MATTHEW BURNSIDE: For the readers out there, Candice attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop around the same time I did. I didn’t know her well but I knew of her writing. Her chapbook, Curse Words: a manual in 19 steps for aspiring transmographs, is available now from Dancing Girl press. In short, it’s fantastically strange and strangely fantastic. I command thee to buy it and see for yourself.
Candice, thanks for letting me interview you. Let’s dive in.
Wikipedia defines poetry as “a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.” Could you offer us an alternate definition?
What about just removing “of literature?” I might also exchange the word “language” for “life.” I feel like for essentially every poet I’ve known well, there’s come a point when I’ve heard them ask, with real sincerity, out of a place of frustration sometimes, “What is a poem?” I think this questioning impulse comes largely from MFA programs and “schools” of poetry that want us to believe there are actual rules for an artistic practice. But it also comes from a place of feeling like there are areas in our psychic or corporeal spheres that shouldn’t be “poem.” I get the impression from students that these spheres are forbidden because they don’t “look like” what we think a poem “looks like,” or to translate that, they aren’t aesthetically poemic. What that manifests itself as are poems which deny entire aspects of being, which insist on language patterns that adhere to “qualities of language” we have seen before in “literature.” The danger of any definition (to me) is that is too much like a uniform; it defines who you are and who others see you to, be simultaneously. But there’s something else underneath, right? Like a uniform, we can know when our work is poetry sometimes because we have already seen work like this, which is defined as poetry. But, like the uniform, there’s something underneath. I suppose I really only want the work which is all underneath, and indefinable. But I would never define poetry, really. And I guess if I were going to, in the spirit of the open space and the generative void, I would just cut and paste this poem by Dickinson:
By homely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
‘Nothing’ is the force
That renovates the World—
What is the poet’s most formidable weapon?
Yeah, the moment I started to feel I might have some little bit of power as a poet was the same moment I realized that I had none at all. I think here of Arianna Reine’s rupture in her poem Twelfth Night:
If I lose my power
If I lose my power
If I lose my power
If I lose my head
Now that the prong is sticking me
The money prong
But also of moments in movies from the 80’s when the “nerds” realize that they are in fact “nerds,” will never be anything else and therefore have no capital (social, emotional, or actual) to lose by attempting to get everything they’ve been too timid or frightened to attain throughout the movie. These two examples are the same to me, and are evocative of the poet’s greatest resource in that they each access the seemingly bottomless well of feeling not only outside the structure, but of feeling as though the structuring nature of the structure can never serve you. Because the poet is always on the fringe of holistic thought, always out of money, always somewhat unknown to others due to the very metaphoric nature of our work—it is our job, whether you are a “conceptualist,” a “formalist,” or any other “ist,” to make that which is one thing another thing either in elevation or desecration, through language practices. In all these ways, poets are always alien, to others and to themselves, and I think we have alien power in that we are free to decline or accept the structures of a society we perhaps do not belong to economically. It’s a terrific freedom to work in space where often no one is looking. Precisely because there is no real monetary reward, because poems exist in a gift economy, and because our only judges are each other, and we can decline that judgment at will. Precisely because of this, we can do anything we want. We are utterly unbeholden, aren’t we?
What role does the occult play in your poetry?
It creates an aperture. It lets in energies, essences, technologies of thought and practices that otherwise would not be available to me and often I feel like I’m granted some sort of permission to dialogue with something more generous or older than myself. I’ve done a little bit with séance (a lot of my next chapbook, EARTH*AIR*FIRE*WATER*ÆTHER, from Grey Books Press comes from that energy). Mostly though, I read my own tarot and I ask the deck for energy, creative guidance, information about where my work can possibly extend. I think the most important aspect of “occult” (or mystic or whatever you want to call it) work, (for me) is that it allows me to attempt to transgress pre-imposed compositions of thought. A former professor of mine, Dee Morris, suggested I look into H.D.’s Notes on Thoughts and Vision. One of the opening passages from that book has really stayed with me, in which H.D. writes of her concept of the “over-mind”:
That over-mind seems like a cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body, contained in definite space. It is like a closed sea-plant, jelly-fish, anemone.
Into that over-mind, thoughts pass and are visible like fish swimming under clear water.
