Unshrinking the Lyric: An Interview with Carmen Giménez Smith
By Julian GewirtzSeptember 2, 2016
I had long imagined
anger as my primary
what a mixed blessing
when it works
LitHub has called her “the entire package of what poets and poetry may aspire to.” As we spoke, I realized Giménez Smith’s sense of that “entire package” is larger than most poets: she seeks to be nothing less than a full-fledged “literary citizen,” as she put it, with all the difficulties, privileges, and responsibilities that implies.
JULIAN GEWIRTZ: To start, I’m interested in understanding which identity you came to first. Were you writing poetry long before you ever thought about being an editor?
CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH: When I was in high school, I wanted to be a journalist. I was on the school paper. I loved language and I didn’t really know anything about grammar but I knew I wanted to be involved with writing. And I also liked the production part — in those days, you had to do it on a piece of paper, with glue. Then I wanted to be a fiction writer, and that didn’t work out, and I came to poetry because of my love of language. I studied at San Jose State with Alan Soldofsky and he taught me two essential things: one is how to do a close reading, and the other is how to be a literary citizen. He ran the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State, which was just a phenomenal reading series, and I was his assistant. I was folding programs, I was showing people around, and I was getting to spend time with these amazing poets and learn from them and see them as people, which as a young Latina was important because I didn’t see myself in that world. Alan Soldofsky also introduced me to Juan Felipe Herrera’s work, which has also been hugely influential, both on my poetry and in terms of literary citizenship because he is the consummate citizen.
Later in my life, when I felt that I was a better poet — because I wasn’t that great of a poet for a long time, I really had to work hard to become a better poet — when I started feeling more confident, I started looking around and thinking about materiality, and how much I loved the book object. So I decided to start a press. I’m probably the most disorganized person you’ll ever talk to, so there was a way in which I expected it to be [just] this thing that I tried. But it was sustained, in part, because my husband is fantastic. He did the website; he designed the books; he edited; and we started framing a context for poetry — and fiction, too, but primarily I do the poetry — that embodied a kind of lyric subjectivity that was also engaged with a kind of politics. Luckily, after all these years, that’s what this press is. Now we have an enormous volunteer staff, and the things they’re choosing, and thinking about, and the way they’re approaching and promoting books — all of that is them. They’re brilliant. J. Michael Martinez, Sarah Gzemski, Diana Arterian, Suzi F. Garcia, all those folks. They’ve really taken the wheel from me. One of the projects I’ve recently started is Infidel Poetics. Since the beginning, I’ve wanted to do a short-form poetic series because I felt that critical books sometimes take so long to get published, and I also wanted it to be a space in which people who were writing criticism could experiment with form. That’s primarily what I’ve been working on lately. I’m so delighted to get to work with these amazing writers.
I think this idea of “literary citizenship,” that term you used, is something that seems like it informs not just your work as an editor, but also your work as a poet. I was reading the introduction to the anthology that you and John Chavez worked on, and the Leslie Scalapino quotation that you frame that with: “No one is free of their narrative.” Is that what defines or what frames your sense of what literary citizenship is?
I’m sure there’s a noble part of it and there’s a neurotic part of it. A big part of why I do a lot of the things that I do is because as a young poet I didn’t see many Latinas doing the work that I was doing. And I needed that. I was thrilled when I read Lorna Dee Cervantes. It just was amazing. And that was the first book by a Latina poet that I read, and I was a sophomore in college! I just want to make room for Latina poetry in general, and I think it’s because I have so much pride about being a Latina and this really beautiful and complex poetic history. The fact that we talk a lot about jazz as being an American art but we don’t talk about spoken word as being an American art that was invented in the United States by an immigrant population, a diasporic population, as it were, the way that jazz was. That’s a part of it, too. Because I worked for Alan, I never saw the difference between being a poet and doing other things. I thought that’s just how it went, that everyone was doing 50 things at once. Alan was so passionate about the reading series — he really loved and believed in literature and poetry. I learned from him and ran with it.
There are maybe at least two ways to think about that: one is the creation of the art itself, creating art that is explicitly feminist, Latina, etc. The other is becoming somebody who is able to provide others with a platform in a way that is more direct than making art that people can see themselves in or take as a rallying cry.
Why did those two things ever get divorced to begin with? I’m curious if you have an answer to that — why is it that the default is not to be a literary citizen, poet-editor, etc., and that the default so often is, I write poems, maybe my poems reflect my queer identity or my Caribbean identity or my Christian identity, but I don’t see my work as a form of citizenship.
