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poem >< poet : a talk with Sharon Mesmer

Sharon Mesmer wrote a poem called "This Poem" which is now posted on her blog, Dubious Labia. Last week she emailed it to the Flarf list, which I'm on...as a quotidient fly on the wall. I was struck by its reach to the point where I wanted to investigate how much of its immediacy and action I could hold onto, if I rewrote it in the spirit of Flarf. I ended up performing minor surgery, changing This Poem to This Poet throughout, opening the door to a larger conversation. I hadn't talked to Sharon in a while and this was a good way to catch up:

ET:  The piece shows a fabulous breadth of poetics, covering a huge arena surrounding a poet's life, or the life of someone interested in calling poetry a home.

SM:  Well, thank you!  I like the idea of calling poetry a home.

ET:  I was about to ask for its genesis when I see on your blog, that you mention the I Ching as a jumping off point. As someone who's adept at humanizing a search engine, I think you're used to integrating formula into the creation of work—into the re-creation of work so as to own its output—its regurgitated output...which I should say is a roundabout way of labeling "inspiration." So…considering our redefinition of what constitutes "output," I was wondering how meditation plays a part in your work, maybe that's way too broad a spectrum...in this piece specifically?

SM:  I like the idea of inspiration as regurgitated output.  I'm stealing all these ideas from you, I hope you know, so don't get mad when you see the regurgitated output ... uh, I mean "inspiration" ... in my poems for the next couple of weeks.  Actually, the I Ching thing has nothing directly to do with the coins/stalks, or the Wilhelm book (indirectly, though, it does, of course).  Lately I've been using this I Ching online site, and seeing that the questions I ask are never (or, hardly ever) the ones that get answered.  The questions that get answered are usually somewhere in the proximity of the ones asked ... maybe trailing half a block behind, tripping over their untied shoelaces.  The "real" questions are maybe like Wordsworth's "thoughts that lie too deep for tears" ... and I haven't even begun to formulate those questions yet. I don't think many of us have.

ET: You know, when I use the word "us" in a poem, I wonder if humanity gets pissed off? Like who am I to claim us as everybody? Yet isn't that our job, as alchemists, to hold the mirror up and ask the questions we don't want to, for fear of an undesirable outcome?

SM:  I know for sure that when I use "us" in a poem humanity gets pissed off, and wonders how it can get me back to my home planet.  Okay, so maybe I was being a little pretentious there, with that "us."  I just think there's probably a buried treasure of important questions somewhere that I would like to have access to, and I think others (non-poets as well, those weirdos ... who are they?) might like to as well.   I'd love to have a job as an alchemist.

ET: It seems like this poem is already approaching the "important" questions, isn't it? I tend to find myself filled with a lot more questions than answers, to my own detriment I think. I oftentimes wish I had easier access to concrete statements but I've become resolved to my space in the unknown. I guess my idea of "redefinition" is born out of process before experiment…and maybe that's what speaks to me so deeply in this poet/poem.

SM:  "The process before experiment" . . . that's a very interesting idea, and moment: before the onset.  Also interesting because I'm reading The Grand Design, the new(ish?) Stephen Hawking book, and he talks about the conditions that led up to the formation of this universe, and the radiation that was present then, called "cosmic microwave background radiation," which can still be detected now and is present in space.  He says that the radiation is left over "from the very hot and dense early universe that would have existed shortly after the big bang."  The very hot and dense early universe!  Maybe that's where all the important questions are hiding.  As far as the poem goes, though, I was looking for some clues as to how to dope out my own much smaller questions (and possibly some answers),  using the I Ching, and then I came upon Chris Lofting's book The Emotional I Ching.  The questions he posits regarding the hexagrams are what I imported here, and I may re-mold them further, or add different questions at some point.  Reading Lofting's questions, I thought: these questions -- and others -- could be asked of a poem.  In reality, I was thinking that the questions should be posed to the poet, but since I was the poet, I thought it solipsistic that the questions -- and the poem -- should be about me.

ET: It's hard sometimes to be so confrontational to yourself, to the ego hearing itself claimed in print…

SM: I know: poem >< poet ... same-same maybe.  But I went ahead, and then when you posted your remake/remodel the issue of gendered decisions just jumped out at me: why was I embedding the "I"?  On my blog I wrote that it was probably because of my literary "training," but then it occurred to me that maybe I was being some sort of polite lady poet, not wanting to put myself forward (per my polite Midwest upbringing).  I know that seems weird: me, a polite lady poet?