I feel like working through an occult transom allows me to stay in my over-mind more, I suppose, where neither my thoughts nor the thoughts or structures of over-bearing hierarchical imposition of others achieves a solid state. I’m also very influenced by Hannah Weiner, and I love/feel like she addresses similar impulses for allowing mystic channels in her work when in an interview with Charles Bernstein, he asks her if she considers herself a feminist poet and she responds that she “sees words!” and doesn’t have time to ally herself with a specific earthly school or writing because she has to be so constantly expansive, she has to take in everything. I think she’s saying of course she’s a feminist, and everything else as well.
If I were to say every poem is a haunting, would you agree or disagree with that?
Every successful poem is a haunting, but some poems just die.
Could you write me a horoscope? (I’m Aquarius.)
I am not at all qualified to write you a horoscope. I am constantly talking about the zodiac and planetary movement and its impact on others, and it is possible you heard me say something irritating like, “Don’t bother using the office printer, we’re in retrograde.” while we were at the workshop, but I think it would be unethical to use my limited knowledge which is based largely on obsession. I will, however, be channeling this obsessive energy to write a monthly piece throughout 2015 in Serpentine regarding the philosophical and cultural impact of each sign. And what I can say in that regard is that Aquarians are a vital force in the intellectual and humanitarian world; they act as catalyst for revolution, although are probably not themselves the revolution. Chekhov and Martin Buber—both Aquarian.
What’s life like after the MFA?
Well, my life after the MFA has been good, and a lot like the MFA. I’ve started a PhD program at The University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas which is a nice town a lot like the nice town you and me did our MFA’s in. Essentially, I’m working on a book and studying for a comp on affect theory and performance poetry.
You recently moved to Kansas. Is that a good place to be a poet?
Yes! This is the place where Ron Johnson, Ken Irby and L. Frank Baum come from. I can think of several things those three writers have in common, but the most obvious is their love of the place from which they hailed. They all insist on this deep, semi-psychedelic, somewhat surrealistic psychoromantic meditation with the landscape. This poem by Irby is, truly, exactly what my yard here in Kansas looks like:
So, while I think Kansas has contained a lot of wonder in terms of its strange weather, its skies that are often not the color you expect them to be, its confluence of wild animals existing in harmony with each other and with me, it is also a good place to be a poet because there are a lot of other poets here. What I love best is that in spite of the fact Lawrence is a fairly small town, there seems to be at least four different poetry scenes happening. Additionally, Megan Kaminski has brought in a number of wonderful poets to the reading series she curates at The Tap Room, which is great for out of town poets but also for its open mic before hand. Finally, there is a fantastic print making community and an enormous spirit of collaboration in general.
In the last interview I did I asked about poetry as magic. I’m going to ask you the same question: Do you think language is as close to magic as we can get? If not, what comes close?
The chap book you read, Curse Words, was actually originally written as an occult document that I intended to publish in an occult forum where other spells, manifestos or general information on supernatural phenomena is published. I really didn’t think of it as a book of poems when I was done with it. I remember my workshop reading it and before discussion opened explaining that I had written this thing with the intention of never publishing it. I’m not sure what else I said, but now I can sort of see I must have been trying to see if the magic I was attempting to enact with the book worked. I wrote it with the intent that it would be a healing guide and I wrote it with a specific person in mind who had suffered from verbal abuse and stalking. The book was utterly intended to act as a sort of magic by which a violation enacted through words and deep affects of fear could also be undone by words—the bless v. the curse. Many of the spells in Curse Words are an amalgam of books on coping with trauma, Shakespeare’s plays which recognize the power of the curse and spells to bring forth love. So! To answer your question, yes, but also I suppose I think language makes magic and magic makes language.
The use of white space in your poetry is fascinating. How important is the way words look on the page versus the actual content?
