Cara Benson Talks to Kate Greenstreet at Bookslut

By Harriet Staff

Wander over to Bookslut, where poet Kate Greenstreet has interviewed Cara Benson, author of (made) (BookThug, 2010) and the forthcoming Protean Parade (Black Radish Books, 2012). As Bookslut informs us, Benson's poem “BANKING” was chosen from the Boston Review by Kevin Young for the 2011 Best American Poetry. She edited the interdisciplinary book Predictions for ChainLinks and is featured in the Belladonna Elders Series with Jayne Cortez and Anne Waldman. She is a member of the Dusie Kollektiv, Black Radish Books, and the Belladonna* Collaborative. Benson is also a committee member of the PEN Prison Writing Program and teaches poetry in a NY State Prison.

She and Greenstreet discuss performance, collaboration, art and advocacy, the brain of the conservative v. that of the liberal, the future of things ("Not teleologically speaking. I’m not positing a specific static utopic state"), narrative as a place for the reader to rest, and the roles of power and information when teaching in the prison system:

KG: You teach in a prison. When did you start doing that? Do you have other teaching jobs as well?

CB: The prison class started at the end of 2005. Sometimes I struggle with what to say about it. I mean, in many ways it really isn’t any different from another classroom. And then, it is very different. My awareness of my role is heightened. No matter what I might think about whether this is unjust, corrupt, modern day slavery, how do we deal with criminal behavior, what is individual what is systemic, etc etc., fact of the matter is that the students right in front of me are in a singularly disempowering situation. This might manifest in a number of ways. For example, yesterday there was a new guy. His edge was very hard; he was testing me at every turn. There are times to move past that quickly and times to let that play out a little bit more before attempting to steer it into the energy of the group conversation. Like I said, any classroom. Yesterday was tricky, though, because we’re in the middle of a longer project right now. We’re using the text of Bernie Sanders’s filibuster from last December to make poems. So we’re doing a variety of things with his language. This particular day I happened to be talking about Sapphic meter to see if we might make our own extant fragments as a contrast to how we’d been working on it, having already done some revolution will not be televised versions and collaboratives and erasures and rhythmic repetitive rant chants.

So I’m in the middle of dactyls and trochees and I haven’t been sleeping well because Spring is on and he’s interrupting, and like I said his energy was, well it seemed to me that he was angry, which some might say was a reflection of my lack of sleep. Either way it is understandable and nothing new and there is usually room for that, but he keeps on, he’s asking me, what does politics mean to me and what do I know about the Black Panthers and some lady came into another prison where he was to teach poetry and took all their poems and they supposedly got stolen so if he gives me a poem it better show up where I say it’s going. Which is fine and absolutely part of the process; the issues he was getting at aren’t anything we don’t usually talk about on any given day, but he couldn’t know that yet. And he wouldn’t have any reason to trust me yet. Nor I him. Anyway, after some tongue biting on my part, we got to the place where he wanted to recite one of his own poems, so he did. Then he asked me to do the same with one of mine. So I did. That seemed to level something in the room.

We look at an immense amount of enviro-politico-socio-identity-gender-race-economic issues/art/writing, as well as complications of those categories and of categorization generally. And I’m often nearly anarchical in my approach to classroom structure. So to write about a scenario where I’m bringing Official Verse Meter and frustrated with interruptions might misrepresent how the class generally rolls. Or to assume that OVM wouldn’t or shouldn’t be taught. All of that’s in the way but also the very point.

I think a lot about group dynamics. How to be part of something where the exchanges are “equal” without being unsensibly prescriptive. It’s what we’re working on on the planet, right? Of course not so successfully at this point on the global scale. So the microcosm of a group in a room, I’ve shown up to that room in the prison and been silent for chunks of time. I’m extremely conscious of the fact of my power in that situation, and one of the goals is to acknowledge and support theirs through the writing. However, I do have experience and knowledge and information and material to offer. Don’t we all? How to give what I have and also receive. There are plenty of times when the energy someone is endowed with at a given moment takes precedence in the room and we all witness? allow? participate in its, er, dominance. Freire talks about always scrutinizing oneself. I can paralyze myself in that process and talk myself out of any given action because a) I don’t know if I really can know if or how what I do does or does not play into hegemony and b) nothing seems to do anything to crack oligarchy, oppression, etc. -- at least systemically -- anyway. So, I just keep going in, like the late Janine Pommy Vega always said to me: “Cara, you just keep going in. Bring poems. Willingness. Dig deep and be honest.”

Read the entire interview here.

Originally Published: June 9th, 2011