I think some artists just aren’t good at doing stuff like that … I think it’s also because we all want to be middle class. It’s a capital question. I just am crazy, that I’m doing this, and there are people who are also crazy and are doing it, too — who love it so much that they’re going to give up going to the gym for it. Obviously, I would love to be super middle class and have a pool or whatever, but I would much rather enjoy the aesthetic and human connection that comes from being an editor.
This makes me think of the oral history interview you gave last year to the Institute for Latino Studies, Samora Library, at the University of Notre Dame. I was watching that and was thinking about one thing, a story you told about a performance you went to at Humboldt County in the 1990s that a whole bunch of poets and other artists were involved in. You were talking about the 1990s and you said, “People were optimistic back then.” It was a joke, sure, but I hear something in what you are saying that is really grounded in that optimism, even if it’s a little anachronistic. I’m curious if that resonates with you, and if you feel that starting Noemi Press back then would have been different in some fundamental way.
That’s a really great question. I think what I was interested in was publishing writers of color who were approaching subjectivity in ways that weren’t often seen or associated with work you would call “identity poetics” or “identity politics.” Even though the 1990s is when political correctness was born, which is such a shit term, but it seemed like, Things are going to be great. We’ll make money. We’re not in debt. The fact that this program I was talking about even existed. It was run by Juan Felipe [Herrera] and San Jose State, and we got to collaborate with opera singers and drummers — it seemed like a way that we were going to change the world through connection! But that’s not what happened. The last eight years, with having a black president, has really unearthed some darkness that we have to confront. It’s really uncomfortable. I think, more than ever, the poets we’re publishing are thinking about those questions and approaching them in ways I couldn’t have even imagined. I have my timid, meek approach, and there are people who are writing poetry that’s ferocious and insistent about representation. In that way, I’m thrilled. [But looking at it] another way, there’s a foot on our neck, and it’s not going anywhere.
You just referred to what you called your “timid, meek approach.” You also have described Noemi Press’s interest in writers of color who are thinking about subjectivity and writing a lyric in a way that’s simultaneously engaging with identity and avoiding “identity politics.” I’m curious how much you see yourself, in your own writing, fitting into that category of writers who are innovating a new kind of lyric-political poem, or to what extent you feel that you don’t fit into that.
This is a conversation I have a lot with J. Michael Martinez. We’re very similar in the sense that we just are total lyric junkies. We love the lush, atemporal world that you can build out of nothing, out of ether. That’s the way that I’m not like a lot of this generation of poets who are approaching their work as much more political. They’re writing like the Nuyorican Poets but inflected with whatever happened after postmodernism. When I graduated college and I was working as an adjunct at San Jose State, I didn’t know how to refer to my colleagues — do I call them “doctor”? Do I call them “mister”? So I would actively avoid having to address them, because I wasn’t educated in that context. Somehow, subsequent generations have become much more savvy about [academia]. I think there’s something very good about that, but there’s also something sad about it. There’s a lot more confidence, and there’s rage. That rage is productive. The happy humanist in me imagines that these are the people who are going to change how we view race so we can move on as a country and evolve into the country that we’re going to be in 2040, which is majority people of color.
I want to push on the “rage-versus-lyric” juxtaposition you seem to be setting up. In this setup, on the one hand there’s the “lyric junkie,” atemporal, apolitical type of writing, and, on the other, there’s a politicized anger. But there’s the second-wave feminist lineage that seems to shape your work — an anger with the lyric itself. I do think there’s a way of looking at your poems and seeing an attempt to bring those two juxtaposed elements together, or as close as they can be, like a fusion reaction. I don’t want to get too lit-critical in your face, but I think that Milk and Filth as a title, and as two concepts, is even doing some of that. I don’t know if that seems off to you …
No, that’s totally right on. I’m pulling at the lyric, and I’m stretching it, and I’m unshrinking it. I’m trying to find how the lyric can accommodate my identity, which for the most part has been elided in the canon. When there are Latinos in poetry, it’s this narrative reparation: This is who we are, this is what we do, this is what we look like, this is how we grieve. That work is fantastic, and I love that work, but I also love just playing with language and thinking about how my positionality affects how I use language. I’m very aware that a big part of it is that English is my second language, so I already have this very bizarre syntax that I impose on poetry, which has a lot in common with the kind of gestures you see in the lyric.
I just want to read a passage at the beginning of “Wizardine”:
The charlatan was prelude
to the fracas I’d be.
