An Interview with Steve Kistulentz, Author of The Luckless Age
-by Mike Krutel
Q: Congratulations on The Luckless Age. I’m a bit curious about this first collection of yours. You also write fiction and, from what I understand, you even received an MFA in fiction. Why is this first book one of poetry and not prose? How do poetry and prose intersect/diverge in your own writing?
A: I tend not to think in terms of genre. I'm more interested in whether something is true at its emotional core. I don't mean true in the sense that a poem or a story or a novel is literal reportage, but rather whether it registers on the emotional Richter scale. The books that I own are heavily annotated with my own marginalia and typically my response to a text explores that idea of emotional veracity; I've been frustrated for years by the distant tone of recent novels, and that frustration comes from a resistance to the post-ironic stance that so many novelists adopt. My work, regardless of genre, is much more invested in the idea of finding an emotional connection between its constituent parts—the author and the reader, the reader and the text, even the text and other texts. For me, poetry is often about immediacy, the intimate tone of a whisper in the ear, or the surreptitious nature of discovering what is hidden. Novels can do that work, too, but it's much harder to sustain.
And then there is the human answer, which begins on my first Saturday night in Iowa City. The second-year students at the workshop invited the newcomers out to a bar to play pool and have a few beers. At the party, a woman came up to me and asked, "What are you?" I had no answer for her (I'm a Capricorn, a Democrat, a husband, a former political operative) because I was taking her question literally. What she was really asking was whether I was a fiction writer or a poet, and when I said that I wrote both, she said, "You can't do that here." And I'm contrarian by nature, so telling me that I can't do something is the perfect way to ensure that I'll try.
Q: In reading The Luckless Age, I could definitely feel prose and narrative elements in many of the poems. Considering your work with David Kirby, who has a penchant for long and prosy lines in his own poetry, in what ways has working with him influenced your writing?
A: There is a natural affinity between a lyric narrative and a longer line. That being said, David's work is much more invested in the idea of a true narrative than mine is; most of the poems in The Luckless Age that use a longer line do so with a nod towards a central incident or two that is factual, but they resolve themselves in a fairly declarative voice. I don't know if that is apparent to the casual reader, and I've already experienced the kind of criticism that I've heard leveled against David's work, that sort of unspoken preference many readers have for the lyric. He has a great poem on the subject, “Borges at the Northside Rotary,” that addresses this with far more eloquence. Mark Halladay coined the term “ultra-talk” to describe these kinds of conversational, discursive poems, but my loose relationship with the literal truth makes me think of my work as what I might call ultra-expressionist; I’m more interested in making people radically reconsider things, but I am giving the reader a highly subjective viewpoint.
Mark Doty said that what makes something a poem is that there is no way to paraphrase its content. That sentiment seems logically attached to the imagistic work of the most economical lyric poems, but I'd argue that it too is the perfect way to consider what makes narrative so thrilling. When we encounter a great film—which after all is nothing but an extended, image-driven narrative—our discussion veers at some point from the content of the film or our aesthetic judgment to a simple declarative statement: you have to see it. In other words, the high-wire walk is only successful if the narrative is both inviting and surprising.
The most important thing I learned from David though is this: be generous with your heart and with your time.
Q: Can you talk about the way you brought together pairs of text in your poems, such as: “The End of The Affair as Foretold in Language from the Revelation of Saint John the Devine” and “The David Lee Roth Fuck Poem with Language Taken from Van Halen I, 1984, and the First Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Church at Corinth”?
A: My interest in the Bible as a source stems from thinking about the origins of the Bible as a selective anthology. As an undergrad, I struggled through a course in historical Christianity, and part of my struggle was the difficulty I had in reconciling the historical with the doctrinal, probably because until that point, I'd only encountered those texts in a purely doctrinal fashion. I’m astounded at how few people know and understand the sacred texts of their faith, or how few people even know that there are far more contemporaneous accounts of the life of a person named Christ than the four that have survived various canonical purgings. So I’m interested in what is there, too, but equally in what was taken out.
