An Art of Embodiment: An Interview with Brendan Constantine

I attended this year’s AWP Conference with my editor. Every day, as we wandered the show floor, she would periodically swing us past the Red Hen booth, insisting that I had to meet poet Brendan Constantine. And every day we came up empty handed. Until finally, on the last day, with just a handful of hours left in the conference, we stopped by once more and there he was. Gracious, charming, energetic, loud. I could go on with more and more adjectives to try to describe what it’s like to meet Brendan Constantine, but perhaps it’s better if I just briefly detail what happened. He signed my editor’s arm. A wide, sweeping signature that stretched from elbow to wrist. When I expressed interest in buying his latest book, he offered me a deal that ended up with me taking home all three books published by Red Hen, his second book which Red Hen didn’t publish but which he had on hand, and the last Dementia My Darling-themed promotional candy bar. It was delicious. I still have the wrapper.

Constantine at AWP 2016
Brendan Constantine perfects his signature

Some more adjectives: spellbinding, hypnotic, hilarious, chilling. Constantine is a unique and engaging poet both on and off the page. While his voice shines in his text, his readings are an arresting experience, which I hesitate to call performative only because that word indicates a bit of acting or putting on, and Constantine’s work is nothing if not honest.

I recently asked him about sound, style, craft, and of course, B-sides.

So, I want to start with talking about sound, and your position on readings. How would you equate the importance of sound to the written word? Must a piece be read aloud to be experienced right? Or is the printed page enough?

I go to poetry the way I go to music, that is, for more than one reason. I go to be soothed, to be entertained, to be compelled, blown away, attacked, vindicated, made silly, made silent. I love both reading and listening to poetry. I love watching a poet deliver their work, whether they just stand at a podium with their face hidden behind a page or dance among the seats, reciting from memory while a DJ grooves in the background.

As to the writing of it, I try to write in a fashion that (I hope) allows a reader to enjoy/use it without me. I’ll only be around a little while. Indeed, I shouldn’t be here NOW. But I also believe that if someone has come to hear me read, it’s just good manners to make an effort to connect, to convey the poem as I would anything else I might say to them. That means eye contact, modulation of voice and inflection, reading different ideas in different ways, making the sounds I hear in my head when I’m writing.

BUT THERE IS NO ONE WAY – NOR SHOULD THERE BE. This is just me! There is no PAGE VS. STAGE.

I’ve been to plenty of readings where a speaker uses what I’d refer to as a “poetry” voice, a kind of lilting sing-song, and others where the reader is painfully monotone. Your style is rather boisterous and I’d almost say theatrical. Is that intentional, just part of who you are and your personality, or maybe a bit of both?

Hmmm… Someone once said, any reading (of anything) is a performance. I’ve known several police officers who admit to practicing the Miranda rights in a mirror before their first patrol.

I’m not aware of affecting a persona, but I must acknowledge that the way I read poetry is NOT the way I speak to my landlord. I come from a family in show business – both my parents began on the stage. (Incidentally they’re both writers now, ha!) My delivery is probably a mish-mash of theater, the punk and performance artists of my youth, and every public reading that ever blew me away. And I hope that if I have a ‘style’ it’s still changing.

Brendan reads the title poem of Dementia, My Darling at the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival

I’ve been rereading Dementia, My Darling lately, and one thing I’ve noticed is a heavy use of caesura, unusual spacing, and other formal tricks. I find with these poems I can hear your voice and unique pacing as I read. Could you talk a little about your reasoning behind this?

What a great question. Thank you. I’m flattered by this kind of consideration. My answer is not going to be a crafted argument leading to an orderly conclusion. Ready?

There are two factors here, I think, two enabling principals: one, I’m still discovering my own language, and, two, despite what any tired historian may tell us, poetry is still very young. We may think of it as old, but it’s only as old as civilization and that’s but a moment of feedback on the cosmic microphone.

I feel that any tool in the box is up for grabs – dashes, dots, forward slashes, caesura, enjambment, parataxis, even mathematical punctuation, any flourish or arrangement of words – whatever pushes the art into ‘useful’ territory. Languages evolve. Grammar changes. Elements of style vanish and reappear with a tan and extra suitcases.

I’m still discovering the line break. The line break is perpetually coming to terms with itself. Some of my earliest examples were of poets breaking form, sometimes toward new forms or to utter chaos. Gosh, I’m all over the place here. I leave it to you to either chop this up or print it ‘as is.’ Every poem I write comes to me a different way and makes its own demands. Some need a map or meter, some need me to get out of the way. Still others want me to hand them their clothes a rag At. A. Time.

You’re putting together a band, anyone can be in it, musician or not, living, dead, or fictional. Who do you choose, and what is it called?