Oh, those razor-sharp
appetites and their audacious
When you take the work that you’re describing, to stretch and push the lyric, I’m curious if, when you finish a book, you can say self-consciously, This is what I have done. Do you take the poems that you have written and put together into a book and shift into a more editorial mode?
Absolutely. That’s something I tell my students is a turning point as a writer, when you’re able to disengage your ego from the manuscript. It’s the gift you can give to your work — revising it toward its own sublimity, as opposed to the sublimity of your ego. Nobody’s perfect. There are little flourishes, like that poem you read from, poking at Wallace Stevens. But I love flourishes. That’s something I have to really work on when I’m revising and obviously flourishes get through. But I feel like I’m getting better at knowing how to put together a book by me. I can put together other people’s books, but it’s different to put together a book by me. I feel more comfortable doing it every time I write a book. That’s resulted from editing books for years and years, and not just to see them as for the private audience of the reader, but the public audience of the people who are buying books. I’m very attuned as an editor to that aspect of a book, and I think that’s been very useful for me. Milk and Filth is pretty tight, in my mind. I really pared it down, pared it down, pared it down. There are a lot of poems that didn’t end up in that book — a lot of gender fables that I trashed. But I don’t miss them.
As I was rereading it, I was struck by how the architecture of the book is so defined, clearly the result of the accumulated experience from your previous books. It’s the opposite of the cliché of a mediocre first book, where it’s like, Look at all these poems I wrote in my MFA. It’s a highly defined architecture, and it’s valuable to see what that can be like. I imagine it’s really hard to give poems up.
It gets easier each time. When my students get stuck revising their manuscripts, I tell them to do something drastic to the book, because I’ve never made a drastic change that didn’t lead me to something really exciting. I’m reckless. As a human being, I have very poor impulse control. I think that’s useful for me as a poet because it lets me do the wild things, the flourishes — but then there’s this other part of me that’s super aware of what a book can look like and how to approach that.
I wanted to ask you specifically about the cover of Milk and Filth because it seems to be a highly thought-out editorial gesture. You have a bright pink background with a nude female figure whose arms are folded behind her head. And your name covers her face; the word “milk” covers the breasts; and the word “filth” covers the pelvis. The positioning of the words “milk” and “filth” is brilliant but also didactic: you are told which “milk” and which “filth.” And even the positioning of your name over the woman’s face, the mouth in particular. I’m interested to hear how that cover came into being.
My husband designed the book. He’s a fantastic designer — he doesn’t like doing it, but he’s really good at it. The book was once called Gender Fables, but then it was sort of jokingly called Womyn Manifesto — I really was going for that ’70s vibe. Ana Mendieta is a major force in that book, both explicitly and implicitly, so I also wanted to pay homage to her contribution to Latina art. So I told [my husband] Evan that I wanted the cover to have that ’70s feel, like, a chick, and she’s on the cover, and she’s all naked, with that really chunky, offset type, and the way the colors don’t land exactly on the letters when they’re being printed, because it’s not digital. So we were like, We need a picture of a naked woman! But then we were like, That’s fucked up, we’re not going to exploit another woman’s body. So we remembered that when I was pregnant with my son, we took a picture of me and I was naked. It’s the only picture of me naked in the world. So we did that. I was completely terrified — but also felt like it was an apt gesture for that book. The idea of feminism that I’m thinking about is the feminism that requires you to put yourself on Front Street and really be honest and really dig deep, because there’s a way in which the wounded parts of the feminine are elided or intellectualized. I wanted to get back to that.
In the oral history interview you gave to the Institute for Latino Studies, Samora Library, at the University of Notre Dame, you said, “I’m most drawn to lyric poetry because I think that lyric poetry’s most sincere source is the body. Growing up Latina, there’s a lot of thinking about your body.” Do you think that being bared, being open — the wounds, the weaknesses, all of that — is what you push your authors toward?
No. I’m just following an elder’s wise way of navigating identity. Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera is really the best book in the world that engages with that and does it in a fearless way. I do want the books that I edit to be fearless. But that’s an aesthetic position that not everybody would share. A big part of editing a book is finding out the book’s surface subjects and secret subjects, and how you can draw them together to work and complicate, as opposed to books that are kind of flat, that have a soft little ending. I don’t like that.
I want to talk more about “surface subjects” and “secret subjects.” That’s something that can be said of poetry, but that’s also something that can be said of the two books from the Infidel Poetics series, where Sarah Vap and Douglas Kearney are each given space to “complicate” their surface and secret subjects. Why did you start up that series?
