During this year's Harriet, my question—was there something I wanted to bring across to engage the spirited storyteller—factored around Selfing Equations of balance and disappearance…i.e. was I ready to find myself along the poetry community’s perimeter, a sculpted edge of my own divination, as a touch-base for transmission? The poet that seeks position from their “fan-base” lives a library of mirrors—oooh right there, that’s the Quote Equation at work.

Anyway, I brought up meditation in an earlier posting, which evolved out of the Gender Equation, and lost sight of the spirit…whether whole or holy, not sure? But clarity definitely got tossed for chaos, so I planned a revisit…until Sina Queyras brilliantly utilized a male poet’s quote about “no great literature today because there are no longer wives in the traditional sense,” which begat the Vault Equation, as in mining existing territory—i.e. the question of the “I” in the human role invaded by language in the poet’s role: the femaleness of familiar territory, the maleness of uncertainty, the seeing-through, that is, as seen through the eyes, of a male poet. Hmmm, some can-of-worms voodoo, right there I know…got me triggered into expanding my interview with Sharon Mesmer about her poem, “This Poem” and my rewrite “This Poet,” which re-aligned her poem back towards persona. Our discussion segued from identity into gender.

ET: I remember telling Brenda Coultas many years ago when I first started touring with the Nuyoricans, that I felt the challenging writing from women had a deeper impact on me than men. I dared to say that I thought it was better without having any "proof"...what does that mean anyway, "better"? Well, she didn't know how to respond, thinking it might be on the fringes of a feminist outlook perhaps, either her reaction or my statement. Now, years later, I've noticed how many more women take poetry classes or at least experimental poetry classes, is that  true, it feels that way? And now, with a son, I've gone through the looking glass…watching a child grow into his language with the same trickery and play found at the root of "experimental" writing. Anyway...the idea of gender...how does that not become boring? We know who we are, supposedly. We know what makes us, supposedly. Why is man and woman such a necessary discussion? Is that changing now in poetry? Is there a way to approach that without cliche?

SM: You know, it's as if God Itself is eavesdropping on our conversation.  Look:  Basically, the Vatican says that The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which supposedly represents 80 percent of Catholic nuns in this country, is focusing too much on helping the poor and not enough on fighting the real demons: same-sex marriage and affordable health care.  This is like the bookend to the February "birth control hearing" in the Senate which consisted of an all-male panel.  I love this photo of them -- and you can see that one guy is a rabbi and one guy is a minister (or priest).

In fact, Barbara Boxer is quoted in the article as saying that when her 16-year-old grandson saw the photo he said, “It’s all dudes!”  And just look at the faces of the women observing this scene!  So, you ask why is the man/woman thing such a necessary discussion, and is it because of the continued imbalance ... I'd say yes indeedy!  There's a kind of desperation in all of this; a kind of "hanging on by a fingernail" to the very last brick of a structure being eroded by rising floodwaters.  And I think what these nuns are about is a really powerful aspect of "feminism," a lot like the "feminism" I saw among the working class women I grew up with: very practical-minded, no-nonsense.  I think this might be what's needed now: the ability to see through the desperate attempts, the sound and fury, and just keep moving forward, mindful and completely focused on purpose.

ET:  Yes focus...it seems by now there would be evidence that women organize better than men or 'different' should we say? This seems naïve, strike that, I know it is...but I wonder if intuition is specifically linked to x or y chromosome? Like survival rooted in destruction?

SM:  I don't know, really.  There are so many studies, conjectures, metaphors.  Are women more intuitive?  Are women more in touch with preserving rather than destroying? Are these roles so deeply embedded in our psyches that we'll never override the impulse to act out in certain ways?  I know some women who'd knock your grandmother over if she were standing in front of a book deal, and I know some men who'd give you their last dime ... and leave the house at 3 a.m. to do it.  I think it's a human-by-human determination.  Would another man have "rewritten" a woman's poem like you did?  Would another woman accept the man's "rewrite"?  There's a long-established trust between you and I, but it's still interesting to me how intuitive you were about that piece.  If, perhaps, men and women were left alone to act in the best way possible -- without the governing bodies comprised of students of hatred telling them how to act -- maybe the continued imbalance would be resolved. I think hatred is in the psyche as much as love and generosity is, and both can be activated very easily in the weak-minded and fearful.  But we're supposed to be talking about poetry, right?

ET:  Exactly, how to bring this into poetry again...changing one word...as in your poem...establishes the communication into female and all the history attached to that. A better discovery of our connection is a way to explain "why" to get past formal comparison so that "real" topics can emerge...such as; disappearing into the self, the space between the line and the eye, territory as geography as body…

SM:  After you sent your rewrite, I began to see the poem as a structure into which something was placed maybe that needed to be changed -- some element was asking to be brought into some kind of "light" (and there's a section in the poem about what that "light" might be).  It's interesting to me that this was communicated (consciously/unconsciously) and someone -- you -- picked up on it.  I'm wondering about your end of it: how did you "see" that the poem/the poet was asking a question much more basic than the surface questions?

ET:  I don’t remember any consciousness operating on the first go round, it was more factual for me. I had a lot of work to do, changing all the “it’s” to “she’s,” I was a worker ant taking care of what had to be done, head down you know. After the flurry of activity, I settled into seeing what was there—the poem guiding, telling and fighting along the way, "Who are you, you don't belong to me!" Whereas you saw what needed to be changed afterwards because you needed to see it...it told you, I think. The surface of the reader will mesh with the poem’s and become the questions. The basis of so many words, changing, one letter at a time.

Originally Published: April 23rd, 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...