Drums: Kenny Clarke

Bass: Jimmy Woode

Guitars: Jimi Hendrix – Carlos Alomar – Robert Fripp – Poison Ivy Rorschach – Link Wray – Rory Gallagher

Keyboards: Brian Eno – Nina Simone – Claude Debussy – Franze Liszt – Frederic Chopin – Fats Waller

Taking turns at vocals:

Mabel Mercer – David Bowie – Nina Simone – Juliette Greco – Douglas Kearney – Lux Interior – Patsy Cline – Johnny Hartman – Joe Williams – Jim Carroll – Alberto Cortez

Oh, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Hayden, Nicolas Guillén, Walt Whitman, Diane Wakoski, and Kaveh Akbar doing stage dives.

THE BAND IS CALLED ‘RUBELLA’

In light of the atrocity that was this presidential election and the climate of the country, what part do you see poetry and writing playing in, should I say, the political discourse of our nation and communities? Can it be an effective tool for change on a wide-scale? Or are we all just shouting into the abyss here?

When were we NOT shouting into the abyss? But the thing is, the walls of the canyon have great reverb. Our voices come back and we have NO idea where they will ultimately carry. I think speech, no matter how futile it may seem, no matter how the air may appear not to move when we speak, is essential. You can’t know the range of your voice without using it. Just remember the world is quite large and you may not hear an echo for a while. You may not live to hear it at all.

You’ll notice I said “speech.” As to poetry, the same principal applies, but if we’re writing poetry specifically to affect social change, we may have to do more than upload it to Submittable.com. A lot more. I’m not saying that publishing a poem in a journal is nothing, but clearly there is a HUGE amount of noise with which to compete just now, and if we’re hoping to raise the hearts around us, it may demand many means of delivery. We could use some new rooftops. Social media is positively throbbing with poetry these days, but like television, it’s very easy to tune out. Remember, ‘publication’ merely means that you’ve made something ‘public.’ Ask yourself, when have you heard a poet boast they had new work forthcoming on a flag, or via sky writers? When was the last time you saw poetry on a billboard or bus top? Or how about ON the bus, taking up a whole side as we do with advertising? I’m coming off the rails here. Ahem…

Outrage is a hard thing to convey and even harder to receive. But poetry is not a mode of TELLING. Poetry is an art of ‘embodiment.’ If I merely TELL you I’m mad, I have sabotaged your ability to feel it. But if I can find a way to embody these feelings, to make the reader or listener feel it themselves, on their own, organically, then I achieve something higher. How do I – WE – do this? However we can.

Can poetry matter? Clearly it does because most of the world’s cultures manifest it. Can it accelerate change? It certainly gives momentum to thought. Can it do this if I write a poem and magnetize it to the fridge? That would depend on how many people fit in my kitchen.

Brendan reads The Last Thing I Want to Do is Hurt You

What’s your favorite radio single? And of course, to contrast, what is your favorite B-side, deep cut, or rarities album?

Fave single? No way. Too many. We won’t live long enough. However…

The first B-Side that comes to mind is a funk/soul track ‘Red Beans and Rice’ by the immortal Booker T & the MG’s, a STAX 45 from 1965. It’s totally boss.

As for deep cuts, I’d say David Bowie’s ‘What in the World’ from his album ‘Low,’1977.

Or, Ray Charles’ ‘(The Night Time Is) The Right Time’, a Nappy Brown song which appears on Ray’s 1961 LP ‘The Genius Sings The Blues.’

Or, Roxie Music’s ‘Mother of Pearl’ which appears on their 1973 LP ‘Stranded.’

Or, Sex Pistols ‘Pretty Vacant’ from their 1977 debut ‘Never Mind the Bollocks.’

Or Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Wat about di workin clas?’ From ‘Making History’ 1984.

Or the 9 minute ‘dub’ version of Pete Shelley’s ‘Homosapien’, a 12 inch from 1981.

Rarities”: I’ll add ‘Delicious Gone Wrong’ an INCREDIBLY rare 45 by the INCREDIBLY obscure British act BIM from 1980.

Can you tell me about your revisions process? Are you a heavy re-worker, or do your pieces spring forth from your head fully formed, like a literary Athena?

I revise and revise and then I revise. In between I do a little tweaking and if I have time I edit. Later, I might go back and make some changes. Excuse me.

Again, I have to say every poem is different. Every poem ‘wants’ something else. Sometimes it puts up a tremendous fight. Sometimes it appears fully clothed. Of course, one must ask of the sudden poem, did it take ten minutes or did it take the last thirty years?

Just now I’m working on a poem which has had numerous drafts. It started about two years ago. However, at the time, it seemed to come fully formed and I felt it wouldn’t need much refinement. Well, that was April of 2014 and I think it finally stopped complaining. We’ll see when I read it later today.

To close, do you have any advice for young poets and writers, or even older writers just getting into the field?

Yes, make lots of mistakes. Make lots and lots and lots of them. Know that your worst writing will ALWAYS lie ahead of you. So take risks, work beyond your comfort and ability, be willing to make a total and complete fool of yourself. After all, when were you planning to? Start now.

Brendan reads You Went Down to the River at WANPoetry

For more from Brendan Constantine visit: http://www.brendanconstantine.com/

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