all having to spend more and more time online. I guess I was naïve in assuming there could be an alternative.
With the pandemic, I’ve had to adjust my attitude. I’m super grateful to be able to order what I need and have it delivered, teach my classes on Zoom, and stay in touch with everyone. But I’m also more interested than ever in the impact this is having on all of us.
Perhaps no one has explored the list poem with your variety. In “Things to Do in the Bible,” you write, “Don’t look back.” [Laughs.] Please list the reasons why you list.
Lists are like sets in math.
Transitions are easy — there are none.
They invite the reader to co-create.
Sei Shōnagon’s exquisite The Pillow Book.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up. Not only could he write classic novels, he made great lists.
Joe Brainard’s I Remember — an awesome book-length poem where every entry begins with this mantra.
A favorite list poem of mine, “To Do,” is dedicated to Joe. It goes:
Never finish everything
on your to do list.
It will look as if you have nothing
better to do.
How do you so neatly arrive at titles that grab greater meaning after the poem is consumed? Sometimes it’s like the poem introduces the title, rather than vice versa. Then it all comes together in a little brain orgasm. Do you ever start with the title? Can one line inspire an entire poem?
Wow. I love the idea of “the poem introducing the title,” and your theory is absolutely correct. I usually think of the title after the poem. That way I already know what the poem does and can use the title to frame it. Sometimes I hear a line I think would make a great title, but it’s hard to write a poem that lives up to it. I’ve kept lists of titles in my notebook and twice have published the list as a poem. One is called “Table of Contents for an Imaginary Book” inspired by the Jack Bruce song “Theme for an Imaginary Western.” And another one is “The Lost Poems.” Or else if I really like a title but don’t have a poem that works with it, I may just use it as a line in the poem. Why let it go to waste?
Your list poems descend from the New York School, e.g., “Things to do on Speed” by Ted Berrigan. But some of your more elliptical lists remind me of Wallace Stevens in, say, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Any connection? How does Stevens fit with the New York School?
Wallace Stevens is a poetry god. I do see a connection between him and New York School poetry, especially through John Ashbery’s work. In many ways, John seems to extend the lyricism of Stevens and take it in a more postmodern direction.
This line (from “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life”): “The present / is a gift we give ourselves, it’s ribbon tied in a Gordian knot.” Wow. Can you explain how you arrived at this one example of brain-fritzing wordplay (e.g., the pun on “present”) which lives in the moment of reading it?
Thank you — I’m glad you liked it. I was trying to parody the sound of vaguely New Age self-help advice books to pay off the cliché of the title. I love when poets use clichés with an added tweak or twist. Actually, John Ashbery does that a lot. And there’s a hilarious book by Harry Mathews, Selected Declarations of Dependence, where he cuts up and recombines a bunch of clichés. When I teach, I always like to give an assignment where everyone has to use a lot of clichés.
Obviously, poems have different voices. But would you like to be thought of as having one distinct, overriding vantage? For example, is the voice “self-deprecatingly bemused”? Are you “awestruck by everyday beauties and ironies and more cosmic ones too”?
I don’t think I’m stuck in one vantage point. At least, I hope I’m not. The qualities you mention sound more like tones.
I’d say my most consistent tone is casual and conversational. I’m a very casual person and a poem is a way for me to strike up a conversation — sort of. I don’t try to have a consistent voice. I think voice in poetry is a kind of artifice. I like to imitate different tones — like the tone of self-help books in the poem “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life” or the tone of advertising, or the tone of a murder mystery or novel. Sometimes I want to sound lofty, other times idiotic. Voice for me is a vehicle for mixing different tones.
Maybe a better question than the above is, if you wish to show us the world as you see it, who is that “you”?
When you put it that way, it’s harder to answer. I like to write, but I don’t necessarily write to express my point of view. I write more to express my taste in writing and explore and connect with different literary traditions. Does that sound like a cop out? I think my writing is not as personal as it looks on the surface. I use “I” a lot, but I am not always the “I” in the poem. I think the way people use pronouns so fluidly today is cool. Cool for everybody.
I identify myself first and foremost as a poet. My Instagram profile says Elaine Equi — poet, teacher, and lover of pictures. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Your verse is often very funny (even on serious matters). On what level do you wish to entertain? And when doing a reading, do you want to get laughs?
I definitely try to be entertaining, and I love getting laughs at a reading. I like wit, irony, satire, absurdist humor. So many of the New York School poets — John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard — were funny. When you first read them, you almost feel like part of a poet’s job is to have a lighter touch, to be able to get us all to not take ourselves so seriously. Things felt looser — but to be fair it was the ’60s and ’70s.
When Jerome and I did so many readings together in the early days of punk, we were trying to present poetry in a less literary, more flamboyant context. Sometimes there were bands on the stage. I read accompanied by someone playing synthesizer for a while. There were lots of drugs and alcohol. It was more like a party.
It would be hard to sustain that kind of energy, and we’ve both moved on from it in order to develop individual areas of interest. But we both still like being funny — and we still enjoy reading together whenever someone asks us. It’s been happening more lately.
One thing I find disappointing, though, is that poets who use humor are often not taken as seriously as those who don’t.
