Sandra Simonds is the word Wanderer. She uses phrases like “sack of meat”, “I am the stone testicle”, and “a manatee’s big toe” to woo me into her lair. When she gave me her book Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2008), which was a finalist for numerous prizes including the National Poetry Series, it had a coffee stain on the cover. I thought: wow, this is gonna be good. And it was. Simonds’ poetry is gigantic, gorgeous and, one more g-word, goddamn good. Her words are diamond tiaras and the coal-world from which they came. She’s my new hero and heroin (heroine) in one. She agreed to this Potty Mouth interview on one condition: that I interview her. So, I did, and I’m happy. Enjoy.
Almost Dorothy: What is a poem?
Sandra Simonds: I’m a lyric poet with political, surrealist and, to a lesser degree, narrative tendencies. Let’s just make that clear right now. So, everything that I write here will be what the definition of a poem is to me and the sort of understanding of poetry that I have espoused and admire. There are other poetic traditions; the house of poetry is large and I am not trying to make any claims about poetry in general though I make here a lot of generalizations.
While I was running last week, I thought to myself—passing the little houses and trees and barking dogs and lazy cats and grandmothers and grandfathers and little babies hanging out on the front lawns of Florida—that a poem has two principle movements. There’s a forward (with) movement and a backward (against) movement. We go “with” things from point A to point B to point C. We must follow the ear from one sound to another, from one word to another from one line to the next.
We run forward through space in time.
The “with” movement is one that I associate with seduction, the joyous July day at the beach, a dinner with your closest friends, picking up your toddler after a long day of work—it is the inside of the moment to moment that we inhabit and it is very important because artists must always be present—listening, seeing, observing, noting—in time. Another word for this movement might be momentum, the going forth. This is why, I think, people enjoy writing on planes, in trains, composing poetry in their heads in cars—for me, while running. This forced movement is the embodiment of what is—the earth spins etc—it cannot not.
SS: We run from one place to another and at all points in time we know that time is running out. The poem moves from left to right and then down and then from left to right and down again. In life, there is a great enjoyment in the body, in the senses, in going. Even the most naïve student of poetry will notice a sonic interruption in momentum and will often bring it to our attention when a poem “doesn’t flow.”
AD: (Wow, ma says this lady is magic.)
SS: But there is also that backward movement in a poem, that resistance inside this forward—the “no.” You are moving forward but it’s because someone is chasing you down the street with a knife, as Frank O’Hara says. That person chasing you is the backward of the real and at some point you have to stop, turn around, and face it. A poem without resistance, without being completely and honestly critical—politically, emotionally, spiritually—does not do the heavy lifting of poetry. It is simply an empty form and there is nothing more comforting (by which I mean non-alienating—in a bad way) than an empty form.
AD: What is an empty form?
SS: An empty form is a poem in which the imposing structure of the poem is the poem. Instead of structure arising from within, the form is the within and, for me, without. This is pure momentum—a going with the flow out of passivity or resignation or because it feels great or thrilling (I want to drive my car 120 miles an hour forever too)—and it is, in a sense, standing with the wrongs in the world because it is not raising its voice. Wrongs must be faced, resisted, not merely presented to the world and art is not if it is simply presentation.
Yes, the voice is imperfect; the subject is imperfect; we make huge mistakes; we have unmet desires, we do what we can but this doesn’t mean that we simply abandon the subject because the subject is the engagement, the commitment. We sing. We yell. We try. Sometimes the voice is sincere, sometimes ironic, sometimes funny and sometimes sad or angry. It doesn’t matter what it is—it matters who it is, as Derrida says, because serious poetry is very close to love—love of the world, of people, of animals. So the poet knows when something is wrong—the world is not right because she loves the world very deeply and is always connected to it through this engagement and commitment. A song where every beat is perfectly measured—a poem that is perfectly timed and counted like clockwork—this is not for me because I am already aware of time—I am already running but I don’t want to let it run me. Presenting the detritus of bureaucracy—no—this is not for me. I will take an imperfect subject any day over beautiful architecture. I cannot say this more clearly: I have absolutely no interest in empty forms.