As a reader, I’m drawn to the tone of Pauline epistles, if only because they so often sound like a combination of gentle instruction and consolation. The lines from First Corinthians that I paraphrase within the “David Lee Roth Fuck Poem…,” appeal to me in the same way I return to favorite songs in search of a kind of peace. I’m always thinking about this kind of taxonomy of texts, trying to figure out why this thing appeals to me, this film, this band. Finally though, it just means that as a writer, I wanted to encounter the Bible as a reference in the same way I might use Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. As a person of faith, I treat it differently.
Q: I find it interesting that you acknowledge treating the doctrinal differently in your life outside of your writing than you do within the exploration of your writing. Considering how your poetry has a foot in the confessional, how do you view the divisions/coalescences of writing with lived daily life?
A: I tend to explore the divide between my daily life and my writing life by not having any segregation between the two. My obsessions are frequent and transient; I don’t have hobbies so much as I have all-consuming intellectual passions that last a year or two. If there is a strategy on how I navigate between the two lives, the best analogy is probably triage. I’ve learned to forego a lot of distractions in order to make time for the work.
And now I’m afraid that I have to offer the disclaimer that all poets offer when they get labeled with the word confessional. But I think of the subject of my work as personal only to the extent that the “I” of the poems has experiences that might be unique to a generation, as opposed to an individual. In a strange way, rather than using schools of poetry to discuss how we might locate and identify the persona who speaks these poems, I’d much prefer to think about schools of painting. I worked to exclude overly specific reportage of things from my own life in hopes that what remained would be a kind of radical distortion of an emotional event, the way that you might find the visual perspective altered in an expressionist painting. That distortion has a literal counterpart in rock and roll. Expressionism too gives us a literal narrative, but its psychological content also provides an implied one. And expressionists resisted the prevailing academic standards of the time in favor of the intense experience. And I was most interested in recreating some of those intense experiences.
Q: Thankfully for my research, your blog is fairly young and I was able to scour through it. As for your social views and how they accompany your poetry, I think its fair to say you've been open about your liberal leanings and your anti-Reaganism. But what about other specific instances or influences of the social in your work? I am specifically thinking about music. Punk plays a significant role in your poetry. Can you give me some specifics about the influence of music, punk, and the underground on the voices behind/in your poems? Also, for fun, maybe a word or two on a few names (and any others you think of) including: Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Joe Strummer, GG Allin.
A: Of those names that you listed, maybe all of them except G.G. Allin transcend the ethos of punk; G.G. Allin was a spectacle, a carnival act. The others are exemplars for me.
The book does a pretty thorough job of conveying the respect I have for punk—after all it was the music that literally changed my life—but I hope it also reflects my ambivalence. I never realized how privileged I was to grow up in that DC scene until I went away to graduate school; the shows that were a normal three-dollar Friday night for me are the stuff of legend to a kid who grew up in St. Louis.
But that DC scene was clearly bifurcated between hardcore kids and the straight-edge crowd, and I think the book articulates fairly well why I didn’t get along with the straight-edge kids. I go to music, then and now, for catharsis, and in my experience the straight-edge kids never got that catharsis. This will sound like phony romanticism but there was something sacramental about running headlong into strangers, about rolling home at 3 a.m. bruised and sweaty and purified. In straight-edge bands, the rage was always there, and it’s strangely militant and off-putting. And if you look beneath the surface of a lot of straight-edge icons, what they really have to say is nothing. Their lyrics don’t sound particularly educated or articulate; it’s mock heroism supplemented by a mock profundity, or at best a sort of Pollyanna-ish liberalism.
I moved pretty quickly away from the nihilists towards political punk. And because of the emptiness of their message, I really had no use for punk ideologues. Henry Rollins is pretentious and uneducated, and the fact that people pay money for his spoken word performances baffles me. The only thing worse was what happened to his music. The Rollins Band churned out exactly the kind of derivative crap that would have caused the Henry Rollins of Black Flag to puke.
Jello Biafra was incredibly important, because the Dead Kennedys were the Spiderman decoder ring of punk rock for me. They showed that a band could be both irreverent and serious, even within the same three minutes. But it wasn’t until I discovered the Stooges that I heard music that sounded like how I felt. The Clash taught me how to be aware, how important it was to be engaged with the world. They had this slogan—though it’s so disappointing to learn that a record company hack thought it up—but the Clash really were, “the only band that matters.”
