Sandy McIntosh can dance, write, cook, shimmy & shake, and invent whole universes in his sleep. He can sing too! Well, not really, but Sandy is super sweet and his poetry is full of friction. His latest work, Ernesta, in the Style of Flamenco, traverses the “fascinating social dimensions of music and its impact.” I have no idea what that means, but Sandy has given me an interview in which he reveals the music behind the music of Sandy McIntosh. Enjoy.
Almost Dorothy: Ernesta, in the Style of the Flamenco is a monumental collection of poetry—experimental, musical, hysterical. Tell us about the process of putting Ernesta together.
Sandy McIntosh: I’d often tried my hand at fiction but was never satisfied with the results. I’d written short stories and even a novel, which I found to be a painful, confusing experience. I realized that my instinct was to write expository fiction as if I were writing intense, condensed poetry. I was at war with myself. In the end, I decided to rewrite from memory these stories as narrative poems. Seen through the lens of poetry, the stories began to make more sense. For example, a story based on a dinner I’d had with a friend, was called “Susie the Idiot.” But when I revisited it through the lens of poetry I discovered that, in truth, I had been the only idiot in the piece. With this as a starting point I made poems of other stories, and several of them are in Ernesta.
AD: I love discovering I’m the idiot! Bravo. The art of Flamenco, which originated in Andalusia, informs your work and the title of your book. Why is Flamenco so important?
SM: The essential heart of Flamenco is its lyric forms. There are many such forms, each metrically distinctive, and each serves a function in the performance. There are forms that bring the dancers onto the stage, forms that move them through the narrative and all the interactions of passion. All of these are governed by the Duende–the inner spirit released as the result of the performer’s intense emotional involvement with the music, song, and dance.
The poem “Ernesta” is a narrative about an intense, passionate 19th century Spanish pianist who does whatever she has to do to succeed–perhaps even abetting murder. In recasting the story as a poem I decided to use some of the Flamenco verse forms to establish mood and rhythm.
In grammar school, I’d always hated the narrative poems of writers like Longfellow, which were often only mildly interesting stories that happened to rhyme. But, of course, poetry offers an arsenal of possibilities besides rhymes. Since my character, Ernesta, performed at the piano wearing traditional Flamenco costume, I thought it fitting to incorporate poetic devices of the Flamenco in the poem’s construction. They predicate the rhythm of each section of the poem, although I didn’t apply their rules strictly. They are more like background sounds and colors.
AD: Can you dance?
SM: Without being coy, let me answer “Yes…and no.”
AD: If Ernesta were here, what would you say to her?
SM: Ernesta is a rough, charming thief. At the beginning of the poem, I include an epigraph from a James Tate poem: “Music will watch us drown.” At the end of her narrative, Ernesta quotes that line, claiming to have invented it herself.
I think I would be courteous and respectful to her, a maestra of the piano, then check to make sure I still had my wallet.
AD: The poem “237 More Reasons to have Sex” is a collaboration with Denise Duhamel and it’s also a book with the same title. What’s it like to work with another poet as a team? Were there any rules when the two of you wrote together?
SM: Denise has edited a collection of poetic collaborations, Saints of Hysteria. The collection includes diaries kept by the collaborators. They indicate that collaborations can be fluid and delicious, but also stagnant and bitter–with all permutations in between. I had once collaborated with Denise and several other poets. Beginning with Denise, each poet would submit a verse, to be followed by verses from the others, until they reached me at the end. I found that I was able to tie things up nicely by going back to Denise’s verse and capping it off, so to speak. Because this worked so well, I knew Denise and I would be able to work together on some future project of the fluid and delicious kind.
The origin of “237” was a newspaper story I’d read about a study at the University of Texas. There, psychologists had concluded that there were exactly 237 reasons why humans had sex. However, at the end of the study, the lead psychologist noted: “Originally, I thought that we exhaustively compiled the list, but now I found that there should be some added.” Denise and I decided to add 237 more.
I was in New York and Denise in Florida. Without setting up rules in advance we began emailing each other lines. She’d write one, then I’d respond to it—to which she’d respond with another. We worked for about two weeks, at all hours, whenever ideas came. At the end, my wife Barbara, who had been sitting nearby during many of these sessions, commented that I looked “demented.” Nevertheless, we had a great time writing it, and we enjoy performing it together (as you can see on our You Tube clip).
