Levi Rubeck speaks with poet Noel Black about his new book of poetry Uselysses.
An old buddy called to tell me that he’s quitting his band. His heart isn’t in it anymore, though he’s also wrecked to think about how he will be disappointing his crew. But you need heart, especially in a place as taxing as Wyoming. I feel the same way about poetry sometimes. I can’t quit poetry any more than my friend could ever truly quit guitar, but the game and its politics can grind you down if you aren’t careful. Just as my faith in poetry waned, Noel Black’s Uselysses arrived.
A pun is an easy way to catch my squirrel-like attention, especially one that spins on the source material ever so slightly. It didn’t hurt that I’d recently finished Ulysses after years of false starts. Both books bathe in puns and portmanteaus, devices that force double vision in a way separate from repetition or careful, particular language. Dancing with the monument of poetry’s past and inventing new steps as he goes along, Black exhibits a love for the canon that matches his irreverent narratives.
He does this by not only name-checking Whitman repeatedly (along with poets before and after), but accessing the spirit behind Whitman’s poetry. Black spins a minute moment, no matter how absurd or banal, into something juicy for the eyes, ears, and pun-attuned reader. After dog-earing three out of every four pages I gave it up and accepted the book as a fully engrossing whole. From the first part, In the City of Word People, we get “8 Dead Poets”:
Whitman’s lines traversed the page like settlers on the plains
Marking an immeasurable space in his Manifest Destiny brain
But when the Good Gray Poet died they took his big brain out
& tried to measure, but dropped it—oops! & splattered it all about
Death kindly stopped
& on She—hopped
“If I had my way I’d go on & on
and never go to sleep,”
said Frank O’Hara just hours before
he got hit by a Jeep.
On one hand, trivializing the death of some of the most recognized poets is a clear line in the sand. But even a casual reader of these poets recognizes their own styles turned in on these poems, along with the almost limerick quality rhymes, satirizing the locked glass cage that we put these capital P Poets behind, and in a way, delivering them back to the people. Black is intimately familiar with these writers as well as the aesthetics and ideas behind their work, and by breaking down their deaths and work in a seemingly blithe manner, he allows us to access the human behind the work again. Black’s work goes far to break down the pedestal of poetry, but like a competent artist, he has a scaffold of knowledge to support his heresy.
Black so lovingly swings between poetry’s capacity for play and metaphysical contemplation that it’s easy, and quite satisfying, to get caught up in the act. In “Sometimes I Do Feel Genuinely Happy,” Black starts with a fierce pontification of sage, purple flowers, maple trees, etc., but then moves onto browser-based porn. Pulling it all together, the poem ends with:
One thing I hate about poetry is the stately voice
you imagine while writing, as though you’re
standing at a lectern in a distinguished auditorium
on a university campus in a quaint mid-western town
in front of hundreds of intelligent and thoughtful people
who actually give a shit.
Black is looking poetry in the eye, with the stern gaze of a playful practitioner. I’ve always felt that the art needed more joshing around to contend with, but not necessarily obliterate, the high holiness. Uselysses argues for a wider aperture in poetry’s lens, rejoining poetic competency with the impulse that drew us all to the form to begin with. He makes a compelling, intelligent, crass, hilarious, and engaging case through example.
Levi Rubeck What was the writing process for Uselysses like? It’s a book that spans geographies, from Cali to Colorado Springs to NYC, and presumably time as well. Did you have a consistent vision for this as a book, or did you find that these sections came together in post-production?
Noel Black I wouldn’t say I had a consistent vision other than wanting to get as far away as possible from the Bay Area poetry politics and get back to my earliest impulses to write poems: to say what I wanted to say with words that I enjoyed, and to let my thoughts lead me to strange places, lost memories, future reveries, etc.
Of course, like a lot of young writers, I decided I needed to go to grad school in my mid-20s. So I went to New College in San Francisco, got tangled up in all the goings on there, dropped out, published magazines and chapbooks, etc. It was all great and wonderful and horrible like all grad school experiences are I think, but I tend to absorb everything indiscriminately and felt like a swamp during those years.