Thank you! Well, this is different for everyone and one of my favorite discussions to hear other people’s opinions on, but for me neither content nor the way the text stains the page takes precedence over the other. Rather, they inform each other of their meaning and thereby take on a sort of extra aura. Of course, in a very Charles Olson projective verse manner, the extra space is often indicative of breath and that breath is indicative of time and time is always indicative of memory. So the space between the words and the placement of the words themselves in Curse Words are often working with that sort of bodyclock or memory machine that I interpret Olson to be implying is achievable. But, I also have a sort of instinct when I’m writing that different spaces on the page have different capabilities or capacities—I remember thinking through of a lot of Curse Words in terms of the way the spells and curses and blessing would hit the page and how structures in society would inform that (for example, the more official documents are in a more standard font and adhere to the guidelines of s standard style book, but the spells exit the constraints of that sort of authority), but I also thought about what decimates structures. Weird weather patterns, incoherent prayer, spaces of land impacted by unknowable events—and I let that sort of energy inform the way I would stain the page with the words, which is to say I looked at weather maps, etc. and attempted to replicate that energy.
In addition to poeming, you’re also receiving a certificate in Museum Studies. How did that come about?
In a sideways manner. I’m interested in performance, specifically performance poetry. When I lived in Minneapolis, I was only a couple blocks away from the Walker and I was able to see so many performance pieces—Ralph Lemon and Eiko & Koma—those artists especially stand out in my memory. And while at Iowa, I saw Abraham Smith, Vanessa Place, and Joyelle McSweeney perform and in different ways each of those artists really shaped how I began to think about not just the formal form of a poem but the entire form a poem is delivered in. By that, I mean the room, the sanction or unsanctioned space, the spiritual or ideological exchange which is enacted with the audience.
I’m mostly working in museum studies with the moment at which the museum space exits is preprogrammed terms via the voltage provided by a performance artist. I love this passage from Bataille very much on the subject of the museum:
According to the Great Encyclopedia, the first museum in the modern sense of the word (meaning the first public collection) was founded in France by the Convention of July 27, 1793. The origin of the modern museum is thus linked to the development of the guillotine…
A museum is like the lung of a great city; each Sunday a crowd flows like blood into the museum and emerges purified and fresh. The paintings are but dead surfaces, and it is within the crowd that the streaming play of lights and of radiance, technically described by authorized critics, is produced. It is interesting to observe the flow of visitors driven by the desire to resemble the celestial visions ravishing to their eyes….
The museum is the colossal mirror in which man, finally contemplating himself from all sides, and finding himself literally an object of wonder, abandons himself to the ecstasy…
I love this so much; I love that Bataille seems to suggest to museum is itself is a sort of Saint Maker by which we are ravished through desire. I think this if often the case, especially when in energy dialogue with a performance artists.
Can you do tarot readings? If so, could you give me one now?
Okay. I normally only give tarot readings at a distance to people I know very well, so the outcome of this reading is pretty undecided since I would need you to hold the cards and meditate on your question until you were in a clear space, but I’m not a professional and I don’t claim to be. So, yes, I’ll give you a reading with those caveats. I’m going to do a simple past/present/future spread.
So, I simply mediated on what sort of energy your coming year will contain. The first overwhelming message I receive from this spread is that you will be making a lot of decisions and you already spend a great deal of time in thought—probably planning and probably feeling a lot of turmoil about making decisions that will be healthy for the structures (familial, career or otherwise) around you. This is indicated by the presence of the swords suit (swords indicate your consciousness, thoughts and intellect which inform your action and force). The fact that these two cards are further enhanced by the Hierophant in your past position indicates that you are coming from a place of strong thought structures (this could be college or go as far back as your familial system)—either way, it indicates that you have a solid sense of identity. The surrounding swords tell me this identity is probably based in a sense of intellectual strength. In the present position, we have the 3 of Swords, which no one wants to see—it indicates that right now you’re experiencing the turmoil I mentioned earlier. However, do you see how your cards go backwards? In the present you have the 3 of Swords and in the future you have the 2? This means whatever journey of turmoil you experiencing is moving in reverse this year, and you’ll be coming out of it. That final card of the woman sitting in front of the ocean blindfolded with swords crossed before is a card I get frequently. The most important thing to notice about that card is that nothing binds the woman—if she puts down her swords, she can take off her blindfold. It indicates you will have to make a choice to exit whatever situation might be causing you stress or anxiety right now and that currently you can’t get out of your own head (as indicated by the lifted swords) enough to take off your blindfold and “see.” But the deck is positive, in the future position this card indicates you will make the right decisions and the Hierophant suggests they will be informed by your belief in your own intellect or possibly your family and culture.