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I’m Trying to Wreck Your Mind, That’s All

A few people have recently suggested that I write about my poetic evolution. In a poetry community it’s funny how a few can feel like a horde, a clamoring.  “A few people read my book and said it was important to them.” I’m not being cute. It feels big. I am motivated to think about the subject, perhaps because my books are seemingly so distinct from each other. Why I value that might be interesting.

“Evolution” suggests an origin. There are multiple nodes in this origin story as it is seems to be continually originating. And “evolution” also supposes a suspicious linear development. And aren’t my poetics really my poems?  Here I am already doing what I want to let into my work, trying to wreck my own mind, to paraphrase a line from the great poet Philip Whalen.


The only poem I remember having to read in high school is Beowulf, and besides feeling sad when Grendel got his arm ripped off, I was emotionally unengaged. I was prone to lingering in my English teacher’s classroom, desperate for tutelage (and to be recognized, then loved)—at least she was kind to me. One day I started perusing a bookshelf in the back of the classroom and found a Norton anthology of poetry, and that was when I found Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me.” I had an orange that I hadn’t eaten at lunch, which I inexplicably picked up and hurled at the wall “as if the top of my head were taken off.” The world had definitely not been writing to me, not a word. While Dickinson was more contemporary than Beowulf, I still didn’t know that living people were writing poetry—maybe I was about to become one of them. In the Paris Review interview where Elizabeth Bishop says the often quoted line that there is nothing more embarrassing than being a poet, she goes on to say a more interesting thing: “…I think no matter how modest you think you feel or how minor you think you are, there must be an awful core of ego somewhere for you to set yourself up to write poetry.” A stubborn kid who survived by being silent and observant, I knew that I had the core of ego for it as I hurled the orange.


When my young dog attacked and shredded a folder of poems I wrote in college I was relieved, yet I picked up the shreds and shoved them in a box which I haven’t opened since. Maybe someday I’ll try to tape the pieces together but I doubt it. My creative writing teacher told my class that none of us would be writing poetry in five years. Another one said that poetry was irrelevant. Were they of the Flannery O’Connor “try to stifle them” school? Or were they really embarrassed? Fortunately, all of the poetry I was discovering in and out of the classroom (most notably Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde) showed me how to come to grips with disaster without becoming one, and how to live in an unjust world, and in a culture that loves to “not get” poetry, without becoming bitter.


For ten years I wrote bad poems, submitted them to magazines, and kept track of the rejections in a notebook. I lived on Kate Millett’s farm for a summer and met no other poets. I moved to Philadelphia, then Chicago, and nowhere did I meet other poets. “It’s complicated.” When I looked back at one of my notebooks I found a note, “find Gil Ott.” Who told me that? I never found him. I had left Milwaukee in a cloud of Oldsmobile exhaust, burning rubber. In the late 90s I returned in a sad state to collect myself. My friend got a job at a place called Woodland Pattern Book Center, maybe a mile away from where I went to college, yet I had never heard of it. After years of working at bookstores, I was a prep cook for a catering company. All I remember is poaching pots and pots of chicken. I told my friend I wanted to work at Woodland Pattern, and I waited. First, I cleaned for them on Mondays when they were closed, then I got a part-time job, then I got a full-time job, and then the owners Anne and Karl let me create a new job and title for myself.  At that point, I had read at least 250 books that lived on their shelves, after I dusted them.


It was a humid night, I was reading on the porch of my apartment near Lake Michigan in Bay View, Wisconsin, going back and forth between two books—one by Louis Zukofsky (the exact poem was “29 Songs,” To my wash-stand/in which I wash/my left hand/and my right hand) and the other, Susan Howe’s Singularities. As I said, I had been writing for about a decade and didn’t have a poem I liked. That night I was overcome by revelatory joy, a state of active knowing. I didn’t know Whalen’s work then but now I would use another of his lines; I saw my mind moving and that my writing could be a graph of that extraordinary motion. At the time, as I was sweating over these two books, I knew in my body that the line is a unit of breath. And what Zukofsky refers to as the “range of pleasure poetry affords as sight, sound and intellection.” The moment I realized that I wanted my poems to provide visual and sonic (and I would add physical) pleasure via the line, the transformation was instant. It seemed so simple. How did I not get it. THE LINE.

