The Poetry Project

Time Bandits

Brenda Coultas in conversation with Stacy Szymaszek

The impetus for this interview was simply that I like to know what poets are up to, and Brenda Coultas is one of my favorite poets. I knew she had a new book coming out and wanted to talk about it with her. It very naturally turned into a dialog between friends, except we always knew you would be reading it.

It took place in December 2020 over email.

SS: Thank you for accepting my invitation to have this conversation, Brenda! We used to run into each other frequently on 1st and 2nd Avenues in NYC. I used to think of it as running into each other at work. I think you’re spending most of your time upstate since the pandemic started. What is stirring your spirit in that environment and what, if anything, do you miss about daily downtown street life?

BC: Nature and upstate poets—even though we aren’t able to gather directly. Knowing that Bernadette Mayer and Phil Good are an hour away. Sam Truitt is about 10 mins away and the Hillcrest poets, with Shiv Mirabito and others, are across the creek. Station Hill Press is right over the Hudson River. Walking through the Byrdcliffe arts colony, and seeing the arts and crafts cottages with famous Woodstock Windows made to let in the light for painters.

I miss the East Village. Maybe the flavors, like Abraço coffee, new tamale place on 4th St., Veselka, and so on. Of course, if there were readings on site, I’d miss it more. You? We are both in a kind of exile.

SS: My relationship with nonhuman life has deepened, as has my relationship with one human, here in the Southwest. I’ve written two books that are departures from book-length, time-constrained journal poems and have started doing animal illustrations—mostly birds. I think I’m figuring out how to make my own fun amidst this degree of mundane. I’ve taken many beautiful walks here, one of my favorites is more of a climb. I just wrote a poem about a neighborhood walk the evening the election was called. I had watched so much documentation of celebratory street life in NYC on social media and then the neighborhood I live in was so quiet, strangely windy—there was literally a chair blowing down the street! The poem makes use of that contrast. I love Roberto Bolaño’s essay on exile—from not believing in it, to thinking writers are all exiles, to exile as “growing up.”

Your forthcoming book is entitled The Writing Of An Hour, which is also the title of the opening long poem. Please talk about the structure of the poem and how you came to use the hour as a time frame. I love that you start with conventionally naming the sections “Hour I,” “Hour II,” but then go right into time bending with names like “An Hour Earlier.” The poem reminded me that you are also interested in photography, which is another medium, like poetry, where the artist is usually obsessed with time and revealing slips in it.

BC: The title is about stealing time back from the quotidian and finding a structure. Eleni Sikelianos told me to work with whatever bits of time that I could find in the day. Say, even as little as ten minutes. I used to teach “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, so this merging, the conflict and sometimes the horror story of being consumed by the domestic; even when one is sharing chores with a partner there will be dishes and dust. I think Erica Hunt has a book called Time Slips Right Before Your Eyes? Not connected to this writing directly, but that’s my immediate response. The section titles are a bit of riffing off of “hours.” How we talk about time and how we reference events. The sections that follow are the results of time reclaimed for making poems.

For the other sections of The Writing of An Hour, I loosely followed Emily Dickinson’s line “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” And Simone White—WARNING this not a direct quote—saying “poetry is like thinking on the page.” So I tried to blow my own mind and the reader’s too. Also to work out relationships between myself and sensory experience.

You say you’re making your own fun amidst the mundane. Are the drawings the result of the lockdown? You have always had a talent, an eye, for the visual (thinking of your impeccable outfits and self-portraits). Is there a connection between the documentary aspect of your journals with cataloging birds in the Southwest? I am reading your GLOSS chapbook Six Ponderosas. Is that your illustration? It’s as if you are exhaling New York and inhaling the SW. I hope you aren’t still smoking!

SS: You’re reminding me of Lisa Jarnot’s composition method for A Princess Magic Presto Spell—a long poem she wrote after the birth of her daughter in increments of 3 words per day. Your phrase “stealing time back from the quotidian” really grabbed my attention. I want to locate the divine in the quotidian, go to it as a source, but I think we are saying the same thing? Does the act of stealing make it divine? Time bandits? I love these lines

Begin to consider the year I might die of old age. And wonder if I will live to 2050, which seems like a great long time from now.  Hear the noise of the bathers from swimming hole and I hear him grab his bong from the back porch.

for how they contemplate your mortality in a big picture way, future decades, yet at the same time you’re working with small increments of time. As a reader I am made aware that every minute we are closer to dying and someone will always be grabbing a bong or whatever. Like the ploughman in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” who is indifferent to the boy falling out of the sky.

