Letitia Trent Interview

Letitia Trent is the co-editor of 21 Stars Review. Her work has been published in The Denver Quarterly, NOÖ Journal, Juked, MiPoesias, Stirring, 42opus, Shampoo, No Tell Motel, Pinstripe Fedora, Pebble Lake Review. She is a winner of the IBPC Poets and Writers contest, and teaches lit, as an MFA candidate, at Ohio State University.

SK: Do you breakdance?

Letitia Trent: I don't, though I have seen both Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. I grew up in Vermont and Oklahoma, two of the only places in the United States where nobody ever breakdanced ever. Not even in 1983. It's a fact.

SK: Will you teach me to breakdance?

Letitia Trent: I will teach you how to do a plié instead, from my short-lived time as a little ballerina.

SK: If I were to say Let's Go to Bed by The Cure was the greatest song / music video ever made, would you argue with me?

Letitia Trent : I wouldn't argue. I would compliment your taste, but I would gently point out that Morrissey was making superior music during this time period and that a song called "This Charming Man" existed, with an accompanying video, and that such momentous things can't be ignored, even in the face of such obvious brilliance as "Let's Go to Bed."

SK: Are we post-modern?

Letitia Trent: I dislike that term because in a few thousand years it will cause literary critics language problems. I think we need to make things as easy as possible for future literary critics.

SK: Is your writing process arbitrary or on schedule?

Letitia Trent: Semi-arbitrary, though I do make myself write if I have gone too long without writing.

I'm not the kind of person that wakes up at four in the morning and writes for hours before breakfast. I would go insane if I tried to do that, and I would be so hungry that I might eat my pen. I feel too anxious about the day before me every morning to do something as leisurely as write. I'd be more likely to vacuum and pay bills. I like to write at night, after everything is done, and I can feel unhurried.

SK: As a poet, have you ever been categorized? For example, because your lines are concise and sharp. Would you categorize your style, your voice, in any way, or is that always a morbid idea?

Letitia Trent: I think I categorize myself as a poet. I like that poems can just look at something, or just get excited about something, or can just be fascinated by something beautiful or dirty or horrifying, and nobody has to learn anything or change anything or do anything. You don't even have to have characters in poems! It's amazing.

I think my style of writing has changed drastically in the last three years, and is still changing, so I don't feel comfortable categorizing it. I spent a summer reading Language poetry two years ago, and the last summer reading Objectivists and New York School poets, so I think all of that reading has influenced me recently, even if I don't directly try to align myself with any particular tradition. The poems I wrote before then were mostly sort of bad Plath and Wallace Stevens rip-offs. I still love both of those poets, but I've realized that there is room for most anything in a poem. That's not something that people are taught in school, that poems can include anything and do anything.

I love all those tight little seventeenth century poets too. I really want to write crazy tight little poems.

I like everything, which is also a problem, I think, because it doesn't give me a clear aesthetic or 'style'. I spend a lot of time trying to categorize my style, which probably isn't helpful.

SK: Could you tell me how, aside from writing a great poem, you went about winning best poem of the year for "Study of Absences" in the IBPC Poets and Writers contest judged by Peter Murphy?

Letitia Trent: You know, I have no idea how that happened (I won third place for the year, first place for October, just to clarify), and I didn't even learn about it until long after it was announced. I was at the Bucknell Seminar for younger poets when that came out, and nobody even notified me—I got no e-mails from anyone. I found out about it four months later while googling myself (doesn't that sound dirty?). Anyways, I'm grateful to have won third, and I still kind of like that poem. At the time I found out, I'd forgotten about the poem almost completely, and I haven't even looked at it in years. I should paste it from that IBPC site and try to re-write it, since I have no copy of it on my own anymore.

I have a lot of poems that I published pre-2004 that I have forgotten about or not looked at in years. For a while those poems made me nervous and I went on a campaign to obliterate them from existence by trying to cajole editors into deleting them. I didn't make a lot of editor friends that way, and I've realized that it's stupid to worry so much about things like that.

But I think that the best examples of my "voice" are the poems published in MiPoesias in September. The first two are the closest to what I'm doing now.

SK: What was it like to write a collaborative poem with your husband?

