Poetry News

Queering Art, According to Stacy Szymaszek and Jess Barbagallo

By Harriet Staff

BOMBLOG has a great interview with poet and Artistic Director of the Poetry Project Stacy Szymaszek and downtown performance mainstay and writer Jess Barbagallo--the two of them have been working together in New York's Queer Art Mentorship Program, a yearlong program the goal of which is to "build an interconnected web of queer artists of all generations and mediums who know each other and each other’s work." Barbagallo, upon entry, was to work on "a poetic essay involving grief, imagined absence, and sometimes my dog, Bluet. Stacy was to be my mentor," she writes, "and I found the prospect daunting, never having identified as a poet, and at times even ambivalent about my status as a writer....What continues to impress me about Stacy is her unwavering generosity to fellow artists (and canines) and her extreme commitment to be with the present. But mostly it’s the deep sense of romance she brings to work and life..." Barbagallo explains her own relationship to the arts: "I’m an actor as well as a writer and I can never tell which comes first. Writing has always been performative for me, as acting has always been the search for some language I could pour my freakishness into..." An excerpt from the ensuing conversation:

SS I love the idea of acting as a search for language because you’re taking into account how multivalent communication is. I became interested in what I could learn from acting when I was writing Emptied of All Ships and Pasolini Poems because I developed and inhabited these two different personas; James the sailor and Pasolini himself. I used some of Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-actors, and would dress a certain way, listen to certain music, to get myself into “character.” But it was to sit at my desk to write, a performance for myself to access the language for the page. None of what I was doing was being documented as part of the texts, but at the time I really needed the page to be a place where I could be the man I wanted to be. Up until I wrote Hyperglossia, I wanted to be textually male, and then in that work things get all inclusive (pan- would have been an apt prefix as well as hyper-). Eustace is folding all living things into the dead self. I just read from Ida at an event celebrating Stein, who continues to awe. The sentence holds just as much promise as the line break. Now, I actually can’t believe I haven’t recommended Gail Scott’s prose work The Obituary. I think the writing I’m interested in dismantles time, and any genre can do that. It’s about sequence and jarring expectation. I don’t feel pressure to be original. My motto is, do my work, see if anyone is interested later. I don’t want to make generalizations about the poetry scene—no, I do; no, I can’t! I think there is unspoken competitiveness for other things, something akin to glamor, but to be original or “fresh”—no. Personally, I could never begrudge another poet for writing something that is astonishing in form and/or language. When you are young, you get the message that you’ll find what you’re good at, your calling, your gift, and if you work hard, you’ll make a living, you’ll have success, recognition and respect. That hasn’t been my story, and it hasn’t been the story of a lot of poets, so I see a lot of hurt in the community, or at least behavior I frame in that context to understand it and have some empathy. Some people are really graceful about it and some people act out.

JB I want to hear more about the acting out! I’m such a gossip, it’s terrible. I’m trying to think if the same resentments abound in the theatre community. I know that I am no longer jealous of the things I once was, I’ve sort of started to believe that it’s all the same review, it’s all the same theater. The stuff to hang onto is meeting really good people, or being moved in some surprising way by something I agreed to be a part of. I felt that in the final hour of the Poetry Project Marathon Reading. I felt that we were so close and actively moving each other, even after the crowd had dispersed and most people had gone home. Sharing art publicly is so weird though. I was trying to pick through my brain for my favorite performance or some moment I could use to encapsulate this idea of being a part of a greater whole in a transformative way. I know when I perform with Half Straddle, there have been a couple moments when I was actually brought to tears in a completely unexpected way. Like I could stand back from the thing I was saying or doing, and hear it and be utterly moved. I’m trying to figure out if my own work can move me like that, or if I’d need to like myself more for that to be a possibility.

SS The reason I’m bringing it up is because as the Director of The Poetry Project, I constantly think about the general reality of the poet at this place and time and how I, through strengthening the infrastructure of The Project, might be able to make a positive impact on those who identify as our community. All of our administrators are poets and artists, in order to keep us close to the art and the art making, to keep that connection at the very center of all we do. Everyone wants to feel dignified. I always bear that in mind when a resentful person appears. I’m glad you were part of the final hours of the New Year’s Day Marathon Reading, where I was literally moved to tears. I read an elegy for my recently deceased dog. I remember feeling my public face give way to my sorrow and exhaustion, realizing I couldn’t stop it, which ended up being a really sweet communal experience. I was crushed and embarrassed and suddenly I was bolstered by friends. It was totally bare and fantastical at the same time, like a near-death experience, a transitional space. It actually had a very cathartic effect. The “unscripted” can do that. I practiced reading the poem so that wouldn’t happen, running not so much through the words but the emotional experience. In retrospect, I was trying to rule out a public display, which I don’t really want to do. I have a particular dislike or even phobia about crying in front of people. Do you? It’s a sense of self-control I have that was useful as a child but is not so useful anymore. Have you read Andrea Fraser’s essay, “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?”? It got me thinking about works of art that have caused me to weep. The first time it happened to me was when I saw Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein at the Met. She wrote of it, ”...it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” And I identified with her, through some deep shame.

Read the full interview here; and keep your eyes peeled and nonweepy for Barbagallo's essay (and her poetry, perhaps as performed from time to time by her very keen alter ego Joe Ranono).

Originally Published: July 17th, 2012