Amish Trivedi is the author of Sound/Chest from Coven Press, and the chapbook The Destructions from above/ground press. His poems have most recently been in Sink, Entropy, Open Letters Monthly, NOÖ, The Laurel Review, and Kenyon Review Online. His reviews have been published in Sink, Jacket2 and Pleiades. He is the managing editor of N/A and lives in Normal, Illinois, where he is pursuing a Ph.D.
His poems “Rejected Verse,” “The Three Imposters,” “The Witnesses,” “Lights Out” and “Waiting” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Rejected Verse,” “The Three Imposters,” “The Witnesses,” “Lights Out” and “Waiting.”
A: The manuscript as a whole, I guess, is something about anxiety. Not of some kind of internal nature but about the world around us. What I mean is that it’s a terror of the future—an uncertainty that’s creating an anguish. I think these poems cover a lot of things quick: race, religion, not taking care of one’s health. I think these things cause anguish and I think, in a Hölderlinian sense, it’s the poet’s job to reach back away from the abyss. I think you’ve got to start by examining that abyss. I think for a lot of folks the abyss is within: their own neuroses, etc. Maybe I’m getting older but I guess I care less about myself and my stupid shit and more about the world’s stupid shit. Maybe. Maybe they are intensely personal and I’m not seeing it yet.
Q: Why did you consider anxiety, specifically, something worth exploring? I know a number of poets that utilize their work as ways to explore and express anxiety as a means of a call-to-action via social, political or even environmental concerns. Is it the anguish, as you say, that you are attempting to assuage or explore with your work? Do you wish to soothe or to startle?
A: Well, I think anxiety is basically the stem of everything: isn’t it more or less the basis of much of our action as individuals and societies? I will say that a lot of poets who deal with anxiety in their work do a much better job than I think I can do, but I’m hoping that anxiety is the base, the roux if you will, of the manuscript. It’s a jumping off point in these poems. Just like in Sound/Chest, where the library and the card catalog are where we begin, I think anxiety is that place here. I don’t know that there will be a call to action, as it were, mostly because I think people do that much better than me. I adore Mark Nowak, of course, but I realize I could never do what he does for others through my writing as he does through his. I think I’m probably much too selfish for that yet. Startle or soothe? Hmmmm... I’ll have to think on that one. Certainly not soothe but startle doesn’t sound right either. Maybe just infect others with anxiety too.
Q: Is this something you’re still feeling out? How far are you through the current manuscript, and how does it compare to your prior work? What is your process of putting together a poetry manuscript?
A: I guess page wise, I am around 62 pages and more and more of the poems keep getting picked up. I guess, in my mind, I thought I’d only send poems out once the manuscript was done but my ego/anxiety/whatever got the better of me, so I started sending them out. The first set was Entropy and I just heard from Alice Blue Review who loved the poems. Go figure. So yes, it’s something thematically I want to figure out better but I don’t want to be heavy-handed with the social aspect of it. I want the poems to function as by themselves. It’s like Sound/Chest where not every poem is about being in a library or being in a flood: the poems should have an overall direction but maybe each individual portion can do its own thing and that’s cool.
I suppose this is, more or less, the third manuscript I’ve really worked on. Oh sure, I start little things here and there and I’m like “YEAH! THIS IS GOING TO BE A BOOK!” but then realize it’s a terrible idea or maybe it functions as a smaller thing—whatever. In this case, I thought I was writing poems that would be the second half of another manuscript but realized a) that manuscript functioned fairly well at 30 or so pages and b) these poems had somewhere they were going. As I wrote more and more, I think they started taking on all these ideas I got from teaching, like, what makes these kids get up in the morning? Like yes, we drank in college (probably too much) but it was always in the middle of some argument about the larger issues of the world. I feel like a lot I’m just hearing excitement over the act by itself, which scares me a little, you know? So that kind of thinking is falling into this manuscript. I don’t know—yes, I want to make sure it’s all connected nice and pretty—like for sending around but perhaps the connections are there and I’m too invested in the manuscript as a whole? It’s hard to say, I suppose.
