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Laura Elrick’s Propagation: A Conversation Between Angela Woodward and Cooper Renner | Word Riot
Interviews

May 19, 2016      

Laura Elrick’s Propagation: A Conversation Between Angela Woodward and Cooper Renner

COOPER RENNER: Hello, Angela. It’s been a while since we’ve begun one of these conversations, and it seems to me you have been a world traveler since then. Tell me a little about your trip to Bali.

ANGELA WOODWARD: Could it have been that long? I was there in 2014. I had schemed an unpaid month-long leave from my college, and went to the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts. It’s an artist residency program that I had heard about some years earlier, from a painter friend. I’d wanted to go for years, and suddenly it panned out. I got accepted, and got the time off. My plan was to write a book about monkeys, and Bali Purnati is near the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud. Ubud is a major art center in Bali, and all the little villages around Ubud have their own craft traditions, silver smithing in one, wood carving in another. In the middle of the town is a park set aside for a band of monkeys. I got to mingle with them in a way I couldn’t have anywhere else. My monkey novel is not at all realistic, but still, it made a difference to see them scampering along branches, and lying in the road. The big males would seem to make a point of lolling in an inconvenient place, like right across the path, and then not budge or give you any eye contact. I spent time in Ubud, and at Bali Purnati, and traveled around a little. When I think about it, I can recall really vividly in my mind the smells of wood smoke and flowers, the sound of gamelan music, motorcycle horns, roosters crowing, and I can retrace my daily walk from my room in the arts center down to the river, where they had set up a writing table for me. I worked in the mornings overlooking two waterfalls, one to the left, one to the right. A huge water monitor lizard came swimming upstream twice, and every day there were butterflies and finches, lizards and ants.

In these paradisiacal surroundings, I was almost unable to write. I was overcome by the sensuality of the environment, and couldn’t get myself into the world of my novel. Or so I thought. I’ve never had such a miserable time writing. I struggled every day, feeling horrible about what I was doing, or not doing. I’m such a lucky person that I got to take this trip, and yet it was really difficult and in some ways dark. I felt very alone, and was sick a lot too.

CR: It sounds like an amazing experience, except for the sickness, and it’s easy to see how the lush and alien beauty would have made it difficult to write. Probably a return home and a reimmersion in ordinary routine were necessary for some distancing. Now much more recently, and far less exotically, you’ve made a journey to the AWP conference. Was it your first?

AW: My second. I was in Boston in 2013, and this year in LA. It was fun. I brought some good books home.

CR: Tell me more. Do you think of it more as an “industry” conference or as an opportunity to see a lot of books that might otherwise escape you? When I was a librarian, I spent most of my conference time roaming the display floors looking at books instead of attending lectures on librarianship.

AW: There’s a long-lost friend element, when people who love each other dearly but don’t live near each other get to connect again. The few sessions I went to, one on translation, one on book reviewing, and then a few readings, were all really good. And then there’s nothing like the book fair. It’s astounding, how vibrant the small press scene is these days. So many beautiful and interesting books, one after another gorgeous objects calling out to be picked up and taken home. I am really ignorant. I get most of my books from the public library, and I read a lot of mysteries and literature in translation. It takes someone much more dedicated and attuned than me to have a grasp of the bookfair. Gabe Blackwell, the editor of The Collagist, steered me around some.

CR: Those sound like much more interesting sessions than we usually had at the library conferences!

And, speaking of small presses, I had never heard of Kenning Editions, nor of Laura Elrick, before stumbling across Propagation on the shelves at a Dallas used book store. I found myself drawn to the humor I found in it, as I flipped through the pages, the very clever way Elrick used repetition of phrases and sharp line breaks to make the same words feel different, almost as though you could hear the words being spoken and the intonation varied.

AW: It’s a curious book. The voice is stuttering, sometimes like a machine malfunctioning, sometimes with a more human spirit of being unable to cough out the right words. I picked this one out:

thanks

this is really

thanks thanks

this is

this is

really this

is    thanks

I’m

thanks and you

It goes on from there, turns the page, and does a little more. She’s using the white space, surrounding the words with blankness. All is lower case, very tentative, small on the page. It sounds like what I go through in my brain, rehearsing what I’ll say in some tense situation, as if it helped at all to practice saying these really basic speech blocks. When I get nervous before a presentation at work, I’ll endlessly repeat to myself, “Good morning. My name is Angela.” Obviously not the part I might stumble over. There’s a self-deprecatory feeling to these poems. They kind of excuse themselves for not trying very hard, for using just a few words, fumbling over them. How do you see these? Are they self-reflectively talking about language, or somehow more humanly talking about being human? As if these are opposed states. Maybe focus on this one, which is page 6 in its entirety:

