This conversation took place in the summer of 2022, just after the publication of Krystal Languell’s book Systems Thinking With Flowers, which was chosen by Rae Armantrout to be published by Fonograf Editions as part of their Open Genre Book Prize. You may need to look up some of the baseball terms, we do a pretty thorough deep dive into the sport vis-a-vis Krystal’s poems. Krystal and I worked together as part of the inaugural Emerge-Surface-Be program several years ago, so we got right into things. Her book begins with epigraphs from Nick Cave and Ron Coomer, former professional baseball player and current radio broadcaster for The Chicago Cubs—Krystal’s team. We conducted the interview via zoom, and I could only type up [laughs] so many times. —AB
Anselm Berrigan: Your book is divided into two sections—did you have these two sections in mind while you were working on the poems or did the poems come together individually and then seem divisible into the two sections? I’m curious about how that might have happened.
Krystal Languell: I was approached by an editor at Baseball Prospectus—Patrick Dubuque—and he was editing this section on their website called “Short Relief” which was like a creative writing channel. And he I guess had read some of my work somewhere and asked if I was interested in becoming a contributor and of course I was. So for a while, maybe five or six months, I was writing a poem a week for Baseball Prospectus. Every Thursday night was the deadline, so I’d start and finish the poem typically on a Thursday night, which created a fun routine in the house where my husband knew he had to leave me alone. He’d wait for a shout to indicate he could talk to me again. I’d say, “Get out of here I have to write a baseball poem!” And some weeks it wasn’t a poem. Some weeks I wrote some weird non-fiction, or even fiction-like stuff in a sort of blog post style, and of course none of those made it into the book. I remember writing one about novelty twitter accounts, and I found this one called Emo Bambino where they paired photos of Babe Ruth with emo lyrics.
AB: I can’t believe I didn’t know about that.
KL: Yeah, I’m not sure if they’re still making posts, but if you’ve never seen it, check it out. Emo Bambino, there’s a few other ones. There’s one of baseball images that preceded precipitous events, like a screen shot right before someone hits a devastating grand slam. Even the major brand, MLB and The Cut, The Cut has a thread of whenever a position player is pitching, and they put up a dumb emoji art thing with a screen shot of whichever non-pitcher is pitching, which is one of my favorite things.
AB: I just followed Emo Bambino. They’re still there. I have a whole bunch of baseball handles I follow.
KL: I’ll have to scour your list.
AB: You might know them all.
KL: We might have similar tastes.
AB: There’s Pitching Ninja.
KL: Do you know Céspedes Family BBQ?
AB: Yeah. Those guys are funny. And there’s some seventies baseball handles, and then some Yankees-specific stuff you probably don’t read.
KL: Nah [laughing—actually, we’re laughing through this whole exchange].
AB: So you were writing baseball poems!
KL: Yeah, I was writing baseball poems, and I was getting paid. It was $20 a week. It was the most money I’ve ever made from poetry. Still not enough to get a 1099. So that was that, and I was still writing other poems that were not about baseball. Then when I saw that Fonograf Editions was having this contest, I was accustomed to thinking about Fonograf as putting out records so I thought, oh, I could have an A-side and a B-side. The A-side will be baseball and the B-side will be other. I thought Rae Armantrout might like the poems if they reached her eyes, and it turns out I was right [laughing], which is pretty satisfying. This is the only place I sent the manuscript. I hurried things up to send to that contest, and badabing badaboom, it will never be that easy again.
AB: You’re batting 1.000. What was it like working with Baseball Prospectus in terms of editing when you sent them poems? Did they give you any feedback, or did they run them as-is? I’m curious if there’s an editor there who knows some things about poetry and might have had some questions.
KL: There wasn’t really a poetry specialist. When I was submitting the poems to Patrick, he would say, “Yeah, great… no notes… all good.” And then his role changed, and Roger Cormier became the go-to, and sometimes Roger would ask me to make the poems a little longer.
AB: Oh wow. Ok.
KL: Interesting challenge. So I would do that but I was also submitting them at the last minute the night before. Sometimes I would get a comment on my Google Doc but I would be asleep. Sorry!