When I started Noemi, I always had different things that I wanted to do, and I just kept a list. One of them was to give a space for contemporary poetics that weren’t being published by a university press — that would be irreverent, or formally different, or talking about poetics in a way that we’re not used to seeing. That’s the purpose of Infidel. I wanted it also to be all short-form books, because I also wanted to create a space where criticism could appear in the world quickly. So each book is 70 pages or 100 pages, not 300 pages and not footnoted. The idea was really: What is happening in poetry right now? What are people thinking about and writing about? [The name] “Infidel Poetics” comes from a wonderful book of that name by Daniel Tiffany, and the title was J. Michael Martinez’s idea. It’s so perfect for us. It’s thinking about poetry in ways that we’re not used to — that was the idea of being called “infidel.” I had read Sarah Vap, years ago, because she had sent me a whole book of essays. There was one longer piece within it and I said, why don’t you pull this out and make it longer. She did, and we went back and forth a couple of times, and that’s how End of the Sentimental Journey was born.
We have a list of people we want to ask and now we’re working our way through that list. We have one coming out from Roberto Tejada, and we have one from Arielle Greenberg, and more after that. We’re asking our favorite poets: If you had a credible space of 70 pages to write something critical and weird, what would you want to say? I have a long wish list. But I don’t want to just choose the critical positions that I favor. I want it to be a repository of the hot things that people were thinking about in the 20th and 21st century, and these are the short books that Noemi published that were addressing those things.
What is it like to edit these books, given that you are asking the writers to do something that is so idiosyncratic or, put differently, so fully realized on their own terms?
With Sarah [Vap], it was a matter of asking: What is being unpacked here? And how much space and room do we need? How is this teaching or describing something that someone can then use as an aspect of their poetics? Sarah and Doug are both geniuses. It’s like discovering something new; it’s its own genre. There’s never going to be another book like Sarah’s book. There’s never going to be a book like [Doug’s] Mess and Mess and. For me the question was: How do I make this book able to teach what it’s doing and what it’s saying?
The other question we wanted to address with this series is just the dearth of criticism by people of color and women. The way we think about Noemi isn’t that we’re consciously doing this work, but rather that we just happen to have really good taste and the people we like are a lot of people of color. Do you know what I’m saying?
We don’t have this really limited view of who should be talking about poetry, [like] Marjorie Perloff or Helen Vendler. But if Helen Vendler wanted to write a book for Infidel Poetics, I’d be like, Fuck yeah!
Sometimes with Noemi, I feel like people think we’re the press that publishes women of color. What we hope is that we just seem like a regular press. If our list seems like that of a boutique press, that means there’s still a problem with how poetry is being read if we can’t see a press that publishes a lot of people of color as a regular press. What we hope is that this is just what presses look like.
Do you find that working on this series, and this particular kind of engagement with poetics, has affected your own writing, either of poetry or of prose?
Absolutely. It’s hard to read both of those books and not look at what you do as a writer and as a reader, because it really asks you to reconsider the way you’re approaching language — in Sarah’s book, accessibility and the profane, and then [with Douglas Kearney’s Mess and Mess and] what I see as this affective guide to blackness in a poetic context. I’ve been waiting for someone to do that, and this book did exactly that, and it’s so wonderful.
Will you write an Infidel Poetics book?
Good question. I don’t know if I will. I don’t consider myself a critic. I feel like what I do as an editor is already doing what I would want to do if I were to write criticism. I don’t know that I have anything deep, incisive — well, I might. But I’m an editor.
As I look at all of what Noemi is doing — and all that you are doing in your multiple capacities — I’m curious to know: in five years, or 10 years, where do you want this press to be and what do you want the view of Noemi to be?
In five to 10 years, I don’t want to be running Noemi. I want someone else to be running Noemi. This is an old saw about nonprofits: you start a nonprofit and you make it so that someone else can pick it up and move forward with it. That’s what we are seeing with VIDA and other organizations. I have such an amazing staff of people who are young and know poetry in a way that I don’t know poetry. They know the coolest shit, and I’m too far removed from that, because I have an academic position and I’m 45 years old, etc., etc. I want them to run it. Right now it’s cool and everything, but I want that space to continue to be used by editors of color and staff who want to keep working on Noemi. I’m always going to be an editor in one way or another. But I want to be able to walk away from Noemi Press. The staff knows that, and that’s what I’m working toward. They know that at some point I might just say, Hey guys, it’s all you. Peace out.
Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Washington Post, and his poems are published or forthcoming in AGNI, Boston Review, The Nation, the New Republic, Ploughshares, and the Yale Review. His first book of nonfiction, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.
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