Then my wife and I moved to Colorado Springs from San Francisco in 2001 shortly after our son was born. Somewhere in there I stopped writing poems altogether for about three years and did this sort of Rip van Winkle thing. When I woke up I wrote In the City of Word People, which Kevin Opstedal published on Blue Press in 2008 and became the first chapter of Uselysses. Then Julien Poirier came to a reading I gave in SF, asked me if I wanted to do a book for UDP, and we both agreed that we should move forward from there. The book does cover a lot of physical geography.
A few years back, my wife and I decided we needed to take another crack at the big city. So we bit our lips (and maybe our better judgment) and moved to Brooklyn. It was awful. We rented this apartment in Crown Heights that had no toilet or stove. We stayed for not quite a year, during which time our dog got run over, we got robbed, we got bedbugs, and we hardly ever saw our son who was spending entire 11-12 hours a day at school. It was like this parody of a country western song. So we very quickly retreated back to Colorado Springs. But that resulted in the chapter “The Inner City.”
Beyond physical geography, I thought a lot about Walt Whitman through the whole process, as I’m sure is clear in the book. I mean, the way I imagine it, he lay down across the country and claimed the whole geography as his body, so I think all American poets get in bed with him when we write poems. And for me he’s also the queer father/mother I wish my dad had been able to be—this magnanimous, all-loving prophet of the imaginary America, of the Dreamer Tribe. The final three chapters—“Uselysses,” “Moby K. Dick” and “Prophecies for the Past”—were all written here in Colorado Springs—my post-millenial Paterson—which provides this sort of locus/antithesis for grappling with and finding my own place in this other America. I think it was (and borrows shape from) an Odyssey—toward which the title certainly points—though I wouldn’t say I was overly conscious of a framework. Beyond that, I just wanted to a) talk to my heroes, living and dead; and b) write a book to my younger self who was struggling alone with all these questions of belonging and ambiguous queernesses in a fairly hostile city to such thoughts and feelings, and c) to speak from and reclaim this place, my hometown, from the homophobes and fearmongers who turned it, for a time, into a kind of Mordor. I can’t deny that it became that on some level, but I won’t let them have it. It’s as much a part of Whitman’s celestial United States, and I assigned myself to protect it. Totally corny and romantic and self-important, but yeah. Ha!
LR Uselysses is a great pun/portmanteau, and it’s interesting to think about the main character of Joyce’s Ulysses, as well as the book itself, as something of a non-entity: difficult to read, unintelligible on the surface, pointless to bother with. Of course, many folks outside (and within) Academia may have the same opinion on poetry in general. Do you see your book’s title as an acknowledgment of this dilemma, as well as an argument in defense of poetry? Using the form’s tools (rhyme, wordplay, free verse) to tear itself down? Or was it just a cool title for a book/poem you came up with once?
NB “Portmanteau”—that’s such a great word, and I’d forgotten about it. I prefer it greatly to pun. I’m not sure about poetry’s “dilemma,” by which I presume you mean its relevance to those who don’t practice the art. That’s just too big to wrap my head around. I get lost just trying to think about it. I did find it interesting that when I woke up under the poetry tree after my long slumber that there seemed to be a lot of other young writers eschewing theory and sort of embracing this new kind of fun-house narrative mirror in the same way I was. I was just reading the poems of Iris Cushing, for example, who I met at AWP, and they’re these amazing Western narrative poems that seem to erase and unname everything like watching history and The Bible backwards, but you’re watching it forward in time as the narrative carries it. Poetry in the West started out narrative, and narrative is pleasurable, which doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be subverted. And theory’s still there if you want to pick it up along with everything else in the junkyard. Poetry should be fun. Why not? I don’t know. But I’ll let other people sort all that out. There’s plenty of room for everything, and poetry can defend itself after all these years.