My friend Sandy pointed out to me—I didn’t really realize there was a comments section—and Sandy asked how I felt about a couple of comments that were along the lines of “I don’t see how this is about baseball.” I didn’t know there were comments, and now that I know, I still don’t care.
AB: Yeah, it’s probably for the better not to know.
KL: I don’t think it was anything nasty, just “I don’t get it.” Well, fine.
AB: Well, it seems to me, reading the baseball poems, I got the feeling it was less about picking up on a particular subject, so to speak, although I know from the notes that you had the Trevor Bauer quotes, and the Addison Russell falling into the nacho cheese laps, and certain points of anti-inspiration I guess, and more about riffing on the language of baseball in a way where it’s just in your consciousness and intertwined with other points of perception and memory and looking at what’s around you. It’s this language coming and going quickly, turning around and doing different things, lightly punctuated and agile. Does this sound accurate at all to what it might have been like writing them?
KL: Yeah. I think the first poem in the book accurately represents what that’s like as an experience. You know, I live with my husband and we’re both longtime Cubs fans, and we have this situation where we’ll be in separate rooms listening to the broadcast, and we love a lot of things about the game and the Cubs. Specifically, the broadcasters Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer—it’s really fun to listen to them when there’s not much to talk about. That’s when it gets really interesting to both of us. So these recent games that are blowouts—the Cubs are not doing well...
AB: Are these the radio announcers?
KL: Yeah, radio. When the team’s not doing well, the things they find to talk about are stupid, and funny, and when they get bored or frustrated they have to keep it G-rated, they can’t be political. And knowing what their parameters are it’s kind of like they’re in a formal experiment that I would think of as parallel to various poetry forms that you can constrain yourself with. They’ll have strong feelings and they have to translate it into this G-rated, apolitical speech. Or even if someone does something stupid, or makes a lazy mistake, Ron Coomer is the hot-tempered one and just says, “That’s bad baseball.” He really wants to say something nastier, but works within the constraint and you can tell the big emotion is there, too.
So it’s in the language and in the emotion, and it’s why a lot of fans hate Zack Zaidman, who is the third wheel and subs in when someone’s out on vacation. Fans hate him. I feel bad for him, but I don’t like him either. He doesn’t have the right inflection control, so he’ll raise his voice when the other team is doing something, and then you turn the radio up and are like, man, Zach, cut it out. What that speaks to is the ability of fans to understand those constraints, and the sophistication and the skill the announcers have to have in order to work within their parameters and still communicate something interesting and accurate.
AB: Growing up I used to listen to games all the time on the radio. We didn’t have cable and there weren’t a lot of games on regular tv. And I actually found that listening to baseball, and listening to basketball, too, was really interesting. Because you’re getting this language and you’re getting this excitement, and it also seems like a hard job because you have to describe these things as they’re happening. Baseball has a different tempo than basketball. The Yankees had these two announcers, Hank Greenwald and Tommy Hutton, who were their radio announcers in the late 1980s. I really liked them. The odd thing was they were both National League guys, and they had this detachment in relation to the Yankees, and had this other kind of viewpoint. They were really good. And the local journalists who wrote about sports media also thought they were really good. They both got fired after the second year so the Yankees could bring in John Sterling, who is just a total homer and misses things all the time. He doesn’t describe the game very well so it became pointless to listen.
Anyway, baseball is what, around 160 years old? It really got going in the 1870s right? Though, it was started earlier than that. So there’s all this language to the game. Some of it has changed, some of it has survived—there’s this whole phrasal vocabulary you can have access to. I’ve always been interested in mixing that language up with other things in terms of making poems, especially early on getting started, no one writing poems I knew was into baseball. It took awhile to find the baseball fans, like Charles North, or maybe I just had to leave San Francisco. It was like having a secret language, and you could make something sound abstract that actually isn’t.
KL: I’ve noticed that in your work, and with basketball language, too. I’m not a huge fan, but I watched the Bulls growing up, I grew up in the midwest. So I recognize phrases like “In the paint.”
AB: Was Ron Coomer the source, by chance, of the title “The All-Star Game Is Stupid”?
