Jeremy Sigler does not write nice poems. There’s something honest (with a touch of creep) about them. He’s funny and has the ability to rejoice at his own misery—a slew of embarrassing messes most would rather cover up or deny altogether. His new book of prose poems, My Vibe (Spoonbill, May 2017) is filled with amusing perspectives that cycle between comparisons of acceptance and rejection. He even takes on the project of reflection itself: “Indeed. Reflection… Nobody understands the importance of reflection—of reflecting, that is, on what one has done. And what one is about to do. Don’t prepare. Be unprepared. But reflect!” Here, we reflect on his past life as a sculptor, and how he prioritizes transparency and vulnerability in his writing today.
Samuel Jablon You used to make sculptures. Why did you give up an object-making art for poetry?
Jeremy Sigler I’m not sure if I was ever making sculptures in the traditional sense. I certainly never carved, molded, or even welded anything. But for a little while after moving to Brooklyn, in 1992, I began making things probably best called sculptures—things like taking the change out of my pocket and creating a small arrangement of coins on the bar while having a beer. But I was already writing poetry back then. And it was the poetry that was really taking hold of my life because I could carry them around in my pocket, and get to work revising, and get something accomplished while working day jobs. I had the good fortune of getting into a few sculpture programs (first one summer at Bard, then UCLA, where I studied with Burden, McCarthy, Ray, Welling, etc). But that was a fluke really. I never made anything. I was just killing time, I think, waiting for the art disorder to subside. Eventually, I had to get an actual exorcism to remove the evil art spirits from my soul, so that I could go on with poetry. It really took until my thirties to become a pure poet, free from all these painting and sculpture spirits. Although, even now, I edit art journals, write art criticism, and teach in art schools, so I’m not completely free. But to answer your question, I was never a sculptor, or a painter for that matter. It was just a matter of mistaken identity. All I’ve done for almost twenty years is write poetry and talk. I’m a language person.
SJ Do you think being an artist influenced the way you approach poetry?
JS My poems, which somehow get written and accumulate over time, are very physical in my mind. I like to think of them as being built, the way Emily Dickinson was a builder, a sort of macho construction worker really, with her modular language all held together by dashes, which are like clamps or fasteners. I also see the poetry reading as a kind of wrestling match with the ether. It’s a temporary transformation or dynamic (like method acting) where I have to shift from my more introspective, enigmatic self to my extrospective, or extroverted, charismatic self. Sometimes it’s hard to find my way back. Charisma is basically another word for sociopath. But in this way, my physical presence becomes not so much an aesthetic but an allegorical idea of “the poet.” Perhaps inadvertently my only real sculpture, in retrospect, was the creation of myself as a poet. This is still a very romantic idea.
SJ I like that though—you making yourself into a sculpture spouting poetry. My Vibe is full of generous writing, you seem to lay yourself bare. Is it a departure from your previous books?
JS I sort of let it all hang out. I was inspired after going through a period of Lacanian psychoanalysis about a decade ago to kind of tell my own story, or try to hear myself telling my story and intervene. I was even using dictation and a secretary for a while. The truth is that the poems are layered and worked on and eventually don’t seem so real any more. They become more fictional, like concoctions, because once they are self-conscious, the speaker becomes a protagonist. And the stories take on a life of their own. They need certain kinds of nourishment in order to do the things I want them to do. For example, one poem will need to be sweeter and more nostalgic, and another will need this injection of something shocking or maybe sinister or sexy. I asked my former student, Abbi Jacobson, a well-known comic now, to blurb the book, and she used the word “creepy” to describe it. I was kind of offended. My heart sank. It was hard to be told that I’m creepy. But, I guess, as Eileen Myles once told me: “That’s poetry”—the side of poetry that makes a mess out of your life and screws with your relationships and emotions, is part of the process of writing work that is authentic and alive.
SJ You expose your intimate thoughts to the reader, and I think that comes off as creepy because most people go out of their way to hide such thoughts—about the woman swimming next to them, for example. They want to appear normal. Could you talk about your obsession with a pair of A.P.C. jeans and the woman you swam laps with? They both come up often in the book.
JS There are degrees of intimacy, and I’m still pretty conflicted about how to share. I’m interested in awkwardness. But I also think overcoming embarrassment builds character. It’s a necessary part of art. I tried to explain to a Swiss artist that my work was based on shame, and she looked at me like I was insane. I just assumed she had nothing to be ashamed of. I feel more humiliated by my older lyrical poems than my prose poems because in those I used (and still use) rhyme. So it’s all relative. It’s about vulnerability. There are definitely places in these new poems that trouble me. In one, I use the word “rape.” In fact, when I gave the manuscript to my publisher we agreed early on to keep it out of my hands at all costs, so that I wouldn’t go back and start cleaning house. As writers, we have the tendency to get disgusted by our own filth and start throwing it all away, spraying disinfectant and removing words, instead of using creativity to construct buoyancy. That giant delete button is a real danger. I tend to get this very bold feeling when I’m writing, this surge of confidence. But then, after the work sits for a little while, I usually doubt myself until I’ve done a complete 180. It’s a trick to ride out that storm, that urge to self-censor.