I can’t say I’ve ever made it all the way through Joyce’s Ulysses, but I was aware that the title invoked it, announces its surface importance and also thematic pointlessness and general heroism and failure/deflation all at once. As a matter of trivia, “Uselysses” was something I think I said to the artist Will Yackulic (who did the cover art for the Moby K. Dick chapbook) in a moment of banter many years ago in San Francisco that stuck around in my mind and which we laughed about. It took on more meaning over the years. And it’s a bit silly, but there was an abiding sense of heroic defeatism in those days (Ed Berrigan somewhat jokingly called himself a “depressionist”). I also like how it invokes for me a kind of hand-me-down Odysseus, reincarnated through the ages, now lost in the internet, trying to find his way home to and from everywhere at once.
As far as tearing it down? Sure, maybe a little bit of its self-importance, but in my own mind as much as in anyone else’s, so that I can get beyond it and beyond myself. Also, I like to mess around with all the tools and traditions. Does it always work? Probably not. But that’s important too. It’s important to be not perfect, not the greatest poet ever, not the next so-and-so.
LR Your work is very centered in the personal “I” and the present moment, and I love how the “Moby K. Dick” section conflates these ideas through the punning titles, creating a high vs. lowbrow statement, i.e. “what I’m supposed to like” vs. “what I actually like.” Coupled with your irreverent (but stylistically sound) accounts of the deaths of several famous poets, are you trying to take the piss out of poetry with its own weapons?
NB I think I could get lost in this question, so let me say this: Harry Mathews came and gave a lecture to a class I took at New College, and I had this amazing conversation with him afterward about the “I” and “self” and that whole labyrinth. I’ll never forget what he said to me because it was so freeing. I’m paraphrasing here, but what he said is that Americans, because most of us only speak one language, have a tendency to believe that language comes from within us out of some sort of linguistic font of self, which leads us to this “I” to which we cling. For a lot of Europeans, on the other hand, many of whom are polyglots, language is something external that’s not only mutable, but easily rearranged and manipulated and only loosely regarded as any part of a fixed self. By that measure, he had concluded after many years of living abroad, that you could only know yourself with the shared language you were using with another person, i.e. you are creating a different self with each different person you’re with in whatever common language you happen to share. I loved that idea so much because what it says is that the I is always in relationship, that it’s a conversation, a community.
So, in poems like those in Moby K. Dick, I was trying this idea out on novels that I’ve loved, playing with the many ways our identities get subsumed in the language of books and their narratives as we read them and the way those books get mixed with other books inside and outside of us and on and on. I also very much like the fantastical idea that books on a bookshelf might talk to each other at night when we’re asleep.
And then on an entirely different level, those poems are for me about the many ways in which I forfeited any sense myself to other people’s identities as a child because I didn’t know how to exist, or if I did exist, as the child of queer parents in the 1980s. Ultimately, I think all poets have to claim the license to toy with language and other poets’ identities as they see fit to find their own. Again, I’m not so much trying to take the piss out of poetry as to take the piss out of myself, to get around to the seeing/connecting that’s hopefully being honest with itself and the reader in some capacity in the writing moment. For me it’s really hard to do in the best of circumstances. Sometimes it’s unflattering. And sometimes it amounts to just seeing that self as being ego-y and self-important.
But I don’t think we need to pretend that there isn’t something—a self something—that wants to make that connection and see itself in relationship with others when we write a book. And that’s always such a great moment when you’re reading a book by someone you don’t know and (lightning strike of cliché!) you see/find yourself. In “Prophecies for the Past” I tried to take this idea further and went with the second person future both because of its immediacy of identification and because of the eerie matter-of-factness that I think something ordinary cast in the prophetic future can carry, which was a way of putting myself into relationship with both Joe Brainard and Whitman, et al.
Anyhow, that was very much on my mind as I wrote the book and that’s what I think Harry Mathews was trying to say. Kevin Killian also said to me: “Your book is out there making friends for you,” which is such a great way to think about it.
LR A lot of these poems are very funny. Can poems be funny and poignant or do they turn into jokes or rants? Do you see a difference, and if so, how do you skirt the line?
