Jessica Piazza: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

September 16, 2011

Poet Jessica Piazza

1.  How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word?  Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

Usually I just tell people that I’m a word-nerd and that I’m generally ridiculous.  I like getting that out there early.  I also probably pipe in that I’m from Brooklyn, New York pretty early on, because I’m really proud of where I come from.  Brooklyn has definitely become the trendy place to be for artists and hipsters of all ilk, but growing up deep in South (read: uncool) Brooklyn is a completely different story, and a very particular story at that.  Other than that, I’m more likely to talk about my dog than myself.  His name is Special and he’s seriously….special.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

Those three genres are powerful in VERY different ways.  I never really understood the spoken word vs. written poetry debate.  They’re not at odds because, in my eyes, they are entirely different genres with just a few overlapping skills necessary to excel in them.  For example, to do written poetry you don’t have to be skilled at public speaking, performance art, communication through body language, etc.  (Though, as I’ve written in several places, I think it’s a shame when poets don’t make a concerted effort to be great, engaged and engaging readers, since people often give their hard-earned free time and money to come watch them at readings.)   And to be a really good written poet you have to have a way with the page, with white space, with the tricks of craft that allow a simple line break to become a pun or a double entendre.  Those craft tools are rather different from the ones a great spoken word artist has to possess.  I find spoken work to be very moving in a kinetic way; I like feeling like a part of the entire experience, in the sense that my energy (as a part of the crowd) helps to flavor and drive the performance.  I also am excited by how the particular spoken word artist becomes the conduit for the piece’s ideas, and how the words and the speaker are inseparable.  Written poetry is powerful for the opposite reason to me….the written poem at its best isn’t attached inextricably to the poet, but becomes–upon reading and rereading and contemplation–the reader’s own.

And yes, I think writing has always been, in certain forms and in certain climates, an equalizer.  However, I also think in other forms and climates, writing has alienated people of different classes, genders, cultures, etc.  Words belong, collectively, to all of us, and so they are not inherently useful toward specific good or specific bad ends.  Writing is so powerful it can lead people to amazing understanding and love (think Harriet Beecher Stowe) or to, well, total darkness (think of the mass suicides that took place after people read Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” or, in fact, the horrifying affects of any propagandist writing.)

3.  Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Ha!  Obsessions are my obsession.  A quick Googling of me reveals that my entire writing life for the past few years focused almost primarily on ruminations about clinical phobias and clinical philias.  I wrote poem after poem inspired by these weird obsessive fears and obsessive loves, and my entire manuscript is anchored by them. For me, that was subject was a natural one, since I get addicted to ideas or projects themselves and have to play them out until I’ve killed them in some emotional way.  I mean, I *only* write poems in projects, and that’s beginning to bite me in the ass as I try to create a second manuscript.  For example, how do you fit together a dozen strange ekphrastic poems with erasure poems made from news articles and tiny, technical poems about bridges?  It ain’t easy, kids.  That’s all I’m saying.

4.  Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I’m not much a reader of books on writing, but one did move me, years ago.  It’s not specifically writing focused, even!  It’s called “Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland.  It contains this astonishing tidbit: “If ninety-eight percent of our medical students were no longer practicing medicine five year after graduation, there would be a Senate investigation, yet that proportion of art majors are routinely consigned to an early professional death. Not many people continue making art when – abruptly – their work is no longer seen, no longer exhibited, no longer commented upon, no longer encouraged. Could you?”

Reading that only articulated my already steadfast determination to provide artistic communities: spaces for the sharing and appreciation of poetry, in person and on the page.   A year interning with Robert Pinsky (and Maggie Dietz!) at “The Favorite Poem Project”  in Boston—an endeavor that set out to prove poetry touched ordinary Americans—was the perfect groundwork for me.  As hundreds and hundreds of love letters to poetry poured in that first year, I realized that the power of great literature is not esoteric—it’s visceral, vibrant and necessary.  It was right there…proof that poetry could have power as a pop-cultural force, not just an academic byproduct.  I wanted to find a way to work with this idea, both expanding poetry’s place (and scope) in education, and simultaneously ensuring its recognition as a viable source of popular entertainment and inspiration.