KL: No. Because I think that is too direct of a statement for him to be allowed to say. So no, I think that’s just my opinion [laughing].
AB: In that poem you end with the lines “It’s not personal in the end / as long as we look like a team.” That seemed to be presenting a kind of skepticism of the appearance of teamwork, in a way. But then baseball is this odd sport where it’s very individually oriented, but you do have a team dynamic at the same time. So you do hear a lot of language about teamwork, and camaraderie, and chemistry. But the players are constantly being isolated under pressure—the pitcher is alone, the batter is alone, the fielders are socially distanced by rule. And they’re getting all this data breaking down their swings and arm angles and things. I got this sense across some of the poems that the notion of the team was something you could bring to the surface at points, because you could also be referring to a work situation at an office, or you could be referring to the way sports language in its more cliched forms gets adopted by politicians and corporations to….
KL: To motivate.
AB: Yeah, to motivate.
KL: That makes me think of another poem that I’ll mention in a second where I’m definitely thinking about that idea. With this line I think it depends on how you read “as long as we look like a team.” In this poem I mention a couple of things Joe Maddon was doing when he was managing the Cubs, like spoof suits on road trips. They’d go on the road and there’d be a theme—pajama day—kind of stupid stuff, but they’re all doing pajamas so every player does it their own way. And some guys look stupid and some look cool, and some guys wear a bunch of gold chains with their pajamas to say I’m cooperating but I’m still being myself. So ok, that’s fine, you can be creative and put a spin on the theme as long as the theme is still visible.
This other line that was something I said to my husband. We met in New York and then we moved to Chicago: he grew up in the Chicago area, I grew up a couple of hours away. So when I was moving to Chicago, which I had always wanted to do, two exciting things happened. We got here and we went to a friend’s house and the game was on the radio and I was like wait, that’s coming out of the radio and not the internet, cause we’re in Chicago, cool. And the other thing, when you’re away from home, let’s say you’re in a foreign country, it’s so exciting if you’re in Prague and someone else is wearing a Cubs hat and you’re like, Heeeeeyyyy!!! But then we moved to Chicago and the shirts are here, it’s not special, everyone’s wearing them or has Cubs paraphernalia. So do we look like a team, like we’re on a team—are we a team? We meet in a different context, but I see that you’re wearing the uniform.
But then this other poem that I would love to bring up in this context too—I don’t remember what it’s called so I have to find it—it’s about this situation, and this might be something I want to edit when I go back. The real story is that I was on some academic teams when I was a high school student, and before a competition—I was not a senior yet—but someone who was a senior was trying to give a motivational pep talk before our big competition. He told everyone to stand on their chairs, and I was like, Fuck this, I’m not doing that, fuck you [laughter]. “And then stick your arms up and stick them up higher! We’re going to reach the sky as a team!” And I had my arms crossed and just thought, this is stupid. He saw what was happening, and I was leader on the team too, but he didn’t change the script and said, “Anyone who doesn’t stand up is trying to tear you down.”
KL: “And they’re dead weight, and how we tell we’re a team is we all stand on a chair together.” And I just thought, this is fucked up. So there’s some of that in here—reach for the sky, or shut up. In the poem “Team Spirit” there’s the line “sticking up for yourself / is at odds with team spirit / outside the shadow the script rolled on / it said those who don’t climb / hold others back / no logic captures / the non-model member / we already were the same shirts.”
AB: Were you reading any writing on baseball while writing these poems? There’s a lot of really good writing on baseball, and then there’s this poetry-baseball connection you can find here or there with certain people. I wouldn’t anticipate you were deep diving into that while writing these poems necessarily, but I am curious. Rae mentions Jack Spicer briefly in her introduction, and I thought that was interesting and wondered how much of that reference was Rae and how much of it might be Krystal.