I made my first drawing in early May. I came across a photograph of a Marine Iguana. They only inhabit the Galapagos, and they swim and dive. Darwin called them “hideous-looking” and “disgusting,” but I thought they were so gorgeous. I “don’t draw" but I had the irresistible urge to draw one—so I borrowed Kimberly's colored pencils... drew about 5 of them and thought, oh I can draw iguanas, that’s cool. But then I started drawing portraits of other animals (got pastels), mostly birds, many birds of the Southwest. My favorite is the Turkey Vulture. Yes, it’s connected to my documentary impulse, my love for animals, the pandemic... I don’t take many self-portraits these days so it's a new outlet for my eye. The space I can get into while drawing is very different from writing a poem—it’s a quiet, focused place. To perhaps state the obvious, I like to draw “ugly” animals. Which segues nicely to the topic of beauty and ugliness.

My introduction to your work, which clearly made a lasting impact on me, was through your Leroy chapbook, The Bowery Project, which brings a lot of dignity to things such as street garbage. I can’t help but think of stories I heard when I was at the Project of poets being in the right place at the right time, happening upon a dead poet’s stuff on the street that the landlord threw out. There’s a question in there somewhere... maybe after reclaiming ugly from capitalism—what is truly ugly?

The cover of Six Ponderosas was made by poet and GLOSS publisher Morgan Vo. My cigarette poems, ha! I smoked minimally for about 6 months—a weird but useful time-based experiment and, just like I declared in one of those poems, I stopped.

BC: Oops, yes. You did say you stopped. Should we scrub that from the interview? Still I want to know what was “useful” about it?

Is it wrong to say turkey buzzards have a brutal beauty? I’ve seen your drawings on Instagram, so vivid and curious. Are you guided by instinct in choosing the next portrait?

It’s remarkable to see how many poets are, or become, visual artists.

Behind me on the shelf is Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures. In the introduction she said, “I made so many drawings because each time I drew I could feel (her italics) writing.” Does drawing make you feel more connected to your subject or more connected to your practice?

And I think of Eleni Sikelianos’ Body Clock, where she sketches out the changes her body and her developing child make in minutes. Todd Colby is painting full-time somewhere in maybe, Vermont. Also, Julie Patton and her scrolls. Just to mention a few.

There was an amazing roost of perhaps a dozen buzzards in a stand of dead trees in town, and for a while there was a roost on a house in New Paltz. I would see them from the bus window and none of the other passengers seemed to notice these amazing gothic (and huge) birds.

You mentioned The Bowery Project, and this quote, “Even the corpse hath its beauty,” from either Thoreau or Emerson, was my guide in looking at raw garbage and discarded objects.

(I have to really think about the “truly ugly.” The only thing that comes to mind at the moment is Trump’s border wall. Such a physical manifestation of the ugly. Cruelty.)

You mentioned the divine. Just watched a video of CA Conrad and Ariana Reines talking about astral projection, poetry, ritual, and UFOs on Vimeo. CA talks about sharing peanuts with crows in a ritual fashion that allows them to dream with the crows. Reminds me that I need to make my own rituals, other than brewing a cup of tea and moving pens around on a desk.

I’ve been reading Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars. Gentle, meditative work on feeling her body’s response to cosmic influences and nonhuman encounters.

And you are in the Southwest too. Have the stars had an impact on your being and writing?

Have to say that during this pandemic and under the reign of the orange monster, tarot card readers on YouTube have kept my spirits up. A few like Cash Peters, a British channeler who draws images of political figures in a dream language. For example, a politician is dodging saw blades or wearing boots of lead. Interesting to see how his drawings play out.

SS: We should keep that part, no scrubbing. I was facing big life changes during the smoking experiment—the most major was deciding to transition out of my ED job at the Project, which is to say my life as I had known it for 11 years (though I worked 13 years total there). I think smoking helped me get outside of myself. Maybe this smoking SS doesn’t have to work as hard, worry as much, can embrace more precarity/make it as an autonomous poet. It’s silly but it happened. And I documented it.

Oh the word “buzzard!” I think the use of it vs. “vulture” is regional. Did you ever see any growing up in Indiana? I never saw any in Wisconsin. They have no feathers on their heads so they can get deep into the carcasses and not come out a mess. Once you understand the function, they seem more elegant, beautiful. They rid the environment of disease and waste and invite us to be aware and unafraid of the cycle of life and death, that we are “food for worms.” I think that’s the brutal beauty of animals for humans. And that is at the root of human violence toward them.