Letitia Trent: The Shampoo poem was written during a camping trip to Vermont . It was my idea, but surprisingly, Zach was very much up for it. We regularly write collaborative poems now, one of which is soon to be published by Mandy Laughtland's "the Teeny Tiny."

Zach is fun to write with because he isn't a poet and he doesn't read poetry or fiction—he adds this artlessness that I am completely unable to get anymore. I've been ruined by poems, so sometimes poemspeak gets into things, but Zach doesn't know poemspeak at all.

The particular Shampoo poem came about when we both decided to write about our most terrible childhood memory and then mix the lines up.

SK: My copy of your chapbook "Here, I Made This for You," has fourteen poems and is tied together with blue yarn, all of which makes me very happy. In what ways have you used your chapbook to publicize your work? Did you send it to any famous writers, for example?

Letitia Trent: I made thirty of those, many of them sprinkled with my finger blood (I didn't have a thimble), and it was incredibly fun, but they weren't much of a vehicle for greater exposure. I mean, I've met lots of cool people primarily by way of the chapbook—you, for example, and a few others—but I didn't really use it in a smart marketing way. I sent one to Ron Silliman, 'cause he has his address on his website. That's about as famous a person as my chapbook reached.

I made these books as a way to get myself away from feelings that I had to "save" good poems for publications, or that I had to be published in a "reputable" way—I wanted to make something solely for my own pleasure with the hopes that other people would like it. I think it's poisonous to get too wrapped up where things are being published or if the right people are reading your poems. Most people talk about this in terms of academia and careerism, but I think it goes in all ways—you can be worried about not being "avant" enough, that your poems aren't getting into the magazines where all the other cool kids are publishing, that your poems make too much sense…all of that is distracting and stupid.

By the way, people can still get a copy of these if they like. E-mail me at letitia.trent@gmail.com and you too can have a blood-soaked yarn-bound chapbook.

SK: You teach lit at Ohio State University. Could you tell me about your experiences there? Do pro-genocide frat boys say the word jigga? Did you meet Jon Stewart?

Letitia Trent: Ohio State is like another planet. Football=Jesus, which is still weird to me, since I'm used to Jesus being Jesus, as I am from Southern Oklahoma. My students gasped when I asked them if I should watch the Ohio State Michigan game this year. One actually said "Are you joking?" I was afraid that somebody would key my car for not loving football enough.

But I'm constantly surprised at how unlike movie frat boys real frat boys are. Of course, they are probably just keeping quiet around me because they know about my "liberal agenda."

I didn't meet Jon Stewart! I don't have cable, so I never watch The Daily Show anymore, and I ignore my school's website and e-mails, so I didn't hear about this until the week it happened. I also missed Kurt Vonnegut and Dave Eggers last year. I can't seem to get anything right.

SK: I like Sharon Olds. Do you like Sharon Olds?

Letitia Trent: I really like Satan Says and The Living and the Dead. After that, it all sort of runs together for me. But I'll never forget the bobbing penis arrow image from Satan Says. Plus, Sharon Olds proves that married people still have lots of sex, which helps me feel like a less square old married lady, and that you can write poems about babies and birth that aren't all sweetness and cooing and oh-my-god-i-made-a-person-and-now-I'll-never-be-the-same blather. I love how bloody and fluidy Sharon Olds is.

SK: Does being an editor give you nightmares?

Letitia Trent: Yes. I'm always afraid I don't know what's good and will end up making a mistake, rejecting a poem that I'll later realize (while in bed, trying to get to sleep—that's where I have all of my terrifying realizations) was brilliant, I don't trust my own judgment very well. But I'm lucky in that we have a clear aesthetic for our journal, and that helps me guide my editorial decisions.

Ultimately, I ask myself three things when I read a poem: 1. Do I want to read this poem again? Does it have something that compels me to come back to it? 2. Does this poem stay in my mind after I have read it, or does it drift off into the place where all those other mediocre but skillful poems go? 3. Does it fit our editorial preferences?

SK: Is it true that the bible is an incalculable misinterpretation, that it is really only a tepid prophecy for the coming greatness of our Lord Morrissey, former lead singer of The Smiths, and his beautiful pet Tommy gun?