KL: Yeah, I think that was largely Rae. I’d heard that Spicer term before, the Martians, and I went and read up and refreshed on that after reading Rae’s piece. In her intro she says she’s not into baseball, and she’s surprised she likes the poems. I thought of that Spicer line as translating the alien transmissions, and baseball is what’s alien. The prism translating it and putting it into something that’s visible, even if you’re not a fan and even if you’re not immersed in the language of that sport. I wasn’t doing a lot of baseball reading. I was doing a lot of Emo Bambino type of reading. Trying to see what the boys were talking about online. And then I found a few people who were talking about baseball who were not the boys. I did find a bunch of baseball writers whose opinions I respect, but a lot of the loudest voices online are people saying things like, “Oh, Trevor Bauer, it doesn’t matter what he gets into off the field, that’s personal”—you know, stupid idiots. But I was following a lot of journalists who were writing about why he’s a scourge.
AB: Do you know the writer Keith Law?
AB: I like to read his pieces. I like to read his chats, actually, because he’s ornery. He has zero tolerance for domestic/sexual abusers. He just says these guys should not be allowed to play. Whether it’s Trevor Bauer, or Addison Russell, or in the case of the Yankees, Domingo German a few years ago. He just shuts that whole thing down when people try to come at him.
KL: I get his email newsletter but I don’t always read it. He also reviews board games?
AB: He does review board games. I actually got a half-dozen board games for my kids based on his board-game writing.
KL: That’s cool.
AB: He has good taste. There’s this other angle from Spicer: the poet as radio. That you were listening to the radio while writing the poems makes a certain circle with that, though that wasn’t intentional in any way. There’s a certain amount of baseball poetry that comes off as prosaic, and your poems never do that.
KL: By that do you mean more sentimental? Or prescriptive?
AB: Leaning overly on sentence construction, and putting this reflective mode up on the surface. That actually leads to sentiment, but I’m interested in sentiment. I just want to see it in ways that aren’t telegraphed. Tom Clark wrote a lot of baseball poems at a certain point, and his were more interesting to me because a lot of them were portraits of individual players in the 1970s. He’d capture a moment in a game, a physical characteristic, or the attitude or give-off a certain player had. He was watching a lot of A’s games in the seventies when the A’s were really interesting. I have this question I want to ask you, and I can’t tell if this is a pain in the ass question or a funny question or both. It’s sort of two questions in one, and you can answer it however you want: how old were you when you went to your first game? And how old were you when you wrote your first poem?
KL: I went to my first Cubs game on a field trip in school during fifth grade, which I think would have made me ten. I did not pay attention. I ate peanuts. I understand Sammy Sosa was there. That was very technically attending a game [laughing]. And then my first poem at all?
AB: Yeah. Let’s say the point at which you wrote something and realized, Okay, I’m going to write more things.
KL: Probably 15, if not 14. I was fortunate to go to a nice public high school that had creative writing classes, so I got to do that at school for three years. I must have been into it before the classes started, so that’s why I think 14. I went around writing explicitly political poetry. I was reading Adbusters, and flipping through Maximum Rocknroll.
AB: Oh, yeah. And then did baseball come in at a certain point, or is it more of a recent thing?
KL: It’s a little more recent, and that Addison Russell cheese poem was the first one of these I wrote, before I was doing Baseball Prospectus. I think that’s the one Patrick read, and then he contacted me. Which also, just to pause there, was fucking amazing. I thought, is this a scam? Someone looking for my credit card number? “Hey, I read your work and am wondering if you’d like to write some baseball poetry, and we pay a little bit of money.” Are you a bot? [laughing] I usually listen to the radio—maybe I watched the highlight later. Watching the video clip I just felt like there was so much going on that the commentators weren’t including. And that felt like a pretty good metaphor for the whole situation. Many commentators were in fact describing the whole situation there.
Sorry, the cat just kicked the computer.
AB: No problem, I have two cats but they’re not here.
So that poem is called “Baseball Poem Written by a Woman”. It begins: “In St. Louis tonight, the shortstop tips over the left / field wall, his left arm extended to break his fall lands / in a woman’s nacho cheese…” The poem begins as if it’s happening right now. It’s written in the present, so it’s constructed as this moving image. A little later you say it looks like “one of those Renaissance paintings.” I haven’t gone back to look at the play, but I understood completely what you were talking about. All these different points of action and perspective laid out in front of you, and something is happening that’s absurd but also this thing that could happen at a game.