in

the parking lot

outside

in the parking lot

in the parking

lot outside in

the parking lot

inside

the parking lot

inside

the parking

lot outside

in the parking lot

outside in

the parking lot

CR: The repetition in these just delights me. Self-deprecation, yes, or maybe something beyond (or outside) a worry about status at all. No need to deprecate or elevate–the self unscreened perhaps. But also a kind of scatting maybe, not nonsense syllables but words used in such non-sense-ible manner that they dodge the elevation of meaning for a kind of music instead. And yet, there is also a heightening–as with Williams’s wheelbarrow–by the insistent reiteration of whatever it is, whether it’s thanks or a parking lot and the speaker’s relation to it. I am reminded of early Laurie Anderson spoken word pieces, sometimes quasi-sung, though with Anderson there is a hyper-emphasis on meaning, but with a similar sense of (implied?) irony and whimsical humor. Browsing the book in the store, before deciding to buy it, this one caught my eye:

is the funniness

of these poems

apparent to you

is funniness

apparent? to

you is funny

transparent

funniness is

transparent?

Which goes on for three pages and winds up, perhaps because I’m a guy, cracking me up with:

apparently

it might be funnier

with a butt hole

in it

but is the butt hole a

funny butt hole?

is that

funny butt hole funny

I find it extremely rare for a contemporary poet to risk this kind of childlike or childish approach, to risk being seen as anything less than “serious”, even when condescending to light verse. But this poem is not, in any way, separated or kept apart from the rest of the book. There is no indication that it should be considered “slight” or lesser.

AW: Hmm. You picked out the only poem that really bugged me. I took that one as trying to explain what the poems are doing. Of course they’re funny, and not funny too, and daring in their minimalism. I imagine the poet’s mother saying, You know my daughter, she writes these…poems…And so here the poet is trying to stand up for herself, and justify her peculiar form and fixation. I’d much rather the book didn’t have this little meta-layer where it looks at itself, but just asked us to make what we will of it. There are so many voices here. There are morphed want ads and little speeches, and some computerese:

dear lisproud my intuition says that if we wrote

a little objc program that tried to speak in the

Hysterical Voice and waited until that voice

stopped speaking comma we’d see similar results

period

I love the punctuation in that one. It has an authentic ring of some kind of objective, scientific language, very much in contrast to some of her others, where the word that’s repeated is blood, or what a SWAT team says. These poems have a large, inventive range, while remaining small in scale and all hewing closely to the same form or format.

CR: It’s striking to me that you select that passage, from one of the “block” poems, because those are probably the poems which I like the least. Each of us managed to isolate without meaning to a section the other doesn’t care for. What are the odds? It points out, I suppose, not only the potential variety even within a rather constrained poetic procedure, but also the extent to which a reader brings her experience into even a “simple” art. The more vertical poems, which rely so much upon repetition of phrase and word, can’t help but recall, I think, the modulation of musical phrases in minimalist music, like that of Terry Riley or Steve Reich. But I am also occasionally reminded of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work, employing the names of boats or an arrangement of very simple nouns. On page 16, for example, Elrick concludes a motif on breast whiskers with these apparently totally disconnected lines:

skye

and snake

and reed

and radar station

and bunker

and lark

and bunker

and turret

and wave

and wave

and wave

and skye

and skye

and bunkers

There is a susurrus here, as of waves ebbing, or gently splashing against the sides of boats, a kind of musical peace disturbed by the inclusion of the warlike turret and bunkers.

AW: Yes. There’s a landscape there, rendered in an abstract sliver. It’s really nice. It’s both aural and visual. Quiet and comforting. Or that’s what I’d like to get out of it. Quiet and comforting leftover from World War II beach, so there’s nevertheless that menace, and history. Quite a lot going on if you think about it. But maybe not thinking about it is the point. If we sit still and just listen, we’re getting all we need. Let’s quit the analysis.

CR: Certainly the initial attraction of the book for me didn’t lie in any kind of analysis. The words flow and tumble, even as they stutter, and the voice pulls me along, eager to see where it leads. It feels to me like art, like music, instead of the psychological and sociological burden that weighs down so much poetry. Does it make you curious about where she might go next? Or do you think you’ve seen enough Elrick?

AW: Oh yes, curious about what’s next. There’s a huge openness and possibility about her work. Thanks so much for bringing Propagation to my attention.

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