To that end, over the years I helped to found a popular reading series (Speakeasy Poetry Series in NYC), a successful national literary journal (Bat City Review) and a small university press (Gold Line Press). Funny, though…it’s ironic that, at first, I never thought of teaching as a way to advocate poetry in the community.  But when I started as a Teaching Assistant in 2003, I saw the impression that well-made literature could make on generally unimpressed students, and I’m proud to say that I’ve helped create many new poetry lovers over the last eight years of teaching at a college level.  No wonder teaching became a passion—it doesn’t get much more inspiring than that.

5.  Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers.  Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

See above.  I don’t think it’s an obligation, per se, but it sure as hell should be a priority.  The humanities are not experiencing a golden age in the mind of the average American right now, and I think that new technology and a little creative thinking could turn that around eventually.  Spoken word and slam events, which we talked about earlier, actually did traditional poetry a huge service by sparking a poetic interest in people who didn’t think much about it (if anything) beforehand.  However, I think we can do better, and I think we should.  For the most part, my colleagues and I want jobs teaching in our field, not only because we need to make a living (would we have chosen this career if money were the first priority?) but because we believe that it’s actually important to teach literature and writing.  You asked me if literature and writing can change the world, and it can, but that takes a rare piece of writing and a specific cultural or political situation indeed.  But what writing can absolutely change, and quickly, are the hearts and minds of individuals…for the better.  As poets, I believe most of us want to do this, but we don’t really have that opportunity unless we concentrate on advocating our genre in the mainstream world.  We don’t have to be part of an antiquated art form unless we choose to be, and I don’t believe we have to dumb down our writing to be popular.  I mean, look at music as a genre! There’s Ke$ha, there’s Radiohead, there’s Sigur Ros: definitely a sliding scale from translucent to opaque, but all popular in their own right.  Poetry can have its narratives, its lyrics, its formal verses, its language play, and there can be something for everyone, as long as the quality is there.

I think part of the problem is that we as poets accept, and even sometimes encourage, the insularity of our world.  We think confining poetry to this small, mostly academic (but either way certainly elitist) world will protect our jobs, or keep us at some higher artistic level, or simply make us these strange, interesting creatures in the eyes of the laypeople we meet at parties and such.  But all it does, honestly, is encourage fewer people to read poetry.  Poetry!  Remember it, poetry, that thing we love and that changes our lives and that everyone should have the opportunity to love?

6.  When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same?  What are the top 5 songs on that playlist?  If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I write quite often in coffee chops or public places, so I’m accustomed to (and work well around) the white noise of public daily life.  When I do listen to music while writing it has to be either lyric-free (like classical) or I have to know the lyrics so well they don’t distract me from the words I’m seeking for the piece.  Some of those inspiring, tried and true favorites include Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue,” Everything But the Girl’s “Amplified Heart,” Josh Ritter’s “Hello Starling,” and this really emo indie mix I have with lots of Arcade Fire, Shins, Decemberists and same such bands.  It’s weird, though….I’m pretty much all over the map as far as musical inspiration. Sometimes I’ll write to Feist and sometimes I’ll write to old-school Wu-Tang albums.  It’s a toss up.

7.  In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

I’ve done a masters degree at UT Austin and just finished my exams for a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing at USC, so I certainly have benefitted from the communities created by workshops; students and mentors alike.  I’ve kept my own writing circles strong and rely on my closest, amazingly talented writer friends (most especially Jill Alexander Essbaum, Heather Aimee O’Neill, Rebecca Lindenberg, Joshua Rivkin and a fantastic slew of school colleagues I keep in touch with) to keep me in check. I wouldn’t say my circles of friendship have changes since I started writing (especially since I always wrote, and it was always a factor in many of my friendships) but I will say that years of working with my closest writer friends really adds a strength and intimacy to those friendships.  Seeing draft after draft means you see people at their most vulnerable, art-wise, and it takes a strong bond to navigate that well.