AD: Do you have any interest in empty forms?
SS: Resistance, the revolutionary impulse—this is so important! This is the part of the soul that says “Enough,” the part of the soul that acts on the world and doesn’t simply let the world act on it. “I’m through with life,” Mayakovsky says. But the poem, Mayakovsky, is not through with you or us or the world. There must be a part that never, ever, ever rests. The poet can never, ever, ever rest!
Simonds Side Note: I hate to meditate. Why should I be “at peace” with myself, the world, you? This is nonsense! No, I am not at peace with the world and hope to never be. If I wanted to be at peace with the world, I would have become an accountant or bank teller who meditates before and after work.
Anyway, if you put these two movements—the forward and the backward together, I think what emerges is not a 3rd way or compromise, but rather a stasis—“the substanceless blue”—as Plath says, the sky,—the text or crystallization of the beyond—that is the beyond of the beyond and it is radical. We desire to read poems that are of a lived undergoing, not just a going. And I don’t mean “undergoing” as punishment here—I mean it as thinking, real thinking. We love the Wanderer because he is of exile and brings us his marvelous ubi sunt—“Hwær cwom mearg?/Hwær cwom mago?” But we are here, Wanderer, and we have always been here too and we are with you because we love you. What a lost cause this undergoing is. How sorrowful too. As the wonderful poet Andrew Joron says, the soul must take a— “detour to far fires”—toward the extravagant.
AD: Ma says she thinks your book Warsaw Bikini is the most awesomeness book she’s read in a long time. (She has only read 3 books in her life.) Ma wants to know: Why do you write books?
SS: I don’t really write books. I write poems and then collect them into books because that is the preferred form for publication. I actually much prefer the chapbook form—20-25 pages and that’s probably why I’ve written so many chapbooks. I feel like the chapbook form is more manageable, that I can order and arrange the poems more easily. Also, I only write poems when I cannot not write poems. I pretty much will do anything and everything—playing with my son, cleaning the house, walking the dogs, running, buying groceries, cooking—before I write a poem. In order for me to write, I need to intensely concentrate on what I’m doing and frankly, it is a lot of work and I already have a day job. I’m sure that if I could listen to music and write at the same time, it would solve a lot of problems (considering the vast amounts of time I waste watching YouTube videos of Metallica in my free time) but I can’t. It’s way too distracting for me to do so.
AD: In the poem, “Writing My Bike In Circles Around This Poem To Prove That I Persist”, you write about the “double-jointed hermaphrodite on the shoreline turns its white (who) ruffled dress into a ladle for the tide…”. Who are you? And, are you the tide?
SS: I think I am the moon making the tide, hermaphrodite, double-jointedness, ruffles and ladles possible. I love the moon, don’t you? “The moon has nothing to be sad about.”
AD: Define your poetry in terms of math, words + math, and/or pictures.
SS: I would embarrass myself if I talk about math since my mom was a math teacher. I think that I should stick to pictures. Never mind. I like math better. When I was a little kid of about 8 or 9, me, my mom and my sister lived in an apartment in Los Angeles that was right by the water treatment plant and there were these big mirrors in my bedroom—you know sliding closet doors that were mirrors. I remember after school one day I got a crayon and I decided to practice long division on the mirror. I wanted to solve the biggest problem I could come up with. I remember I worked on this problem for hours, in front of the mirror. That’s what my poetry is, in some sense. Side note: I also think that it is important to include dinosaurs, fast cars, outer space, chocolate cakes, France, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the beauty of the gaze, people with scary eyes and foxes into this equation, this poem that I’m talking about.
AD: Why the title Warsaw Bikini?
