"I would have made a terrible Futurist": Guernica Interviews Elaine Equi
A fantastic interview with Elaine Equi is over at The Switchboard, the blog for Guernica. Equi is most recently the author of Click and Clone, published this year by Coffee House Press: "[Click and Clone] explores the tone and timbre of American life as it has been colored by the new metaphors and images brought to us by our continuing technological revolution." Equi goes into this a bit more:
Guernica: It feels like there is more thematic coherency to Click and Clone than in some of your previous books. I would think that what you’re working on now would be a total departure from that material…
Elaine Equi: I can never plan out what direction my poems will take in terms of either form or content. I wish I could but it doesn’t work that way for me. If I try to write something, I’d probably end up doing the opposite. In Click and Clone, I’d write a poem and a few weeks or months later, another poem on a similar topic would arrive. It’s as if I had more to say, so I began thinking of them as sets. There’s a set of dream poems, a set of portraits of women, the clone poems. They were like a bunch of serial poems having a discussion with each other. And as you mentioned, it was more thematic than my other books. I think fantasy was the common element. I decided on the title early on. It’s the name of an educational website from the Genetics Science Center at the University of Utah and they were kind enough to grant me permission to use it. I just love the sound of it. It’s such a seductive mantra.
I haven’t thought much about my next book yet. Right now I’m just happy to get a poem wherever I can find one.
Guernica: How did the “clone” come about?
Elaine Equi: Well, I wasn’t thinking of real clones, like I said, it was fantasy. Maybe a metaphor for how fast it feels like everything is moving. And I’ve always been fascinated by tales of doppelgangers and the idea of a double. If you look at my previous book titles Surface Tension, Decoy, Voice-Over, The Cloud of Knowable Things, Ripple Effect, and now Click and Clone, it feels like one continual exploration of self-estrangement and the differences between “real” and “copy.”
They also discuss teaching, Equi's early poetry life in Chicago, having a partner who writes (she's married to poet Jerome Sala), and her eventual move to New York: "In Chicago, if you tell someone you’re a writer, they look at you suspiciously—as if to say 'yeah, right.' In New York, people don’t question the idea. If you say you’re a writer, that’s what you are." Equi's outlook regarding the changing book industry is positive:
Elaine Equi: Click and Clone kind of epitomizes the problem I have with technology. It sounds quick and easy, but it ends up taking up too much of your time. I never liked the philosophy that you can have everything and be everything and that something is wrong if you don’t want that. I’m terrible at multitasking and find it hard to believe that no one protests this general trend of using the rhetoric of self actualization to sell you faster and faster phones and computers, BlackBerrys, etc.
I don’t like speed. I would have made a terrible Futurist. Even when I did take drugs, I never liked amphetamines and much preferred the slow taffy-pull of time that you get with opiates.
Of course, I know you can’t really stop technology. And there are many benefits to it too. But with this book, I wanted to look more closely at my own resistance to it. Basically, I wanted to complain a bit.
Guernica: What do you think is the difference is between making something like Aram Saroyan’s book The Beatles and something like Twitterature?
Elaine Equi: Maybe not that much in terms of an individual poem or book. But there’s a huge shift going on in publishing—the whole print versus digital debate. I don’t know how it will change things, but it certainly will. I can see the financial benefits of not having to print and store and distribute these bulky things we call books, not to mention all the trees it will save. But I wonder if books become in essence “files” if people wouldn’t write them differently. I’m used to writing print books and I enjoy the slowness of the whole process. It makes me more deliberate about everything I say.
Then again, I can appreciate the idea that with e-books more people would publish, the work would be easier to disseminate, and that it could even be interactive. Being a lover of photography, I especially like the idea that you could include lots of pictures—full-color pictures—with your writing. That to me is exciting! We’ll all have to stay tuned to see what develops.
Also interesting is viewing Equi's minimalism through her interest in Brazilian concrete poetry and German poets like Oskar Pastior, Ernst Jandl, Gunter Eich, and Eugene Gomringer. Guernica also touches on Equi's essay on Frank O'Hara, which was written for Conjunctions in 1997. These parts come together:
Guernica: I found this line in O’Hara’s poems and in yours that poetry is a “machine.” Where do you think of poetry as “machine” starts?
Elaine Equi: We’ve all heard the William Carlos Williams line: “A poem is a small machine made of words.” Usually people think of it as a way to emphasize careful craftsmanship. In a machine, every part has a function. In a poem, every word needs to be there. But I don’t actually subscribe to that notion.
When I think of someone equating poems and machines, it makes me feel like that person would like poems to have a more obvious use value in society. They’re not happy with poetry being this ephemeral, indefinable thing. They want it to be “real.”
I think it is real, but I like the idea of it being non-utilitarian.
Guernica: Along the same lines, how do you think concrete poetry relates to the objectivists?
Elaine Equi: There are a lot of similarities. They both emphasize the materiality of language. They both “put words in the spotlight,” as I once heard Aram Saroyan say. And they both use the white space around words to sculpt/shape their work, rather than simply seeing it as background.
For more from Equi, check out "Okay", one of our favorite poems from her Hanuman book Views Without Rooms. It reads:
Often she built
a whole stage
just to say
out of everything
then she would
And you can read the full interview here.