8.  How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

Sometimes I don’t.  But I don’t think that’s about writing.  It’s really the same for any desk-based profession, no?  Just get up out of your chair and do something physical.  But that hasn’t always been my strongest point.  I go through phases.  Then again, I go through phases of prolific writing and artistic dry spells, too, so maybe that’s just my personality.  And it doesn’t help that I love to cook decadent food!

9.  Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired?  What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

I’m obsessed with food.  I love to cook.  I stress cook, in fact, and tend to procrastinate by cooking new dishes and posting about them on Facebook.  It’s a pleasure and a curse.  As far as pumping myself up….truthfully, I don’t know.  Talking to my writer friends helps, reading an amazing book or poem helps.  Sometimes I can’t pump myself up at all, and when those dry spells hit I just have to weather them.  Luckily, with all this academic work to do, the time I can carve out for my creative writing becomes a pleasure instead of a chore.

10.  Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I don’t have a writing space, really.  I have an office I barely use; when I’m home my computer and I are usually parked at the dining room table.  I do like to write in coffee shops and other public places, though.  Noise doesn’t bother me, but life going on around me inspires my work.  My ideal writing space, then?  At home, it would be somewhere airy, with a lot of light and nice breezes and maybe a view of people on the street.  (Meaning, I guess, that it wouldn’t be in LA, where there mostly are no people on the street.)

11.  What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

Oh man.  As I mentioned above, projects are sort of my bread and butter.

For poetry, I’m shopping around my manuscript, Interrobang, which predominantly consists of formal poems about clinical phobias and clinical philias.  I’m also working on several poem series: one of strange ekphrastic poems, one that’s obsessing over military alphabet code words, one of small poems whose titles pair together two unrelated words, one with my terribly talented friend Heather Aimee O’Neill where we take New York Times articles and do erasures.  It’s a hodgepodge!

Fiction-wise, I’m working on a short story collection where each piece is inspired by an old time superstition.  (There’s an amazing exhibit on this at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is my favorite place in Los Angeles.  After I saw it I knew I had to do something with it.)  The kicker about that collection is that every story in it is written entirely in iambs.  It’s crazy-time; I’m not going to lie.

As for nonfiction, I’m working on some semi-serious and semi-humorous memoir pieces about my young/younger life, which was—no exaggeration—completely insane.

And, as always, the all-consuming dissertation looms.  Thankfully I’m really excited about it.  The gist is that I’m trying to analyze the visual and audial aspects of literature to gauge how those elements interplay with the more classic semantic and narrative analyses.  It’s all grounded in fairly recent neuroscience discoveries that delve into how the human brain processes text.  Did you know that reading isn’t actually an innate human function at all?  Meaning, we have no mechanism for reading, per se, but we combine functions and processes from several areas of the brain—all originally used for other purposes—to create “the reading brain.”  It’s intense and fascinating, especially since I’m no scientist.

Please check out a sample of her poetry:

           Love of mirrors
                               Impression pressed upon the glass perfects
                               even the grossest forgeries.  Reject 
                               the sea.  Reject the turning tide.
                               Just below clear water, I reside
                               as duplication of the lake.  Take me 
                               away, another underneath again.  
                               What mirrors cannot ditto isn’t sin.

        Fear of mirrors
                                What mirrors cannot ditto isn’t sin
                                simply performed behind the glass.  Within
                                the frame of windowpane, negated dark.
                                Those fleeting squares reveal our darkness back.
                                Aloof, the rain plays taps.  Above, the trees
                                are inimitable.  Distinct, thus blessed.
                                Reflected, I am never at my best.

--Originally published in Mid-American Review, Volume XXX, Numbers 1 & 2 Fall 2009/Spring 2010

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