Letitia Trent: Both Morrissey and Jesus saved me at different points in my life, so the answer to this is a certain yes. Jesus made me improve my grades in high school, which helped me go to college, which helped me to realize that I never actually believed in Jesus. But Morrissey is my true savior. I discovered Morrissey when I was 16 and was immediately transported to somewhere slightly south of heaven with the song "The Charming Man."

When I heard The Smiths for the first time, on a Memorex tape I found at a flea market, I thought to myself, yes, will nature make a man of me yet? And then, as the tape continued, I thought Yes, I too was bored before I even began! And then I realized that Morrissey and I were alike—we both sneered at other people for their pretensions and stupidity, but secretly wanted those very people to love us for our crooning, prescient social commentary, and beautiful cheekbones. This is the artistic temperament.

SK: If Morrissey is beyond the need for sex or gender, why does poetry exist?

Letitia Trent: You know, I've always been attracted to this idea of being beyond gender & sex. I like what Johnny Rotten says in Sid and Nancy, you know, sex is boooring Sydney , boooring. If you watch pornography in a certain state of mind, it just looks like really orange people slapping meat together. It's all very boring and repetitive and sickly depressing. And gender just scares me— girls wear nail polish and boys like guns, good girls like headbands and bad girls like fishnets, good boys like jobs and bad boys like motorcycles, etc. The idea that our behaviors are conscripted, that we can't get out of this programming, and that it might be natural, whatever that means, just terrifies me. I'd like to get beyond meat slapping and nailpolish. Morrissey's embodiment of genderless elegance and equal opportunity love sickness appeals to me. Though, of course, he wasn't beyond gender, was he? He was fascinated with gender—the male criminal type, the Oscar Wilde-esque fop, all the accoutrements of certain varieties of gender.

Maybe the desire to be beyond gender requires the constant monitoring of gendered behavior and norms. Because you never know if you're slipping back into gender unless you're vigilant about preventing it. I'll stop typing because I'm just babbling now.

Being beyond sex is another matter altogether. Sexless people, like fundamentalist Christians, for example, are the most obsessed with sex. They see it everywhere!

Poetry requires that we have a bee in our bonnets, so I guess the desire to be beyond sex and gender puts a permanent bee in one's bonnet, so poetry is bound to come out. I have no idea if I'm answering your question! ha.

SK: If you could send your hair to anyone besides, and assuming we both have already have, Morrissey, who would it be?

Letitia Trent: I need to hang on to my hair, because it is thin and yucky and barely covers my head as it is. Once I had an unfortunate pixie cut, which revealed my scalp. I'm trying to grow a long, sexy Lucie Brock-Broido or Eleni Sikelianos mane. When I die I'll donate my hair to the Poetry Foundation so it can be kept in storage with Dickinson's dress, Eliot's bowties, and Allen Ginsberg's chanting robes.

SK: Could you make five general and also preferably prejudiced statements about poetry?

Letitia Trent: 1. I like to see thinking in a poem. Poems that don't contain thinking bore me. This means I need to see evidence of a human mind humming somewhere. I don't mean that a poem needs to have an argument, or a linear structure, or even coherency in the traditional sense, but I want the sense that something is being worked out through a poem.

2. Poetry is more intimate than prose. You can own it more fully and integrate it into your life more completely. This is why I'll always be a poet first, even if I someday go on to write novels and other prosely whatnots.

3. I think you can judge a person's personality through their poetry much more accurately than you can through a person's prose. If I am annoyed by the voice, tone, or implicit attitudes in a poem, then I'm pretty sure I'll dislike the person behind the poem.

4. Discussions about the organic marriage of form and content annoy me. Here is a prejudiced comment—form should create the content. That's what formal strictures are for—to make your brain go somewhere that it can't reach on its own. This is why both OULIPO forms and traditional forms appeal to me—left to my own devices, all of my poems would be boring shit. Forms make unexpected things happen. More than anything, I want to get out of my own brain, which doesn't have anything new to tell me anymore.

5. If all of the poems in your book look and sound the same, you aren't trying hard enough.


Blogger c. allen rearick said...

sharon olds makes me smile.


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