Where those things show up in my writing I think is only apparent in retrospect, but maybe the largest influence comes from the Clash. Listening to a record like "Sandinista" gave me tacit permission to try just about anything as a writer, from amusements to lyric narratives to the fuck poems. I hope what distinguishes them is the same thing that distinguishes good music, its intensity and its honest emotional core.
Q: In a post on your blog you describe the term “Luckless Age” as “a landscape populated by the forgotten and marginalized, reported from the mosh pit and the boardroom, the bedroom and the bar.” You focus heavily on the dominant culture of Reagan-era conservatism as a re/enforcer of values that fuel such marginalization. Can you tell us more about the marginalization of the individual in this societal clusterfuck? I’m specifically thinking of the poem “Wild Gift” in which an already marginalized, self-indentifying group of “leather jacketed boys so busy being homo- / genous” want even more to be cut from the cloth as individuals, that to some degree cry out for a self-marginalization in their prayers, each saying, “Let me be the only one”.
A: There's a tremendous amount of money and energy that our culture spends in an attempt to define the individual. And I find it disturbing that so many people attempt to construct their identity through consumerism. What makes an individual? A pierced labret? Doc Martens? The meanings and currency of tattoos for example has been almost totally degraded. I mean, John Mayer has a full sleeve, for God's sake. It says something sad about our culture that we think of image as something we can purchase.
I don't necessarily think of that as a product of Reagan-era conservatism. But I do think it's the logical result of the free market. The best example that I can think of is terrestrial radio. In any major city, the radio stations are almost completely homogenous. There's a classic rock station, a rap station, a sports talk station (or multiple versions of each), and an alternative rock station. But there isn't any such thing as alternative rock. How can an album that sells five million copies be alternative?
Part of the process of writing THE LUCKLESS AGE was for me to reconsider and reinvent my entire set of aesthetic values. And I discovered that I am honestly resistant to any art or commerce that baldly embraces its derivative nature. I don't for example think of Andy Warhol so much as an artist as a maker of a commodity. I adore John Ashbery and I discover something new every time I re-read his work, but I'm bored to tears by 90 percent of the imitations he's spawned. I remember reading a recent interview where a well-known poet was criticizing the blue collar ethos of Philip Levine's poems; the bulk of the criticism was that Levine hadn't really been the coverall-wearing, time-card punching union guy that his poems set out to portray. The other poet said something like, "Levine worked in a factory for 6 months 45 years ago," as if somehow writing about the experience made it less authentic. But to me there is value, something tremendously useful in knowing that poetry spurred Levine to seek deliverance from that life, just as there is something inspiring in knowing that he could see the dead end that is the Rust Belt so many years ago.
I do think there's something compelling in the Reagan era's simultaneous rejection of both rugged individualism (the kind that we might find in the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock) and communitarianism, that sense of shared endeavor that bound American communities from the beginning of the republic. I remember when Oliver North testified before Congress, The Washington Post did a story on how his public appearance spawned a rash of high school and college-aged boys to get their hair cut like the Colonel, a sort of modified high-and-tight. It dawned on me then that they had no idea they were celebrating someone who was involved in a criminal conspiracy to subvert the Constitution (breaking an oath Colonel North had taken twice, once as a Marine and once as an employee of the National Security Agency). What those haircuts said was that here was a generation of young men who, when confronted by the truth, chose to ignore it.
Q: In your opinion, what is the writer’s responsibility to social activism/involvement in dealing with culture at large?
A: I don't know that a writer has any particular obligation to social activism. The obligation of the artist should never exceed the obligation of the ordinary citizen. In my mind, the artist is only required to produce a highly subjective version of the truth. I don't mean the literal truth of course, but the emotional one.