ET: Ah, but I've seen you be uber-polite…and then bite the head off a mastiff!

SM: Hah, funny…that dog should've known not to get so close.  I can think of only one or two poems where I let the I-dogs out (one being "Blue Collar Typeface").  Usually I speak through some textual cipher.

ET: Wait, explain your textual cipher…is that a cousin to your poet-persona…or something we'd consider "your voice"?

SM:  I just mean that I put some of the meaning in the actual physical grid of the poem, which (I think) helps create the poem's persona: is there repetition, some kind of idiosyncratic music that might be attractive to the ear, that could convey meaning beyond the actual words, the verbal content? But "cipher" also means something inconsequential, lacking worth, weight, influence -- and some of those questions touch on that idea, and my own response after writing that poem contained a suggestion of that.  And I think that suggestion connects to larger issues in my life that really *are* too solipsistic to delve into here!

ET:  When I read the first few stanzas, I stopped...knowing this to be a magnificent journey you were presenting me with...but knowing it deserved time—maybe I went back to base camp for more supplies before initiating the journey again. As I continued I had a Flarf spirit hovering over my shoulder...a gremlin wearing a Mesmer eye-patch, insinuating Flarf at every bend. However what I encountered wasn't what might be considered "Flarf"...or Mesmer for that matter...the iota of Google I picked up on, was the repetitive mantra of rules being laid down...a search into a quiet resolution over a problem no one had figured out. The thought of a poem becoming a physical entity is something I'm sure poets live with at every moment. But the chance to catch that in language that doesn't make you cringe is a bear of an obstacle—to me, that's one of the poem's strengths. What do you think of a poem's ability to inhabit your being, to re-live your life as you live it?

SM:  That's kind of back to the cipher (as code) issue.  Artists of course amplify, extend and give eternal life to a persona in works, so that they end up (either during their lives or after) inhabiting their own work as a projection of whatever trait they allowed to inflect that work.   Of course, you have to be a really strong personality for that to happen in the first place!  An example might be Allen Ginsberg (I really miss him, by the way; the 15th anniversary of his death was last week).

ET: A toast to his burning red vibrations!

SM: Om Ah Hum!  An extreme example might be JT Leroy/Laura Albert.  I admire what she did.  And, coming at this from a slightly different angle, there's a book that I really want to read, but I'm too poor to buy it right now, called The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice.  There's a supreme example of someone who projected an image that was both "true" and "not true" ... what we saw was something she was able to shine forth from that place where the thoughts that lie too deep for tears lie. (I wonder what would happen if I applied Lofting's questions to Liz Taylor?)

ET: The place "too deep for tears"…I wrote about that in my first Harriet post this month…about dealing with a life-changing trauma and how to encapsualte that vulnerability where it becomes a gateway to a larger truth. How exhausting it is to lay those tears out in the open, yet how necessary the underpinning of the human spirit to connect.

SM:  I actually didn't see that post (shame on me; I'll go look at it now), but it figures that we're touching on some similar themes/tropes/strophes once again!  Because, you know, I've been dealing with/thinking about those kinds of life-changing moments and, as you so perfectly expressed it, how those moments become gateways to the larger truths ... that's probably how you get to understand what those important questions are, right—only by consciously going through those moments.  Speaking just for myself, a poem usually inhabits my being as a feeling—not exactly an emotional feeling if that makes sense, but something unformed, inchoate, that I feel is there.  Then, after I write it, I inhabit its world for a while…maybe a couple of days while I work on/edit the poem.  Then I move on.

ET: But that feeling stays doesn't it…or rather…do you think it's necessary for that world you inhabit to continue its flux upon every revisit?

SM: Different "worlds" appear, but they start off with that same feeling.  I don't know if I've been able to shoot some projection of myself into work with the kind strength that someone like Allen was able to do it.  Maybe someday.  I'm only 51, after all!

ET:  Back to this poem, as I was reading it.…the proto-F larf in me wanted to re-write it but I didn't know how to maintain its restraint without messing up the impact. I looked for the simplest re-write and realized I could change one letter and the meaning would be altered...from poem to poet...and a female poet too...a Sharon! You said you had that intention all along, of writing the poem about yourself but I think you were correct in taking persona out of it...in effect, the 'poem' is the 'poet' already...