SS: I liked the way it sounded and it’s almost like you can fold both words in half and they are mirror images of each other–almost. War. Raw. Saw. Was. I play around a lot with letters and words (hello OCD!) Also, I think that it is very, very important to note that Warsaw Bikini presaged this: jezebel.com.
AD: Are you a “ding dong”?
SS: The poetry world is full of oddballs, difficult personalities, mental instability etc. I have been told by others that I am strange or unusual but I do not think of myself as too unusual or strange. Recently my mom came for a visit and said “Sandra, you are very intelligent but you have always been so vulnerable.” Of course, having never lived outside of myself except for one or two moments of my life of intense experience, I really don’t know how to answer this question very objectively and neither, for that matter, can my mom. I don’t think I’m crazy but I’ve had a lot of mad boyfriends say “Sandra, you’re fucking crazy.” But this is probably because none of them could handle the fact that I am a genie—gigantic and whispering around the beach with all the broken glass, syringes and shells and hermit crabs.
AD: In the poem, “Let Me Out” are you trying to save Virginia Woolf or is she trying to save you? (I wrote a collage poem using the text in your poem and my poem sucks. I’m a pickle. Ma too.)
SS: Will you show me your poem, Neil? I’m sure that your poem is better than you think.
AD: Who is Neil? I’m Almost Dorothy!
SS: Maybe Woolf and I are trying to save each other? I also put Kafka’s sisters in this poem—how they all died in the Holocaust. This poem is about the desire to rise above one’s body and life and the quotidian and how we can’t and how life, a real life, a life of dignity, is full of responsibility and how we want to run away from it and how we feel fat a lot and how we want to be thin and how we want to move beyond but we can’t almost. We have to face our lives; it’s the only ethical way and this is difficult and painful and very demoralizing because there’s poverty and bad politics and money and more money. I don’t mean facing life in a moralistic way though. I don’t want to moralize. I mean that we take responsibility for our lives and the other because responsibility is an engagement.
There’s a caesura in this poem—I write a lot of poems with caesuras. I like the idea of having to leap from one part of the poem to another—and this feeling of leaping undermines itself because we are almost taking the same leaps over and over and we are almost winding up at the same place. Almost, Dorothy. We do the same things over and over. We eat. We drink. We have sex. We make babies. Sometimes we make babies and they die. We go through the motions of life—we go nowhere but somehow, in paradox, we arrive also. I want to save Woolf and Kafka’s sisters because they can no longer want to save me because they are dead.
AD: Here is my poem based on your poem “Let Me Out” titled “Out Let Me”
If I were you, I’d lighten up
where a lung deflates light.
Your identical twin #6
is in a porcelain vase.
My Gaza face splinters
your cheek’s pink wind. (blah, blah.)
AD: So, are you pro(letariat) or anti T.S.A. pat downs or body scans?
SS: Very much against both; I am for bodies.
AD: Preferred mode of transmission?
“The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio”—Jack Spicer. “You turn me on I’m a radio” Joni Mitchell.
I’m driving my Honda somewhere between these two quotes somewhere between Florida and Georgia and I’m definitely not listening to NPR and today I saw a dead fox in the road and it was a very sad thing. Hondas re-kill road kill—the world is a sad place. But some people eat road kill too. Nature is disgusting.
AD: Is education worth the cost of education?
SS: I think that education should be free—that’s the new/old struggle. Ideally, education has nothing to do with cost. Education is definitely worth saving from cost but that’s not going to happen on its own. I mean people have to fight for it. I spent almost half of my time at FSU working with other employees to form the graduate employee union and it took as much work, if not more, than getting a PhD. You can spend eight hours a day in the library studying for comps and that’s easy. It’s fun! But spend eight hours day after day talking to offices and labs talking to teaching assistants and research assistants on campus to try to convince them that a union is a good deal for everyone. Believe me that it’s a lot of work. You can find what we are up to here. Working to form the union was a two year process and a great achievement for everyone involved in the struggle but it was an education in itself in terms of how the university works. As we all know there has been a worldwide push for total privatization of education. There’s so much going on now in California and also in the UK and elsewhere in terms of real resistance to what is happening and it’s all very exciting and inspiring. Mark Bousquet’s book How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation is an excellent book about the economics and politics of the modern university. I highly recommend it.