KL: I don’t know if you remember but there was a meme going around about Renaissance paintings. There was an iteration going around, someone in London or somewhere in the U.K. getting arrested for public drunkenness. He’s on his belly with his hands behind his back, and all the people around him are watching—unrelated people watching the same thing, or just getting caught in the background doing their own thing. And this meme developed where people were like, Oh, it’s a Renaissance painting! I don’t even know if Renaissance is the right word. It’s standing in as code for a museum painting. But there was something of the Fibonacci sequence about it, where there was a central point of action and then a rotating outwards. I don’t think Renaissance painting fits that image, but it fits this one at least as well as that one. You could just see one thing or you could see more than one thing.
AB: There was a photo that was going around a few years ago, it was shot during a basketball game, and what it caught was some of the action on the court, and then a lot of action on the bench. All these bodies at, I don’t know, some kind of tipping point of expression. It looked like a snapshot that had been really choreographed, but it actually just caught a moment when everyone was in a dramatic pose. And that term made sense to me because in, say, a painting by Raphael all the bodies look like they’re sculptures, and they’re caught in these dramatic poses. I like “Renaissance painting” showing up there.
KL: Is what you’re describing something like the Last Supper image, with the scorer’s table in the middle, and there’s Jesus I guess, with disciples on either side.
AB: Yeah, in this case Jesus was James Harden. What’s your take on analytics? Do you care? Are you more old school?
KL: I’m a little bit more old school. Some of it I’m interested in. I don’t really care about exit velocity. I don’t think it matters.
AB: There’s a couple lines for you.
KL: For some purposes I’m sure it’s useful, but to the casual fan… I’m going to lump it in with the gambling stuff. I hate hearing about the over/under if I’m listening to the last minute of the pre-game bullshit before the real thing starts. That’s so far outside of what’s actually happening, to me, but then again I never played fantasy sports either, and I feel that’s outside of the real experience. I know people who do multiple fantasy baseball leagues simultaneously, and I think, don’t you feel like that ruins the fan experience, where you have to root against your own team sometimes? Obviously, they maintain no. Analytics, fantasy sports, sports betting is all more noise, and I’ve got enough noise in my brain, generally speaking. I don’t need more.
I don’t really follow any other sports. I think I’d rather follow another sport as a fan than add another layer of complication. The layer of complication I do pay attention to is personal stories, which I think most fans do. The stuff the other day with Willson Contreras and his little brother William playing against each other—that’s an interesting story. I’d rather spend twenty minutes thinking about that than something like, “How can I make a dollar off the next pitch?” I find analytics less offensive than sports betting. Unless you’re going down to the off-track betting place and handing money to a guy. This computer stuff, FanDuel, whatever.
AB: Gambling is really taking off. It’s always been there, but it’s legal in more states, and the FanDuel thing is nuts. I listen to this one podcast sometimes, the Bill Simmons podcast, and he runs ads for FanDuel and talks about it, and then is obliged to recite the gambling addiction hotline numbers, in every state, and the number of numbers just keeps growing. It’s to the point where they speed up the notice so it’s basically in fast-forward. Some of the analytics stuff has been around for a long time. If you walk a lot, you’re on base more, and that’s actually useful. But they now have a camera on every player, and every facet of how they move, and that creates all this other information. Sometimes I think that’s interesting, but bonkers. Then I read this interview with Don Mattingly, the (former) manager of the Marlins, but he was also a Yankee, and one of my favorite players as a kid. He said he found some of the information useful, but that the analytics guys were telling the batters about how to improve their launch angles, and then telling the pitchers how to counteract that, and you’re left with, I don’t know how to put it….
KL: A stalemate.
KL: “He likes to throw it down—but he likes to hit it up.” Well, ok. I don’t know. You still have to swing the bat.
AB: Going back into the book for a second, how did “Zobrist sees America” come together? Is that poem written entirely from [Ben] Zobrist’s perspective? Did you read about a trip he took?