SM:  Right.

ET:  I just pointed out something obvious, maybe...

SM:  But it's funny that it wasn't that obvious to me.  I actually never thought of using "the poet," even though I did think about issues regarding that hidden/embedded "I."

ET: ... so it brings up matters of ownership, within one's poem...how to allow identification a stage, and when that identification obscures meaning by being too identified, too familiar...now that you see how I re-interpreted it...do you think the I Ching relates to who you are within this piece?

SM:  Only in the sense that it's something I've been reading a lot about lately, throwing the coins virtually, and actions and readings always make their way into the work during the "era" of those actions and readings anyway.  There's a larger reason, too, of course, and that is that I've experienced a lot of major upheavals in the last year, so I've been searching for a way to understand what's at work behind all that.

ET: Jeez, I've been going through some transitions myself, with more coming up this year.

SM:  We need to have lunch!

ET:  It's made me realize how friggin' same we ALL are … and why can't our job be to alert the world that we can actually understand each other if we listened? Seeing what life hands you is the only way you know what you've got…Christ that sounds Hallmark-y—

SM:  No, not Hallmark-y at all.  You are absolutely right.  Suffering is the language we all understand.  We're happy differently, but we all suffer the same. I took refuge as a Buddhist two years ago, after the death of my sister, because I found in that philosophy a way to really deal fearlessly with those traumas, the losses and violations, a way to access the thoughts that lie too deep for tears, look at them and let them go.  And then yank on their strings and pull them down and see that they've become poems!

ET: Amen to that yanking action! The struggles become a clearing that destroys obstacles…allowing something true its worth. Maybe that’s where the easier speak can flourish, while boring the word-hounds. I've found my language gets simplified when I'm stretched to a standstill in the vertigo of information that we allow ourselves while figuring out a posture to genuflect in…come again?

SM: Is it just random chaos, or are there expanding/confining/tutelary principles at work?  I think I have nothing but questions right now, thus this poem.  Also I think so much is demanded of / so little is accorded to poems these days that I'm sure Poetry itself is a little confused!

ET: How do you see Poetry confused? In the various poetry camps, in the over-education of it? I want to hear about confusion!

SM:  That's what I was trying to put into the poem...how much can you ask of a poem?  And then, with your remake: of a poet?

ET: It was fun to remake you! Okay, to further exhaust this trope...do you think you would have lost yourself (wherever that would have taken you) if you had started the poem as "poet"? I've identified the poet as a female, rendering some of the lines gender-specific...how do you think gender plays in identifying a poem's movement, a poem's ability to cover territory?

SM:  Gender is territory, and vice-versa.  You walk it, talk it, exude it, flaunt it, front it, apologize for it, are proud and ashamed of it.  When I interact with others (either same gender or not) they often seem completely uncognizant of/unwilling to own their responses to me, even when I point those things out.  I'm magically invisible and fraught with contradictory meanings at the same time. There's a great Louise Bourgeois quote, and I wish I could remember it exactly, but she said she was grateful that she was overlooked or not taken seriously (because she was a woman) for so long because it allowed her to develop her own ideas in her own time.

ET: I'm sure there are MFA graduates who are happy not to be taken seriously for a long time so they too can develop their voice—that's my NYC sarcasm coming out…mean, right…but funny? Oh I'm such a small boy! God knows my writing now compared to 20 years ago has honed its shiv, that's all I'm saying.

SM:  You were pretty damn brilliant when I first heard you read 20 years ago!  Your shiv is honed as shit!

ET: Thanks, my tools were imported then.

SM: I'm now thinking of another piece that would make this whole thing a tryptich, where "the poet" is a "he."  The "answers" would be different, for sure.

ET: Though there are way more examples of this poet being a he than a she…still, the comparison is implied by the feminine.

SM: Oh, I didn't mention meditation!  Should we go back to that???

ET: Sure, let's start…

Originally Published: April 13th, 2012

A self-proclaimed “lingualisualist” rooted in the languages of sight and sound, Edwin Torres was born in the Bronx and is a longtime resident of New York City. He is a poet whose highly acclaimed performances and live shows combine vocal and physical improvisation and theater. He is the author of...