I met Justin Petropoulos in Washington D.C. this past February at the AWP conference. The best thing about Justin is his last name which means something real cool. Just keep reading. The second best thing about Justin is that he is really tall and he wears cool glasses. He wears the kind of glasses that make him look super smart even though he is really super smart and doesn’t really need smart glasses. Like Einstein smart glasses. But I won’t hold it against him. The third coolest thing about Justin is that his real mother’s name is Dorothy just like mine except that I’m Almost Dorothy and his ma is the totally realized Dorothy without the Almost. She must have done something right to get that distinction. There’s one last (but actually most important) thing that I adore about Justin and that is his book Eminent Domain. On many levels, the book communicates with the spirits trapped or hiding out in the remote locations of his heart and head. In Eminent Domain, Justin brings the spirits to the surface, takes them for a walk and asks them to speak to us in tongues. As the spirits (by spirits I don’t mean drinks) communicate through him, we see Justin’s interior world inside his language. I have no idea what I’m saying at this point but it all sounds spooky. All you need to know is that Justin is an amazing human, brilliant as shooting Tomahawk missile in the night. (I apologize to Justin and his entire family if I’ve misspelled his last name. It’s a gorgeous name that tricks me every time I write it out.)
Almost Dorothy: What isn’t a poem?
Justin Petropoulos: Ah, the time honored question, or more accurately its inverse. I think squat thrusts are not poems, margin calls, pants suits and breaking-up with someone via text message or IM, also burnt flan is not a poem. Though, on second thought, the flan and the squat thrusts have potential with the right spotter. I really don’t know the answer to that question. There is so much collage work in my writing that it’s hard for me not see a poem in everything, or at least something that could be deployed for poetic ends. Poetic Ends would be a great title for a series of photos, don’t you think?
AD: I don’t think. I just type and I think that breaking-up via text message or IM is way appropriate. What’s not appropriate is your last name, Mr. Petropoulos.
JP: Poems should push on the language and the language should push back. Maybe a food fight breaks out between the poem and the language and it’s mashed potato day in the cafeteria. That’s a poem. I want poems to move me, somehow, emotionally, intellectually, make me laugh, however, in some direction, even if I hate where I end up. Ambivalence in a poem is great, but if that’s the reaction of the reader…that might not be a poem or at least not a good one. Lucky for me, being moved is so subjective.
AD: Hmmm…no comment. In your new book, Eminent Domain, where the domain is eminent, why did you write “para meus pais com todo o meu amor”?
JP: Because I love my parents in Portuguese a little more than I do in English, or maybe, they love me more in Portuguese. I forget what they told me before they left me at that rest stop off I-95.
AD: You too!
JP: My parents have always been supportive of my writing; I wouldn’t have a collection of bottle caps, much less a collection of poems without them. There was always a second language being spoken, a pun, joke, (mis)translation or innuendo flying about in my house; language was very fluid, unstable, and there was a lot of it. We’re talkers. At home language was this incredibly dynamic construction, simultaneously personal and public…a performance. I fell in love with words because of that context, because of my parents. That’s what I tell my therapist anyway.
AD: I therapise my therapist. I’m gonna come out and say it: you write prose poems. Deal with it! What is the difference between a prose poem and flash fiction or a short short or a short short short?
JP: Yes officer, I was driving that car when it went over the bridge, but I have no recollection of who was driving the car. Sorry, got my interrogations crossed there for a second. What was the question? Oh, right, prose poems vs. flash fiction, what is the difference?
I want to quote Gloria Leonard here, she said, “The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting.”
AD: I thought it was the size of the penis.
JP: Don’t ask me which is which, prose poems and flash fictions are both pornography and erotica at different moments. The only differences I see between prose poems and short shorts are in the degrees specific techniques expected from the ‘traditional’ or source genres, i.e. fiction and poetry, from which these ‘new’ forms mutated, are employed and for what purpose.
But it’s all by degrees, scaled, some prose poems have a strong narrative element, others a more associative structure, but they both may have a heavy focus on a highly lyrical syntax or on character development, if one can call a poems speaker a ‘character.’ The same is true of short shorts, both the ones you wear and the ones you read. Leonard is right; it’s all in the lighting?
In the altered words of Justice Potter Stewart:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [prose poetry]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…. (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 1964)
AD: Jeez, I just wanted a yes or no answer. So, do you wear short shorts?
