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Literature : Interview

Mark Leidner: Phoned-In #9

by Luke Degnan

“You’re panicking / because you can’t remember the meaning / of nonchalant, but I’m massaging / your neck, whispering, / It’s what you are.” In episode nine of Phoned-In, BOMB Magazine’s poetry reading by phone podcast, Mark Leidner reads a selection of his work.

Emilie Selden, Fenced In, 2008. Digital Print.


Luke Degnan In your bio, you say you live and tweet in Western Massachusetts. I’ve followed your Twitter feed for a while. Do you consider Tweets a part of your craft? What draws you to Twitter as a poet?

Mark Leidner I love many things about it. One way to think about it is practice. It makes me practice attention to sentences. I will often think of jokes that I’ll want to share or absurd things, and I love the challenge, as quickly as possible, to change the joke or the idea or the concept into an efficient, little sentence that’ll carry it. I also love how it’s made me think more aphoristically. One feature of an aphorism would be the cinematic way a sentence unfolds. So you get a subject and a verb, and you don’t know where the object is gonna be until you hit the object, and sometimes what the object will be will make you reinterpret what the subject and the verb were. So I like thinking about the narrative of cognition that happens when you read a sentence that’s guided by the grammar. Tweeting has made me pay more attention to that because often the rhythm or the grammar or the alliteration, all those features that make a really good sentence great, for some reason they are foregrounded when all you have is just one sentence as opposed to elaborating on an idea.

LD What drew you to making videos of your poems?

ML It was initially an editing process for revision. It helped me revise poems for a page. One of the things I strive for is a conversational seamlessness for most of my poems, not all. I often experimented with text to voice software where you select some text, put it in a window and a robot will read back to you the text. That helps me hear it in a monotone, an uninterested party, articulating those words, so that I can more effectively hear when I’m trying to, you know, be so clever or be too lyrical or too something that disrupts the dream of the poem. I’ll often will try to revise in order to make a poem as smart as possible, and in trying to make it smarter and better and deeper, it loses its believability as a convincing human articulation.

The movies that I made were made with this software called Xtranormal in which you type in text, and a robot is animated and reads back to you the poem. So I just did it initially to hear my own work in another way that was not just me reading it. When I’m reading it, I don’t have enough distance from it. So then when I started doing that I thought, well this might actually be cool, so I started putting more effort in the actual movie part of it, putting sound behind it, trying to tweak the grammar of the text that I give the robot so that it will repeat back even more naturally to create something that seems like it’s sort of alive on the screen. The short answer is I started to edit my own poems for the page, and it became its own form that I really like and enjoy and have learned a lot from just from playing with that form.

LD In the HTML Giant comments section you wrote,

sometimes there is too much irony all piled up in the barn, and you have to

pitchfork another steaming pile of irony on top of it all, and you have to

pitchfork another, and another, and another

when the world is shit-streaked with irony that is when beauty will emerge

love is irony

purists sure hate farce

but pushing against things is the only possible way to live

Can you comment on this?

ML I believe that, I think. It’s really interesting to think about how a public forum, like a comment stream, can…it makes everything you do a sort of performance. On the Internet you have to compete for attention because there are a million people talking about a million things, and comments are all over the place. Sometimes it’s just a game to see if you can make a comment that seems interesting in itself whether it’s true or not. I love the challenge: can you even be interesting in that kind of comment frenzy?

Back to the actual thing about pitchforking irony. I think that comment says something true, but maybe it frames it as this is the only way to achieve beauty. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s just the main way that I’ve experienced it. It’s blowing through irony or so immersing myself, or a speaker so immersed in the antithesis of what they want. In some ways irony is the opposite of beauty. I don’t know. I’m just really interested in exploring darkness, things you’re not supposed to do, things you’re not supposed to say or think and trying to be caught in them that you can emerge from them. Ideally I’d love to write a poem that has this fun and interesting ironic sensibility, but it’s only the surface, and there’s actually a depth and sincerity all pinioned by language.

LD I chose that quote of yours because when I read it I thought of the Dorothea Lasky poem I Hate Irony. Do you know that poem?

ML Yeah, I love that poem.

LD It seemed to be two sides of an argument. It wanted to hear your pro-irony view.

ML The problem with irony, to me, is that often when you say something maybe intending to be ironic or not even intending it, but it has an ironic effect or shade or tone or something, the act of saying it and standing behind it transforms it into something that’s not irony anymore. I think that poem, I Hate Irony, is quite beautiful and true. For some reason, I don’t even know why, but when I read it I feel like I’m on that side. What I really don’t like, I suppose, is if you defined irony in the sense that when you read a line and you know that it’s not true, then maybe speaker is being ironic, saying something that they didn’t mean or something that they knew wasn’t true. I hate that irony, but what I love is you read it and there is, ideally, an infinite number of ways to contemplate it and to experience a piece of poetry. Shakespeare is full of irony, but it’s not just irony, irony is only one sense. The second you put your finger on irony it moves or changes. It’s not a static thing because its definition is relative to intention and interpretation and all this other stuff. It’s just a big crazy cloud that I love to revel in.

Click here to watch one of Mark’s videos.

Mark Leidner lives and tweets in Western Massachusetts.

Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.