KL: In my imagination it’s from his perspective. I mean, I guess the whole book is from my imagination. What happened with Ben Zobrist was pretty interesting. He stepped away from the game to attend to some personal matters, and we found out what the personal matters were, which was that his wife had engaged in extra-marital activity, unbeknownst to him. With their pastor or something. Some kind of nasty detail that was not nice. And so in response to that there was this speculation—are they going to get divorced, are they going to patch it up? Eventually they got divorced. He was devastated and took time off from playing baseball because his family was falling apart.
And he did go, I believe, and play some games at triple-A Iowa [high minor leagues]. I don’t think he played any games at single-A South Bend [low minor leagues]. I was thinking about and imagining the travel times between locations for him. He identifies as a devout Christian, so I’m sure there was an extra level of pain for him in that situation. That’s not my identity, but I can use my imagination there, too. Probably pretty disappointing. But he used to ride his bike to Wrigley Field, he lived in the neighborhood, or the next neighborhood down. He would put on his uniform and ride his bike to work. Pull up outside the field, in his uniform, and play catch with some kids before he reported for duty. He was a good player, and he seemed like a real sweet dude. I was feeling bad for him.
KL: Imagining his travels as he figured out what to do there. He was actually at a game a few days ago.
AB: That poem and “Try Your Best and Have Fun” are for me these two poems that get into this whole geographical ground. The minor leagues are really different than something any other sport has. There’s been a reduction, unfortunately, of minor league teams. But they’re all over the country, people playing baseball in all these small towns. There’s Low-A, there’s High-A, there’s the Rookie League, there’s Double-A, there’s Triple-A, and there are also independent leagues. So you have five or six levels per organization. And that’s not even getting into the Mexican League, the winter ball that takes place in certain countries in Central America, South America, across the Caribbean, and out into Japan and Korean and Taiwan. Baseball’s this international sport that doesn’t know how to celebrate that and articulate that sometimes. But I really like the way these two poems move across this wider field—no pun intended—and that odd sense of networks. “The full baseball moon will rise over the Pecos mountains / in the sputtering league’s weird logo. Bisbee. Cruces. Ruidoso.” Bisbee is where my mother [poet Alice Notley] was born.
KL: They share the logo—it’s the Train Robbers and the Vaqueros and two more teams, and they all have the same logo. I’m pretty sure Bisbee has the same logo as the others. And she [Notley] ends “At Night the States” with three cities, so that’s a kind of nod to her.
AB: I wondered about that. I heard it.
I want to ask you about the second section, the non-baseball section. These are the poems written around, or maybe parallel to, the baseball poems? Are they roughly from the same time period?
KL: They are. Maybe a slightly broader time period than the baseball poems. They’re written the first couple of years I was in Chicago, 2017-2019. There are a few that are processing leaving New York and coming to Chicago.
AB: I was particularly interested in the poem after Howardena Pindell’s work, “If You Succeed We Will Destroy You”, and then these two sonnets where the titles come out of Michael Jackson. It seems like the sources and forms of the poems are varying a lot. And there’s this tonal characteristic across the poems that I don’t want to try and define too much, because it’s flexible, but I’m curious about this section in relation to the title of the book—Systems Thinking With Flowers. Sometimes book titles happen easily, and sometimes it feels impossible. This one has an intersection with every poem in the book. It feels like the sense of systems is an undercurrent, not a top-down thing foreclosing on the poems, if that makes sense.
KL: Yeah. With the baseball poems, in a way, they’re all about baseball, but with the other section it never crossed my mind to make it be all about a thing that could be pointed to like that. But what I tried to do, even with the baseball poems, was to make them not be flat, where they’re all pointing to a subject matter. It’s interesting to think about form in the second section, because those two sonnets do kind of stick out. I think I was thinking about them as a kind of stunt—it’s not what I usually do, writing into existing forms. I thought, I wonder if I can do that.