AD: Are there more than 237 reasons?
SM: Without being coy, let me answer “Yes…and no.”
AD: Besides the disappointments of love, your book also deals with the themes of aging and reflection. You’ve lived a very interesting life for a young man—plucked from the sea. How much of your personal life influences your writing?
SM: If you mean thematically, rather than straight autobiography, then I’ll say “all of it.” Even non-fiction, journalism, cook books and computer programs I’ve written list toward my preoccupations or anger. I remember once, as a part-time writer of travel brochures, I was made to rewrite a long and tedious description of the culture of ancient Rome. When the discussion turned towards the famous Roman poets, I included the names of my poet friends, just for fun, since I was sure no one would ever read it. I find revenge a positive and satisfying force in my work.
AD: Haha, that’s funny! In the poem, “Our ‘Hood” you render an exquisite portrait of Brooklyn. If not Brooklyn, where? And, what’s with the epidemic of hit-and-runs?
SM: “Our `Hood” is an angry poem. Oddly, it wasn’t Brooklyn but St. Petersburg, Florida, where we have a vacation home. The epidemic of hit-and-runs is just another symptom of the colossal indifference of people (I won’t say who for fear of retribution).
AD: “Nathan, in the Ancient Language” can be best summed up as…?
SM: The narrator is a pathetic but rich WASP boy. He tries his hand at a lot of activities and keeps flopping, but he seems destined to a comfortable fate. Even though the time of the narrative is now, there is a strong connection to Old English, and echoes of Anglo-Saxon music and phrasing and quotations from the old tongue are part of the story. The poem raises issues about the ownership of language, charismatic charlatanism and its undoing, and the (in)ability to read other people and the material consequences of reading poorly. Further, the poem implicitly asks: How should individuals utilize the power that sometimes randomly comes their way?”
AD: Is Nathan’s heart satisfied? The narrator? You? All or none of the above.
SM: The only character with a name in this narrative is Nathan. The narrator is referred to as “Hey, you!” by his parents. Nathan, whom the narrator idolizes, is a psychopath without conscience, who commits many murders—so who can know if his heart can ever be satisfied? Or if he has a heart at all? The narrator is without a fully-formed personality—as are the other characters—and is manipulated by Nathan, his mother and his stepfather. In the end, he settles for the costume and a theatrical role of a mature person. To that extent, he is content. But there is more to him, and he must know it. As for me, I’m happy to have brought forth what I hope is an entertaining story that realizes what I’d originally tried but failed to do when it was written in the form of a novel.
AD: If you could speak an ancient language, or another language besides your mother tongue, what would you want to speak and why?
SM: I’d love to be truly fluent in any language, ancient or modern. There’s no more handy way to shake-up one’s idea of reality. Cognitive dissonance. I remember reading about a study done in the 1960s with the Japanese wives of American soldiers who had been stationed in Japan and were now living in California. An interviewer, speaking only Japanese, questioned women about many topics. One question was: “What happens when you and your husband disagree?” One woman’s answer, in Japanese, was: “It is a time of great sorrow for us.” Later, another interviewer speaking only English, asked the same woman the same question. She answered in English: “I do what I want.”
AD: Finally, the final question: After Ernesta, what’s next for Sandy McIntosh?
SM: In Ernesta, I Hoover-ed up my fiction, spitting it out as poetry. What I’m doing now is thinking back to my writing from the age of twenty, when my first book was published by Southampton College. I was practically an idiot then, and my book was really only a collection of poetic imitations, clever enough to be published. Several very small press books and chapbooks followed. I want to revisit those early, forgotten collections and, from memory, reconstruct or reincarnate some of their poems, the way they should have been written in the first place. I take as model my grandfather, a furniture carver and designer, who never let any wood scraps go to waste. So it is with me. Let’s see what happens!
Sandy McIntosh is the author of 237 More Reasons to Have Sex (co-authored with Denise Duhamel), Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death, The After-Death History of My Mother, Between Earth and Sky, Endless Staircase, Earth Works, Which Way to the Egress?, and two chapbooks. Wow! He is also the publisher of the totally amazing Marsh Hawk Press.