Anyways—I guess I do kind of think of a manuscript as a THING versus a bunch of poems together. I think it’s two-fold: my favorite books now are the ones with an overall concept and I think that one should want to read the whole thing, to have something happen over the course of reading a whole book. Fiction writers know this well: even short story collections have SOMETHING that ties them all together. I think for this manuscript, it’s about all these bits of concern for....everything. I guess what I’m saying is that I would like to be more like Radiohead :)
Meanwhile, of course, there’s Sound/Chest the book and then there’s the manuscript (Your Relationship to Motion Has Changed) I’m sending around now and then, I guess, there will be FuturePanic at some point to also be sent around. (And yes, I’m aware of the two titles being similar and am very bothered by it. But maybe there’s a reason for it I can't yet find.) I’m learning that being a poet in the world means having a drawer full of manuscripts and I'm BECOMING ok with that. It’s a very slow process.
Q: bpNichol spoke once about how certain manuscripts connect, suggesting that they do even if only composed by the same hand. As long as the book makes sense as itself, however it connects doesn’t really matter, I don’t think. It sounds like much of the anxiety of the process of putting together manuscripts for you is in the fact that your process is still forming, which is a good thing. What do you see as the biggest lesson you’ve learned through the process of attempting to put together multiple manuscripts?
A: Yeah, I think ultimately it will be really hard to avoid. I mean, I like the idea that I could completely undo my own writing style and do something completely different, but I suppose the thing I am learning is that it’s ok to do what I do (however you define such a thing) as a writer. The only thing I really never want to do is get complacent. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m writing something and it’s just going out. That would be awful to me. Yes, I like to go quickly from writing to submitting, but I always want to have my work judged and harshly before someone takes it. My process is still forming and I think I always want it to be forming and never form. I think if writing/collecting/publishing/whatever ever becomes automatic for me, I could see that being the point at which I quit doing it. If it feels like I’m writing something over again, I can’t see wanting to do it. I’m always amazed by musicians who are putting out albums as they age. Haven’t you hit that chord like a million times? Haven’t you sung about that before? How do you keep going when you hit that point? Maybe they have yacht payments to make, which I don’t assume will ever be the case for me.
Putting together multiple manuscripts: They are all different, it seems. Sound/Chest, in a way, was very intuitive. I feel like the order, the sequence, occurred more or less naturally, with some helpful tips from Forrest Gander, who read it before we worked on my MFA thesis. He was very interested in the way the pronouns shifted and I, as ever, was fascinated by J.J. Murphy’s Print Generation. Memory? Film—yeah these things are all coming together here. Somehow those poems kind of came out over a year plus. The next manuscript (in-waiting) was much more difficult. First, it was ten long poems which were all couplets. I think one rejection note I got on it called it an “insistence of the form.” I liked the idea for a long time but realized it was too much. I think I wanted to get away from writing short poems and started writing longer ones but realized that maybe longer wasn’t working for me. Ultimately, it got cut, cut again, resequenced (this time with help from G.C. Waldrep and Joseph P. Wood) and it kind of came together in that process.
This new manuscript? I know where it’s going. I keep printing it out, thinking I’ll get it in order one of these days, but I don’t even know where to begin. Opening poems, like opening tracks, need to get the reader. In my head, it’s the first poem I wrote (Milk Thistle, which Michelle Detorie kindly posted on Entropy) but now I can’t get away from that and I probably should. I think the order will help me understand what’s lacking as one reads through. I hope it does, at least.
Q: I would suspect a lack of change is more a matter of fear than complacency. If you’ve been doing work long enough, it becomes far more frightening to try something new that might actual fail. And yet, that would be exactly the point when one’s writing would require it the most. Although I’m curious: what made you found the journal N/A and what effect, if any, has it had on your own writing?
A: I think you’re quite right, but I think it has to do with a level of success, a status quo. Successful work becomes a kind of formula in a way. I don’t mean just knowing what works for you: I mean continuing to do that in order to maintain something beyond the work (publication etc.). I’m sure we all can make a list of poets, other writers, musicians, etc. that do this.