NB I mean, part of me wants to ask, “Can movies be funny and poignant?” The answer is yes, of course. I grew up obsessively quoting lines from Saturday Night Live skits with my friend Marc and riffing from those things, constantly relating through jokes, so I think it would absurd of me to exclude that part of myself in poems.
There is always the danger of what people like to pejoratively call “doggerel,” but maybe I choose to take for granted that we’re at a point in literary history where we can skip modes at will. I do think it’s hard not to get lost in a sort of gimmicky way of being humorous. I think some of my poems probably fall over the edge in a lot of places. But I think it’s important for all comedy to point at something larger, even if it’s only the way it cracks open your mind to receiving new information, a new way of looking at things.
I’ll never forget finding Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire on the shelf at a little bookstore here in Colorado Springs in 1996 and reading “After the Broken Arm” and just howling in the aisle. I had been reading a lot of little Zen stories at that time that seemed to be doing the same thing: confounding in order to jar the mind into letting go of unnecessarily fixed ways of looking at things. I was smitten, and he’s been an overarching influence on me, no doubt, ever since. Eileen Myles is another who I saw read in San Francisco in the late ’90s who could be incredibly funny but also cutting and political about identity and the wide varieties of queerness that I was looking for at that time. So I think it’s well done if it’s well done, and it can be incredibly freeing. But that’s up to the reader.
LR Ugly Duckling Presse seems like the perfect spot for your book. How do you view the presse’s place in the world of small publishers and the state of publishing as it stands today? Thoughts on the impending sea change that the Internet threatens to usher in?
NB Yeah, I’m so completely honored to be a part of Ugly Duckling. I think what they do best is to be unpredictable and pick up titles that don’t or wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Their name says it all. I also think it’s carried on the backs of a lot of people who are patient, thorough, and committed to books. I can’t say enough nice things about them. I had such a great experience working with Julien, Ryan Haley and James Copeland (who recently left UDP), and then got to hang out with James’s successor, Sarah McCarry, and Matvei and Anna, Jill Maji, Corina Copp, and a lot of the volunteers at AWP who are all just . . . It’s embarrassing. Yeah, it’s just love. That’s what it takes.
I don’t think think the Internet will ever replace that. Yes, it’s here and it’s wonderfully useful, but I don’t know if many people will ever feel that kind of love toward it. Ugly Duckling has also clearly done a great job of inspiring and being part of a community of a lot of other small publishers. It’s that community that matters. And they’re joining in the tradition that comes down from City Lights and New Directions and C Press and Full Court and United Artists and on and on. And they’ve just stuck with it. It’s hard to do. I used to do Angry Dog Press with Ed Berrigan and then by myself for a number of years, and it’s mostly a terribly unglamorous endeavor. I sucked at the necessary mundanities of it. They’re champs.
LR Uselysses had a preorder option that came with a limited edition chapbook of the “Moby K. Dick” section, which can be read on UDP’s website here. Which came first, the collages or the poems? How do you see the relationship between your art and your poems?
NB The collages came first. I did those in San Franscisco over a decade ago, and they just sat in a drawer until I started working on this book, and we decided to do this pre-sale special edition. I think I was staring at my bookshelf and saw Moby Dick and Ubik on the shelf and my mind, as it does, made the “portmanteau leap.” And then I started putting other books together, and they had a natural affinity with the collages and I really like the way they came out together. I don’t do a lot of visual art anymore because I have two kids and a full-time job and the writing comes first, but I’ve always enjoyed helping things that have been appropriated bleed into one another in a way that feels natural or meant to be. There’s always that idea floating behind it all—the interaction of discreet identities to form some new common identity that I gleaned from Harry Matthews. That was the idea with the Moby K. Dick poems: to make this narrative out of appropriated language in a way that felt personal and not cut-uppy.
Levi Rubeck is a poet from Wyoming working in the Journals division of MIT Press. You can find him online at dangerhazzard.com.