I’m drawn to big eyes and beaks. Kimberly suggested that they’re all self-portraits! They’re portraits for sure. I’m on the prowl for knowing faces. I stayed with drawing, figuring it had something to do with future writing or I really wouldn’t be as engrossed, and sure enough, they seem to be serving as notes toward my next project—a satirical poem with animal and human characters. I’m really interested in classical satire and the art of the insult. I have the complete plays of Aristophanes on my desk but at the moment I’m just starting at it as I finish writing my next book (The Pasolini Book). I don’t “feel writing” as I’m drawing like Renee describes, but there is something freeing for me about “attention to line” taking on a different meaning. And I’m really into color and teaching myself how to work with pastels. I really appreciate all of your references—love Mei-Mei’s book. I look at the sky more here than I ever have. I was born when men were landing on the moon, and my sign is Cancer, so the big eye of the moon gets my attention.

I wanted to ask you about jobs because you had so many remarkable ones. You've worked at carnivals, been a park ranger, a welder, a vintage dress seller. I think this was all before you left Indiana in your early 30s. Does the phrase “Midwestern work ethic” hold any meaning for you? What has it been like for you to make a life that balances money jobs and poetry? This goes back to stealing time.

BC: I have seen turkey vultures up close, driving on a gravel road and came across a flock on the ground. Size of a wild turkey. Gothic. I think of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” about 4 men who are lost at sea in a dingy after their ship goes down and who are not dead carrion, but a weakened possible dinner. Crane's descriptions of rough-hewn seagulls.

I am in NYC right now and walked down 2nd Ave., by the remains of the Middle Collegiate Church. You probably already heard about the fire last Saturday and remember when Akilah Oliver’s memorial was held there. Bought a winter bouquet with carnations, eucalyptus and twigs with red berries at Sunny’s on 2nd Avenue.

Jobs. So long ago. But “Midwestern work ethic” rings a big bell, along with people pleasing personality! (kiss of death). My Southern Indiana upbringing, to stay in line, to go for security, to be risk averse. Find a factory job and shoot screws into cabinets for 30 years. That balance, how to make a life that allows you to have a life of the mind and to keep going. I’m writing an essay on Lewis Warsh. So thinking of him as an example.

SS: I really value my ability to live in the moment but I do, in general, miss walking 2nd Ave. The first thing I thought of when I heard about the Middle fire was Akilah’s memorial. Lewis passed away very recently, another profound loss for poets, and you were also close to him. How did you meet him?

BC: Yes, I want to write about Lewis. He was a mentor and I often feel like a member (the correct term is family friend) of the extended family of Mayer & Warsh.

I met Lewis for the first time in The Poetry Project office (around 1994) where I had just started working as an assistant to Jo Ann Wasserman and Ed Friedman. Lewis let me know that he knew that I had been a PROSE major at Naropa. Hummm. So I was under a small cloud of doubt. Was I a novelist in disguise?

Somehow—maybe through Barbara Henning, who hired me as an adjunct at Long Island University in Brooklyn to teach introductory composition—we became friends, and he and Barbara invited me to read and to teach a visiting course there. Lewis showed me the ropes of the Creative Writing department. He was dedicated to growing that program and it did flourish, with amazing students like Stephanie Gray, Valerie Deus, and others.

He was teaching there until his illness last winter forced him to quit. And he was 76 when he passed away this fall. I remember his belief in archive. I was never at his apartment, but I know that he kept all correspondences in the original envelopes, and had a great back catalog of United Artists books and was still publishing. He thought of the archive as a retirement plan of sorts—that one could sell their papers to a university or collector.

I pulled from my shelves this morning a few books published by Angel Hair, the press he and Anne Waldman founded: Cleaning Up New York, Bob Rosenthal; The Golden Book of Words, Bernadette Mayer; and Lewis’s The Maharajah's Son.

And then some United Artists (co-founded with Bernadette Mayer): Morning Ritual, Lisa Rogal; Early Exits, KB Nemcosky; Shut up Leaves, Tony Iantosca; Clearview/LIE, Ted Greenwald; Judyism, Jim Brody; The Fast, Hannah Weiner; Songs for the Unborn Second Baby, Alice Notley; and The California Papers, Steve Cary.

And now to think about what this means.

SS: He was also Bill Kushner’s primary publisher. I love his commitment to the poets around him who he admired, and that this included first books of poets who studied with him. He’s a stellar person to look to on the topic of how to keep going in poetry. It seemed to me that he didn’t require a lot of attention or praise for the work he did—and that is a kind of vision I’m always happy to find in people. In my 13 years of listening to readings at the Project, he gave one of the most memorable—to a packed room—many young people who then rushed to buy the book at the back table. It was a reading for Out of the Question: Selected Poems 1963-2003. That seemed to be his way—to be consistently excellent (poet and publisher) and lucky for those who connect. I’m also remembering being at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program with him where he imparted his belief that lineage was not so much about the past but about connecting with your own moment as poets have been doing for ages.