It’s that thinking that led me to N/A in a way. I didn’t want formula. I didn’t want to build issues around work that fit together and I didn’t want to worry about particular aesthetics. I guess that’s kind of a lie: I can’t avoid my own aesthetic and François and I have a great tug and pull. I think sometimes I’m the one pulling to the middle and François is pulling us to the outside. We’re behind on the current issue because lives have gotten in the way but not because we’re having any kind of issue with what we want N/A to be (at least I don’t think so). I guess, to an extent, N/A is about being the place to play. We took a work of Kate Colby’s that was her testing her own sort of definition of what she had been doing. I like that. I like getting work from folks that THEY are unsure about. I like publishing work that might have our readers saying “Huh” versus “Oh man—this is great!” I think the work is great, of course, but I want it to be part of a conversation and part of a process. We like folks that aren’t afraid to fail and we as a journal aren’t afraid of failure either.
Oh—my own writing: I’m not sure. I think reading submissions has shown me a lot of what’s going on, more widely I think than reading journals at times. I think sometimes I learn more from the poems we reject than the ones we take. It forces you to decide what you want your journal’s name on every time you choose it or reject it. It has also made me more patient (I hope). Taking six months reading my submission? Yeah—I realize you’re not doing this all the time. It’s ok.
Q: It sounds as though patience is one of the elements that has emerged through your experiences as an editor/publisher (which is a good thing). I wonder about your development into utilizing the book as your unit of composition (as opposed to the poem). How did this evolve? Who are your models?
A: This is kind of a big problem, isn’t it? I feel like it went really quickly from writing good individual poems to focusing on a whole project. I remember writing this poem called “Banryu, Not Banryu” (which is in Mandorla 14 if anyone’s interested) and thinking “Well, that’s it. I’m not going to write 50 poems like that one, and this isn’t anything I do normally.” You remember how music used to be big on singles? And there were songs that didn’t fit on albums, like Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” We’re still cool with this in poetry, which is nice: you can publish a poem you like and wipe your hands of it, to an extent. I do wish I did more of this because I think it would allow me to reach a bit more, to test more things out (like the Banryu poem).
Models: Rae Armantrout is obviously still big for me (so much that I asked her to blurb Sound/Chest literally seconds after Jessica told me to start getting blurbs). I feel like she takes her aesthetic and takes on a THING. She does what she does so well and puts it into a topic/concept/whatever. That said, I feel like I’m torn between being project-oriented and being collection-oriented. What I mean is that I’m not working on a specific task but I also don’t want a book to be made up of just whatever I am working on. I’m not sure if anyone’s really doing that now. We’re in the concept album period of book publication, aren’t we?
Other models: I guess I am always trying to live up to former professors/mentors, etc. When one of them likes something on Facebook or writes something positive, I get all happy and stuff. I realize that’s probably ridiculous, but they are incredibly talented folks and I feel like they all do such amazing work that I’m constantly feeling like they are the folks to impress with my work. Sometimes I do it but it never feels like enough. Maybe that will go away with age.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: For some reason, I always get back to Rimbaud. I’m not quite sure why he pulls me in like he does, but I have that big orange colored translation with the French also in there. I don’t know French at all but sometimes I just read it out loud as best as I know just to hear it. Beyond that: always philosophy. Probably not cool but in the last few years I’ve turned to Heidegger. Not for the politics, of course, but the whole of Language, Poetry and Thought is huge for me. I don’t know if it’s obvious at this point, but the Existentialists are major for me. I also watch a lot of standup comedy or TV shows based on standup. Louis C.K., even Marc Maron points out, seems to do what a poet ought: step beyond themselves to understand the actions of humans and interpret for the rest of us, which sounds like to me like poets reaching back away from the abyss, etc. It’s kind of amazing to me how all that works. Besides, I enjoy laughing, so that’s always good. Armantrout, of course, specifically Up to Speed. I feel like I’ve nearly worn through my copy. We’re presently away from our boxes of books, but the list of things I keep with me are probably interesting: The Dream Songs, Our Lady of the Flowers (which Johannes Göransson put me on to a few years back). Emily Dickinson, of course. I reread Glenum’s Maximum Gaga at least once a year just to jostle my brain a little. It’s nothing like anything I could ever do and that’s what I love about it.