In many ways public activism—particularly of the celebrity variety—does a cause more harm than good. Thousands of people can tell you that Sting has done advocacy on behalf of the rainforests of Brazil, but you would be hard-pressed to find one who could articulate just exactly what Sting was advocating, or whether his involvement had any lasting results. Even something as monumental as Live Aid seems to me at a distance of 25 years to have been about glorifying and institutionalizing the bands themselves far more than it was about putting an end to famine. There are few artists who take on a role in social activism that is both informed as well as morally and politically consistent, and there are even fewer who are willing to take a stand once the cameras disappear.
Perhaps this is the inevitably jaundiced answer you get from someone who worked in politics for 15 years, but I cannot help but feel a sense of relative despair about the future of social activism. There are very few grassroots success stories. Some scholars have argued that a rise in activism is the inevitable consequence of the democratization of social media, but what I'm observing is just the opposite. There are millions of people who think that they are being responsible citizens if they donate their Facebook status to the cause of the week, but that's just another example of a culture that is always seeking the easier, softer way. I live in a city where a church with thousands of members will spend $20,000 to send missionaries to the Caribbean or Central America, and not one dime to feed the hungry children that live within a mile of their sanctuary. Too few people are willing to get their hands dirty locally.
I see precious little writing that is engaged with the culture, unless it is to glorify materialism, and in almost two decades of teaching, I've never had a student turn in a story or an essay that was overtly political. If social upheaval is born when children reject the values of their parents, that hasn't happened in America in almost 50 years; even artists who pretended to be reporters on the culture at large—I’m thinking here of Jay-Z for example—have been so co-opted by commercialism that they no longer stand outside the culture. They are a product, a corporate identity, and they can't risk what happens if they are no longer bought and sold by the public at large.
Perhaps Philip Roth had it right when he said America now exists beyond satire. We don’t have a Sinclair Lewis or a Dos Passos or a Steinbeck. Whatever friction we have in art today is at the level of name-calling, and artists that are institutionalized within the academy are incredibly homogenous in their values. To me, that's a byproduct of the larger political climate, but the end result is that we have an awfully large number of inward-looking writers, and very few whose engagement exists beyond facile parody or mere reportage.
Q: Any there new poets or new books of poetry that readers should look into?
A: This is such a hard question for me, because I'm worried that I will forget someone I love. And I'm going to take some liberties and say that for me, I don't think of books as new or old; there's so much out there that I will never be able to read that I tend to think of anything that I haven't discovered as new. I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago and bought a hardcover first edition of Richard Hugo's 31 Letters and 13 Dreams and it was like meeting a long lost relative. I'm deep into the whole oeuvre of Albert Goldbarth, who is just amazing.
You can add me to the chorus of people who love Matthew Zapruder's Come On All You Ghosts. Michael Dickman's Flies and Nick Flynn's The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands are both great. C. Dale Young's Torn is a lovely book. I learn from everything my friends write, especially people like Erika Meitner and Mary Biddinger, who have both taught me to be a more generous teacher and a more caring poet. I brought Erika and Mary to the college where I teach as part of our visiting writers series and they just mesmerized my students. Mary's new book Saint Monica is amazing; I was lucky enough to read it in manuscript and Mary asked me to provide a blurb for it, and well, you never forget your first blurb.
Q: You were one of the poets featured in BOR 4. In your Ohiotica, you say that you shared your first adult beer with your father in a Canton, Ohio, parking lot. What was that beer?
A: I think we need some context. We didn't randomly drink beer in parking lots, at least my dad didn't. I was in high school at the time so it was probably a far more common occurrence for me than for him. But we'd fled an awful family visit to my godmother in Pittsburgh and made the drive to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We checked in to a Holiday Inn and dropped our gear and headed out in search of pizza and ended up in a bar somewhere watching a Browns game, with my dad lying about my age so we could stay. We went around the corner and got a six pack to go and after not letting me drink in the bar, he opened one with great ceremony and handed it to me in the car. And because my dad was a Pennsylvania guy through and through, that beer was a Rolling Rock, in the seven-ounce pony bottle.
Mike Krutel is a student in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program. He is a poetry editor for Barn Owl Review. Mike Lives in Akron, Ohio.
Also by Mike Krutel: Review of You Don't Know What You Don't Know by John Bradley (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010).