The passing of loved ones during this time is even harder to bear because we can’t gather together. Both of my grandmothers have passed in the last 2 months, one from COVID. I think I’ve been particularly attuned to poetry that addresses mortality (even more than usual I should say). So, I really love your poem “Plague Mask.” It reminded me of Pasolini’s poem “The Day of My Death” for the way it conjures narrative possibility (control?) of something out of our control. Your repetitions in that poem have a liturgical feel. And then in the next poem “Mercy” you or “you” are merging with a wooden door “splinters and worms” (Food for worms!). What are your thoughts on writing poetry and mortality? I like the thought of becoming a door after I die. What do you think happens to us?

BC: Listening to the panel you mentioned, “Lineage, History and Anxiety of Influence” (recorded in 2014)—I love the Naropa Archives. Great to hear you speak of Lorine Niedecker and of the various cities you lived in. And near misses, like not meeting CA Conrad when you both lived in Philly.

I agree with you about Lewis and his example of dedication to poetry. He often put others forward, and his love life (thinking of Anne and Bernadette) often overshadowed his own work. Most every tribute that I read called him “generous.” I’m reading Piece of Cake right now, a month long journal for August 1976, where Bernadette and Lewis wrote chapters on alternate days. And amazed how long it languished—about 40 years before publication this year (2020).

My condolences on the loss of your grandmothers. Sorry to hear that one died of COVID. So tragic.

I think of mortality as a game of dodgeball with Death and the buffer zone keeps getting thinner as death takes out the slower players! Sometimes I’m comforted by the thought that we might rejoin some sort of oversoul. Then again, that sounds terrifying, boring even, how does one do anything for an eternity? The thought of having to return back to human form again, dreadful.

I am also easing into my role and awareness of generational divide.

SS: Thank you for the condolences. Of course you looked up that panel in the Naropa archive! Thank you for that too. I’d love to hear more about your perception and experience of generational divide.

BC: The generational divide (or gap as they said in my youth). Wow. I try to listen and to be more fluid, it’s important not to solidify, but to stay receptive and to respond to criticism without taking it personally. Anne Waldman is a great example of ever evolving as a poet and performer and visionary.

I remember how I felt about older established poets that I looked upon as mentors or threats. And now I am at/or beyond the age they were. And how age changes our perceptions and how one is perceived by emerging poets.

How can I support emerging poets? Perhaps being a reader of their work, writing letters of rec. and blurbs are a few ways. Also supporting The Poetry Project or other arts organizations. Don’t take them for granted.

The insecurity of being a poet, of feeling seen and read, has to be managed or can make one bitter. It's tough. Don’t lose sight of why you became a poet in the first place.

On the other hand, many poets and artists are making amazing work in their 70s and beyond. Wonderful time for late bloomers or to build on the foundation that they have been building all this time.

SS: Anne is a great example of that receptivity and so are you. When I started the Emerge-Surface-Be program at the Project, you were among the first poets that I thought of to serve as a mentor. And what I understood of your experience with Morgan (Vo, who I happened to mention earlier!) helped shape the program, which still seems to be robustly going forth. You guys wrote something together and went on field trips—more than just a poem/feedback loop—I was inspired by that and encouraged it as a model. I’m remembering the first time I met you in 2005, literally we passed in the stairwell at St. Mark's and I asked, “Are you Brenda Coultas? Author of The Bowery Project?” nerdily revealing myself as your fan. And I still am a Brenda Coultas fan.

BC: Thank you for the compliments (looking fondly at my stack of Szymaszek books), and Morgan is an amazing poet of the sublime as well as one experimenting with form, and he has become a publisher.

Snow outside reminds me of the trip we made to read together at the mythic Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee (around 2015). It was a homecoming for you and I met your glamorous mom. Vivid memory of her wearing rich jewel tones. Blue, purple, green saturated colors.

Magical trip outbound. Due to my own misdeeds, my flight landed in Chicago and Michael Wendt, the Program Coordinator, graciously drove down and picked me up at the beginning of a blizzard and along the way we added a flight attendant trying to get home to Milwaukee too. Got to the hotel (1920s gem) safely that night and went for a walk in the snow and stumbled into a pub where Irish musicians were playing traditional music. Walked back smitten with the city.

You asked me earlier about what I think happens after death. Perhaps the afterlife is made of paper and memories that are compost for future generations, and that works for me.

#264 — Spring 2021