JP: I wear shorts as frequently as possible. There’s never enough time for shorts. That’s why theories of multiple dimensions are so wonderful, because at any given time/position, in at least one of these congruent dimensions, I’m wearing shorts.
AD: Hot. In the “The Coincidence of Wants”, there’s a memory of a prayer for snakes and a bit about punching out zygotes. You write, “If you say the words through the nose the snakes disappear, lassoed off by the wind….”. I’m curious: how is your nose, why are you anti-zygote, and when will you reveal the secrets of snakes?
JP: My nose is quit fit. Thanks for asking. Some light, weight-training three times a week has it blowing at capacity and yoga keeps the nostrils limber and balanced. I’m not anti-zygote, at least I don’t think I am, I just wanted to mechanize their production a bit. I don’t know their secrets. They don’t trust me since I bought that pair of boots. Let’s not talk about it. Feelings were hurt, let’s leave it at that.
AD: What is your favorite word, real or invented?
JP: This week: concretize, putrefaction and hippopotamus.
AD: Marxist, socialist, capitalist?
JP: Activist. At least I used to be.
AD: “We wash each other’s hands, we create phantom syntax, we caress the morning’s flimsy coat, like a whisper” (p.13). What does the whisper whisper?
JP: What the whisper whispers is less important than the (f)act of the whisper itself, I think. The message can be dirty and it can be sad, or shy or really anything, comforting, that doesn’t matter as much to me. I like all the messages I get whispered. They stay with me.
There’s something so perfect about communicating that way, especially now when we’re all on blast twenty-four hours a day, on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Plus I love that exchange, the transmitter/receiver dynamic, the body as source (instrument) for words, when people whisper, it’s like they’re two bagpipes playing each other.
I realize that there is an a priori assumption at work in my logic: that this is a whisper between two people, which forces me to rethink all of my previous whisper rhetoric. (Contemplative interlude.) No, it doesn’t seem to change that much for me if we whisper as a group. But to be honest I prefer my whispers as a pair…a bit 50’s of me, but there it is. I’m a cliché maybe, but there’s just something about whispering that tears me up.
AD: I think you’re a liar. What’s the one thing you want people and their pets to know about Eminent Domain? About Petropolulos?
JP: Well, I’m not sure I want them to know anything about me, at least not the humans. As far as the poems in Eminent Domain, I think that the important thing for me when I wrote them (collaged them) was to offer the reader a huge space to read/write into. These poems need readers to finish them; at least I hope they do.
AD: Thanks God I don’t read. Do you own a lion? If not, why?
JP: I’m not sure ‘own’ is a word one can use regarding any proximity to a lion. So no, I don’t own a lion, but that’s just semantics.
AD: The [digression on the corn trade] culminates in a kind wind that “recognizes how lost we are”. Will we ever recognize what the wind sees?
JP: The existential answer is no, we’re too close to the object observed, but I think ‘recognize’ is a great word in this instance. The idea, that to know a person, for example, is an ongoing process, requiring a constant re-imagining of that person as a context in their own right, nesting in other, equally dynamic contexts, is an idea I’ve obsessed over. I also love Venn diagrams.
JP: I feel like these poems were fueled by that desire though, to ‘recognize’ language, to recast certain lexical features from economics or chemistry in an attempt to replicate the displacement of people by and within language itself. It’s also really kind of romantic to me. Like a vow. To think and re-think someone for as long as you both shall live. I now pronounce you. You may kiss the philosopher.
AD: At this point, I feel like you’re either really smart, really high, or i’m really smart because I figured out that you’re either really smat, smart, or really high. High-five! Favorite drink:
JP: Patron on the rocks with lime. It was a gift from a great poet and friend.
AD: Favorite scent:
JP: I love the smell of the ocean, of bacon frying, and the rest, I know I won’t tell.
AD: I smell like bacon therefore you love me! Define Petropoulos:
JP: Petropoulos is a wheel with a grooved rim around which a cord passes. It acts to change the direction of a force applied to the cord and is chiefly used (typically in combination) to tell lies to strangers in gazebos.
Justin Petropoulos’ poems have appeared in A cappella Zoo, American Letters & Commentary, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, Gulf Coast, Mandorla and Portland Review. He received his MFA from Indiana University.He lives in Brooklyn, New York where he and co-curates Triptych Readings (www.triptychreading.com) with poets Mary Austin Speaker and Anne Lovering Rounds. He is also a part-time bunny rabbit.