You and Jerome Sala are one of the great poetry power couples. There was (tragically) Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes and Ted Berrigan/Alice Notley. Today we have Amy Gerstler and Benjamin Weissman (though he’s more fiction than verse). How do you perceive your work in relation to Jerome’s? How does the dynamic between you affect the productions of each?
From the time Jerome and I met, our writing lives and our personal lives were intertwined. When we did a lot of readings, we always needed to be coming up with new material. And the events themselves were a great way to hang out and socialize. Later, when we moved from Chicago to New York in 1988, people started asking us to do things separately. Jerome also got interested in other kinds of writing, especially theory and criticism. Eventually he got a PhD from NYU in American Studies. Now he writes essays and poetry.
We never get tired of talking about books. We always read and edit each other. After years of working in advertising, Jerome is super sharp as an editor. Now that he’s retired and I don’t teach that much, I hope we can work on some kind of editing project together. We’ve never done that. We used to joke about starting a magazine called Black Turtleneck. Or maybe we could do an anthology. We have similar goals but different tastes.
You pull from schools, periods, -isms, and personages. But what is your Mississippi River, not the tributaries? Is it the New York School? Where do you place yourself in the lineage? And where does that New York School canon fit in contemporary literature?
The New York School is important to me for sure. It’s the school I went to school with as an undergrad in college. I love how witty much of the work is and I miss that. I’d like to see humor make a comeback in poetry today. And I like the sense of writing about mundane things — the dailiness of James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard, Bernadette Mayer, and Eileen Myles are good examples. The intersection of art and everyday life is also appealing to me: the celebration of painters, musicians, movies — in fact, the way art and life seemed so much more entwined.
At the same time, I’m much indebted to the Objectivist poets, especially Lorine Niedecker, a Midwestern gal like myself. But really, all of them. William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi are writers I return to again and again. Their compression, the precision of their language, and the sculpted look of their poems on the page is all very much a part of my style.
A poet once jokingly told me that if Frank O’Hara and Lorine Niedecker had a baby, that baby would be me. It’s a funny idea and wildly flattering, but in terms of my poetic origin, there is some truth there.
Are there particular writers who inspired you to get in the poetry game? Or others who served as models?
I was blessed to have two fantastic poets, Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff, as mentors when I went to Columbia College in Chicago. They’d invite students over to their apartment. We’d all go to readings together and they would introduce us to the poets. I first met Joe Brainard and Anne Waldman through them. At the time, Paul and Maxine edited a terrific surrealist magazine called Oink! which has since morphed into the sleeker but still edgy New American Writing. It was a thrill when I first got a poem in Oink!
I learned so much from both of them, not only about writing, but also how to teach. I’d be a very different poet today had our paths not crossed.
After devoting decades to your writing, how has it matured? How do you think the experience for your audience has changed?
I hope my work has grown more complex even though I still value being clear and accessible.
I think my poems have been enriched by the variety of styles I like to explore. Often one approach balances another. I like concrete poetry and minimalism, but I also like prose.
I do remember at some point saying to myself that I wanted to write the poems only I would write (as if that were some sort of sign of maturity). But I don’t think that’s such a good idea anymore. It’s too confining. Now, my attitude is more along the lines of thinking you’re only as interesting as your influences.
How much is productivity at the mercy of moods? Can you write during any decent free time, or do you need to be “inspired”? What inspirational drugs do you recommend or swear off?
I can write in just about any mood, provided I’m not too busy. I hate feeling rushed. A good angry poem is always fun to write. And I rather like being bored, which often verges on feeling mellow but with something lacking. My inspirational drugs are pretty tame: wine, chocolate, a little yoga, and lots of compulsive book-buying binges. Jerome and I are firm believers that in order to write, we need lots of books. We’re always short on shelf-space, so thank goodness for Kindle.
Relatedly, why do you often write about drugs/medicine (aspirin, birth control, Ambien)?
I’ve taken prescription pills (antidepressants and sleep aids) for many years in different dosages. I have a love/hate relationship with pills. Sometimes I imagine getting rid of them completely (which I’ve tried and it’s not that easy to do). But basically, I take pills because I’ve always liked the idea of them — the way they offer a quick, if not total fix — at least a way to alter or improve your mood. I like all kinds of pills, vitamins, homeopathic remedies, herbs, teas, tinctures, gem essences, elixirs. There’s a poem called “If I Weren’t a Poet, I’d Be a Pharmacist” in The Intangibles, and it’s true. When I was young, that was my dream job. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the math and science chops to make it happen.
And poems, especially short ones, can be like pills. There’s a Sufi healing practice that involves someone diagnosing your problem and then giving you certain poems or verses to read. I love that idea. In that spirit, I offer my poem “Prescription”:
Lighting Round: 10 words max per question.
- Who for you is a very meaningful visual artist? And why?
Alex Katz — simplicity, his colors.
Carmen Herrera — simplicity, her colors.
- Most poetry — published these days or encountered in various readings — sucks. True or false?
False — but you need to be choosy.
- Are you good at Scrabble?
I like to think so.
- You teach writing to younger people. Is the future in good hands?
Jack Skelley books include Monsters (Little Caesar Press), From Fear of Kathy Acker and More Fear of Kathy Acker (Illuminati Press), and Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press). His psychedelic surf band Lawndale (SST Records) will release a new album this year.
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