Q: What style of music do you think most closely resembles your poetry?
A: Back in the days of mix tapes, I became obsessed with segues—trying to capture the most perfect transitions between songs, which was difficult because of my very eclectic tastes and my insistence on packing as much of that eclecticism into a 90 Maxell audio tape as possible.
The segue I was most proud of (too proud—had it been a line a poetry, I would likely have had to follow the “Kill your darlings” dictum) was between Luciano Pavarotti’s live rendition of Nessun Dorma and Tom Waits’ Johnsburg, Illinois. There was something about the transition from the over-the-top, heroic declaration of the aria, the grand, expansiveness of it and the wild applause that followed, to the simple piano opening of Waits’ song and his croaking declaration of “She’s my only true love…” that knocked me out when I stumbled upon it: it seemed to be the whole history of love, a star going supernova and then collapsing into a black hole (The only segue that ever even came close to this was when I followed The Smashing Pumpkins Tonight, Tonight into Bowie’s Heroes.).
Whatever that pause is between those two extremes, whatever music happens between those styles and whatever it is that happens to music in that silence between them, is what my poetry aims for. It’s usually wide of the mark, but I keep trying.
Q: Did you choose your writing style or did it choose you? What does your style allow you to do with your poetry that other styles would not?
A: Both. It’s an odd sensation, this “finding your voice,” as the writing cliché goes. Once it arrives, you wonder how you ever sounded like anything else. Much of my style comes from the example of poets who simultaneously engage with received form and with invented form; the dialogue created by that kind of engagement is what usually excites me most about a poet’s work.
Frederick Seidel described it thus: “I like to hear the sound of form, and to hear the sound of it breaking.” That style, which I came to through Seidel and others (John Berryman, Anne Carson, Glyn Maxwell), allows me to play the field—I can write a sonnet, or not. I can scatter stanzas or twist them into pantoums. Or I can Frankenstein them into one or the other in the same space.
Play is crucial—not simply word play, though there’s that, but the sense that anything can happen (even if, in reality, it’s all going to come out sounding like me, the way any song is going to be shaped by the limitations of an individual voice). Without a sense of play, there’s no voice, no style at all.
Q: How do you choose what a poem will look like on the page?
A: Intuitively. The poem usually tells me what it wants to look like. I favor pentameter lines as a default, and many poems begin that way before stretching or contracting into whatever the rhythms want them to be.
Many poets have pointed out that the blank page, the whiteness of it, is sculptural, and I feel that’s somewhat true—the idea that you’re carving something out of an undifferentiated block of material, or revealing something that was there, waiting to be chiseled and chopped into something new.
Q: How do you choose your punctuation or lack thereof? Does it have more to do with grammar, visual cues, or auditory/musical cues?
A: At some point early on, I decided to swing with proper grammar when it came to punctuation in poems, but there are certain tics (or vices) that are wholly visual, like my preference for “&” instead of “and,” and a sometimes immoderate love of em dashes. But since punctuation is always a visualization of oral speech, with the flow between breath and utterance, I think it can’t help but have everything to do with auditory & musical cues.
Q: Do you think that punctuation can be equated with musical notation symbols such as note value, rests, and dynamic markings? How do you think of white space? Between words and stanzas? As it relates to the size and shape of the paper your work is printed on?
A: Yes. As noted above, white space is the material you’re working with, much more so than ink or pixels: typography, the title, line length, all contribute to the rhythms, the musicality, of the poems. I always took that bit of information about “stanza” being the Italian for “room” pretty literally: does this poem need many rooms, a long hallway with doors leading off into many chambers, or is this just one big ballroom the reader has to cross? I always envision how these interact on paper, even when composing (as I now more often than not do) on a screen.
Q: Do you think your poetry gives visual auditory cues to the reader? Do you think the reader hears the way you read your poetry by sight alone? If not, what do you think impedes this transfer of information?
A: That’s the goal. Whether it succeeds varies, I believe, from poem to poem. If the reader isn’t hearing the poem by sight alone, then I think I’ve failed.
Often, I have the opposite problem when I read certain poems aloud—there are visuals that can’t make the leap from page to stage. I have a poem with the line “In high school I knew Poison was far worse than The Cure.” The first time I read that poem at a reading, I waited for a laugh that wasn’t forthcoming because without the capitalization, there was no way for listeners to get that pun about those bands. To say “the band Poison” destroys the whole effect of how that line should be heard in the reader’s mind.
Q: How do you notate your poetry to make up for the lack of your voice being there? Do you try?
A: I don’t. I don’t think, now, that there’s much lack. When I was younger, it was a different story, but at this point in my vocation I’m fairly certain my voice comes through strongly.
Q: Do you consider yourself a performer of your poetry, or a reader? How come?
A: A performer, but simply because of years of involvement with theater, radio, performance art (don’t ask), and acting as an emcee for countless events. I couldn’t not perform my poetry, or my prose, for that matter.
Q: How would you describe your performance/reading style? Do you think that popular reading styles have shaped the way you read, or have you actively worked against the pull of mainstream performance style?
A: Twenty years ago, when I first started writing poetry with seriousness of intent, I was surrounded by the world of slam and performance poetry. My joke for a long time was that performance poets needed to read more and literary poets needed to hit the stage more.
I always tried to avoid both “slammy” styles and dry, “I am a serious poet” styles, but the only true shaping force over the years has simply been audiences. The only way to get a sense of how your work sounds aloud is to read in front of many audiences as possible and to develop a feeling of how audiences respond to your style.
If you’ve read your work aloud for many years and can’t tell when an audience is tuning you out or getting bored or restless, then you’re not paying attention. Too many poets (and too many fiction writers) read their work as if they’re alone in a room, performing some burdensome task.
Q: Do you think you’re the best performer/reader of your own work?
A: I don’t know. I haven’t met anyone better at it yet.
Gregory Crosby is the author of Spooky Action at a Distance (2014, The Operating System). His work has appeared in Court Green, Epiphany, Rattle, Sink Review, Leveler, and Copper Nickel, among others. He is co-editor of the poetry journal Lyre Lyre. Follow him at @monostich and sign up for his kickass weekly letters at TinyLetter!