AD: In the poem, “The America You Learn from (A Poem for Grocery Workers” what do you mean when you write, “—thumbs up, Abu Ghraib”?
There is a story behind this poem and it has to do with what I will call my own political awakening. I was living in San Francisco and it was 2004 and I was working in Marin County. After work one day, I decided to walk down the street to the liquor store to buy some cigarettes and beer. Anyway, as I was walking to the store, I noticed on the other side of the street at the Albertson’s supermarket some grocery workers (in solidarity with the Southern California grocery workers) were picketing outside the store. Here’s the link.
Anyway, I remember thinking very clearly that I should be with them and that I should join them but I didn’t do anything. And now I see this as a very important moment for me because I did have a choice and I chose not to join them. On the other hand, something that day must have changed for me because I wrote this poem and it is only after this that I became a political person and this encounter (I think encounter is the right word here) made me see that there is a difference between action and thought. When I say “thumbs up, Abu Gharib” I am thinking about how, if we don’t join in resistance struggles we are saying that things are okay as they are and we therefore become complicit and this complicity is very scary and serious and grave.
AD: Last question: favorite song, film and article of clothing.
SS: I am still lamenting the loss of a blue dress that I had for approximately 3 months over last summer.
AD: Reminds me of Depeche Mode’s song “Blue Dress“.
SS: Can I tell you about it and add a picture?
My friends Kristine and Rebecca and I all met last summer at this cupcake place in Tallahassee. This store is very special. It sells these special little cupcakes with beautiful blue and yellow and pink icing in the front and in the back they sell crafty handmade jewelry and art and clothes. I found this dress that a woman had altered and painted and it was so cool and I bought it because I just found out that I got a full-time job as a professor. Then, I went on a road trip to Washington DC to visit my elderly grandmother at the end of the summer and left my dress entangled in the bed sheets of a Marriott Hotel room in Macon, Georgia. I have never cared very much for things—but Oh this dress, this dress!—I was so sad that I called the hotel when I got back to Tallahassee and to my great surprise and happiness they told me that they had found the dress! So a few days later, I got the FedEx from the hotel. Before I opened the package I had this bad sinking feeling. I can’t explain it exactly but I just had a bad sinking feeling. I opened the package and it was not the dress. It was another woman’s dress. Whose dress is this? I wondered. It made me very sad and I threw it away. There was also a man’s pair of shorts in the Fed Ex package. I don’t know why they were there and I never will. Who are these strangers with their clothes and their things and their lives? Who has my dress? I know you are out there. I just know it.
AD: Oh, ma wants to know what you’re working on right now:
SS: I don’t really think in projects. I write one poem and then another—they tend to be self-contained, discrete little things.
Sandra Simonds grew up in Los Angeles, California. She earned a B.A. in Psychology and Creative Writing at U.C.L.A and an M.F.A. from the University of Montana, where she received a poetry fellowship. In 2010, she earned a PhD in Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She is currently finishing a second full-length collection of poems called Mother was a Tragic Girl which will be published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 2012. She is the author of Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2008), which was a finalist for numerous prizes including the National Poetry Series; she is also the author of several chapbooks including Used White Wife (Grey Book Press, 2009) and The Humble Travelogues of Mr. Ian Worthington, Written from Land & Sea (Cy Gist, 2006). Her poems have been published in many journals such as Poetry, The Believer, the Colorado Review, Fence, the Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Volt, the New Orleans Review and Lana Turner. Her Creative Nonfiction has been published in Post Road and other literary journals. She currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida and is an Assistant Professor of English at Thomas University in beautiful, rural Southern Georgia. In her free time she likes to run, swim, hike, and fight for various lost causes.