I took a workshop at The Poetry Project with Eileen Myles a bunch of years ago. We did this activity, which I’ve done as a teacher in different ways too, where we listened to something. We listened to a few minutes of The Three Musketeers on tape, or something like that. You listen, you take down language, you make something out of the language. Then you come to find out it still sounds like you. Even though it’s not your language. So I was kind of doing that with the sonnet form. I had this bigger idea that I would write 65 sonnets that were all titled after songs by Black American artists. But then they were all going to be titled with parentheses, and I had too many rules. I still feel like these sound like me, they feel like me. I think there’s this mood of critique when you’re writing about and after people who were used up or thrown away by America. Pretty easy to stay gloomy if that’s what you’re working with, which is what was here.
AB: The poem “How Will I Know (Don’t Trust Your Feelings)”—I didn’t catch the title right away as coming out of the Whitney Houston song. I don’t know how, because I’ve heard the song a million times, especially as a kid when it always on the radio, and it’s just in my head. And then I remembered “How Will I Know” is sung by Whitney Houston in the song, and “Don’t trust your feelings” is this other voice, like a chorus coming in. And so the parentheses separate the phrases, and then the poem has this other density and fluidity to it. Once I caught it I was reading the poem thinking about Whitney Houston, and then I was also reading it word by word and line by line and letting it wash over me—that rate of change line by line and thought by thought. The baseball poems are cut by what’s happening and what’s on the radio and the turns are really surprising. This one’s doing that but maybe there are longer articulations. I guess that’s not a question.
KL: When you say longer articulations, and I’m looking at the poem, as sentences they’re longer than you might see in the baseball poems, where the lines are shorter and firing away. Part of what was fun about writing in that form was that I don’t usually do that and I’m trying to make it work. The sentence gets stranger as it gets longer, because more tricks are required to navigate the form.
AB: Yeah. And I wonder if that thing you were talking about in terms of Eileen’s class, where you’re working with language in this other way, you’re putting things together, the materials are coming from other sources—it’s still you making decisions about what goes where, and handling the sounds and arrangements. It’s hard to get too far away from your own relationship to language, unless you really want to break it down and challenge that. Even then you’re still you doing it.
KL: How do you write something without it being you—it’s impossible. It reminds me—I remember when I was teaching at Pratt, and going through a bad time, and I went to campus with no makeup on and looked like crap and had been crying. And my students, who had usually seen me with some makeup on, still recognized me. And I was like, Nooooo! I don’t have the costume on! This isn’t the me you’re supposed to know. What’s the point of putting makeup on if people still know it’s me? [laughing] That’s just as silly a thought to have as “I’m going to write something that won’t be me.” That’s impossible. Damn. There must something else about me they noticed about me that I cannot escape.
AB: I think my mother wrote about my father that he didn’t think he could ever sound like Walt Whitman by being Whitmanic in a poem, and he thought that had something to do with his education, being this working-class guy from Providence. But he could take Whitman’s lines, put them into his poem, and try them on almost like a costume.
KL: Right, but then what’s more working class than trying on a costume?
AB: I have one more thing I want to ask you. Are you working on anything now, any new works? How have you handled writing in the last few years amidst all this?
KL: I read for Belladonna in May of last year, from a chapbook called Yacht Problems* that they published. And that was what I was working on at the dawn of the pandemic. I live on Lake Michigan, on the north side of Chicago, and there was all this discussion going on about the water levels. It was really high, the highest it had ever been. Damaging property, messing up the beaches. Then the pandemic reached us and influenced that piece of writing. I’m not writing that anymore, but glad it exists as a chaplet. Right now I’m at the beginning of something, writing in little bursts, and what’s most active for me is that I’m having a lot of bizarre dreams. And I’m trying to gather information from that.
I’m trying to read widely, and keep myself moving. That used to be easier, but I have more responsibilities. I’m trying to be open to being influenced by what I’m reading. I just finished a book of essays by a friend of mine from grad school. The book is called The Rock Cycle. His name is Kevin Honold. It was super interesting to read, and we haven’t talked in a while. He’s a very strange dude, and I got to learn more about some of the levels of what he knows, his life. He was a veteran of the first Gulf War, and was in the Peace Corp in Mongolia. He’s done a lot of solo bike trips in deserts, and all of that is in the books. It’s been making me think of the time we were together in school, and it’s affecting my dreams. My brain keeps pulling up that time and those people and putting them in dangerous situations.