The combination of close and passionate reading of poetry I didn’t even know existed, a dream job, starting to meet and be in conversation with other poets… this was the start of my public life as a poet and a cultural worker. I did what a lot of poets were doing in the early 2000’s by starting editorial projects. First, I coedited Traverse with Drew Kunz and ran a corresponding reading series at the Jody Monroe Gallery. Then, in 2003, I started GAM: A Survey of Great Lakes Writing on my own. The word comes from Moby Dick, and means a meeting of two or more whale ships. The idea had some genesis after watching the insidious events of the November 2000 election unfold with a group of friends. The states of the upper Midwest, touching the Great Lakes, with the exception of Indiana, went to the Democrats. I started to become interested in Wisconsin’s progressive political and poetry history (particularly Eugene Debs and Lorine Niedecker), and connecting it to the unprecedented vitality I was experiencing as a WE, a literary/artistic community, that seemed to have created itself overnight. I have never experienced anything like what happened in Milwaukee between the years of 2001-2004 before or since. I wrote a short essay called “GAM as an Experiment in Gift Exchange” for WILD ORCHIDS, which you can read as a PDF below (after issue 2, I dispensed with cost in favor of the gift model). Over a decade later, the name clusters on the covers and the work assembled now seems evermore unusual and exciting to me. A good example is issue 2/Spring 2004, which included work by John Latta, James Wagner, William Sylvester, Mike Hauser, Paul Dutton, Steve Timm, Laura Sims, Trish Salah, and Rosa Alcalá. Why I asked each of them for work seems like a whole other post, but I’ll just say, thank you to Woodland Pattern for once having a Canadian poetry section.


In my own writing, in addition to the line, I was thinking about SPACE (the page, of course after reading OLSON) and GENDER and PRONOUNS. The first poem I wrote that I liked was a long poem called “Some Mariners,” and it’s about the line. The line tells a story of a trans sailor named James who survives a disaster and is restored in a sonic landscape. That’s it.  Every time I wanted to write “I,” I wrote “James.”  In Pasolini Poems, every time I wanted to write “I,” I was Pasolini.  In Hyperglossia “I” was a formerly female dead spirit who came back as a panther and then a young man named Eustace. In hart island, also about the line, I make my first appearance as a documentary reference point. I moved to New York City to work at The Poetry Project, adding PLACE to my list of concerns. I spend a lot of time walking the streets of the largest city in the U.S. and find it so compelling all of my books since living here have been about what I see. I have said I’ve dispensed with persona, but I actually think I let the Stacy in Journal of Ugly Sites revel in abjection more than I ever can or do. As Rebecca Wolff once said of the book, “you will be tempted to think you know her after you read this.”  The poem is still a place of wild imaginings, still a way of leaving the self behind—what if I could be this ugly all of the time?

Who remembers the Ron Silliman blog post about poet brand equity back in 2004? I was still living in Milwaukee and loved that I was on his radar. My first book wasn’t even out yet but we gave an epic reading together in Chicago. He wrote “One year ago, I had no clue who Stacy Szymaszek was. Today, that name conjures up an aesthetic, a poetics so clearly defined one can almost taste them, a sense of subject – in her case, the sea –…”. He goes on to talk about how I’ve acquired brand equity as a poet. My response was literally, oh shit, as I knew that I was not “a Midwest mariner” devoted to “Objectivist minimalism” and that I would never write about the sea again. And I could have surmised that my work would formally never be so spare again. I’ve never forgotten this post made at the beginning of my life as a public poet as it made me realize that there was a liability factor in being unpredictable (i.e. even more unmarketable). It was a good thing to think about at such a threshold moment.

I saw the Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim right after I started writing this piece. I used to pin images of her paintings to my wall, along with images of drawings by Eva Hesse—the circles and grid drawings. I wrote on a ream of light green graph paper from American Science and Surplus. Martin said “I can look into my mind and see it empty.” I’ve never had this experience, but I did try to write a book about perfection only to have to accept (as Martin also accepted) that the work is not perfect, is slightly off. Yet it does retain something of the “aboutness” of perfection. You can tell I wanted to be perfect. Now I think more about messiness, watching the “continuous nerve movie” (another Whalen line), often with anxiety provoking plot lines, which I see when I look into my mind. I want to make work that wrecks my own mind, which to me means, how can I keep seeing (I think to really see avoids replication), and how can I wreck your mind through creating uncustomary experiences? “That’s all.”

Originally Published: January 16th, 2017

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stacy Szymaszek is the author of five books: Emptied of All Ships (2005), Hyperglossia (2009), hart island (2015), Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals (2016), which was the winner of the Ottoline Prize from Fence Books, and A Year From Today (2018). She has also...