The poem about the swimmer is like that. It was even more descriptive at one point in terms of how I looked at her body under the water in her bathing suit and what specifically interested me. The question is how much so-called perversion is okay before you short the circuit or blow a fuse. My goal is to cover a broad set of emotions and to present the reader with an honest depiction of a well-rounded individual. If I really was extremely perverted, I guess I’d hope that my poems would ultimately express that interest honestly and vividly, the way Bataille could. I’d wager that I’m only mildly perverted, especially for a Jewish man. My poems are also filled with other positive and negative traits, like meanness or callousness, or arrogance.
The A.P.C. poem is not really sexual, even though it depicts a man taking off his pants at a sexy woman’s birthday party and pinning them on her wall sideways. Nor does it really have to do with drinking, even though the character is clearly loaded. It’s more about the desperation of making art, of putting something where a painting might hang that is authentic and, let’s say, a masterpiece that might stand the test of time. So the man sees his own jeans perfectly broken in as a masterpiece, suggesting the idea of the life well lived—the art of life. It will always be an active poem for me, in that I will always tell it and retell it as long as I live, because it is cyclical, always breaking in a new pair of pants. But also it’s like that saying, I’d give you the shirt right off my back. One part of the poem takes place in the A.P.C. boutique, where I am given a Sharpie to sign them. That signature means the world! All of this boils down to that autograph fantasy. Like a signed baseball. (My friend Jon Pestoni once gave me a baseball he, somehow, got signed by Allen Ginsberg.)
Another thing about the poem is that the jeans, once installed on Eva’s wall, don’t actually stand alone, they include the old leather belt, the wallet with all the credit cards, money, the cell phone, and the keys. So it asks the question: What is the cost of being spontaneous? The cost of being free? In this case, the poet is not so much naked. He is inconvenienced. But the poem works because I capture the thrill of the moment of just saying, Fuck it. I learned about this kind of glory not so much from my own behavior as much as from watching movies. Cassavetes in particular. I’m thinking about his very raw film called Husbands.
SJ What are your thoughts on confessional poetry?
JS I have no connection to confessional poetry. I come out of the New York School, and maybe a little bit of Black Mountain. My heroes were Creeley and Ashbery. In fact, I worked for Ashbery as his secretary for a little while. During those years, it was hard not to fall under John’s spell. I gladly just let it happen. I gave in. Creeley, on the other hand, was the poet who made me want to write. Back then I was terrified of prose, I couldn’t really read or write without having a kind of narcoleptic thing happen, or maybe it was more of a daydream. So Creeley’s very short lines saved me from having to read. Creeley was like a default poet. I never even read him, I just opened the book, scanned a few of his minimalist poems, and shut the book and got on with my own work. Through Creeley, I discovered William Carlos Williams, but to be honest, my work was never dry enough to be properly modern. I was, and still am, too interested in word play and musicality. My poems are probably more like Sondheim lyrics than Creeley or Ashbery, or even Dickinson. Now that I’m writing so-called prose poetry, I guess I’m becoming a storyteller. They are coming-of-age stories really. Inspired not by poetry so much as by screenwriters like Judd Apatow.
SJ Is the best poetry close to comedy?
JS The question of comedy has become very important to me since my daughter was born in 2005. That was the semester I taught the painting class, where Abbi was my student, at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I sort of took them hostage, hit them with my rogue curriculum on stand-up comedy. None of the kids dropped the class; they were all aboard. Anyway, I told them it wasn’t about learning to be a comic, but about developing a sense of humor. Art is usually dead serious. But we watched all the great comedians going back to people like Keaton, then Lucille Ball, up to Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman. It was before Louis CK broke through, but he would have been great too. I’m blown away by Dave Chappelle’s new work. But in the class the “method” dealt with telling stories about our own humiliations. Once everyone could find a new comfort level with this, it was more a matter of perfecting the timing. Without sympathy and humility, there is no real comedy.
I don’t think of my poems as comedic for the purpose of making others laugh or “killing” on stage. I just let my writing evolve, and I write about the things that interest me. It’s more about self and scenario. Since I’ve learned to laugh at myself, I’m always looking for more ways to explore the parts of myself to laugh at.
I gave a toast at a wedding about twenty years ago, and it was outrageously funny. I was the only Jew at this country club rehearsal dinner full of WASPS, and I got on a roll, my first roll ever, and people were falling out of their seats and whooping. It was a great joy. A total release. People were still complimenting my performance the next night at the wedding. Meanwhile my poetry, when I read aloud at readings, was beyond boring. Beyond mono-tonal. It was, frankly, depressing. You could have heard a pin drop. Around that time, I started evaluating this question of comedy, but it took me twenty years of writing before the qualities of that wedding toast fully contaminated my poetry, aiming to be funny but also somewhat emotionally overwhelming.