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The Art of Conceptual Poetry: Interview With Geoffrey Gatza

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Geoffrey Gatza is an award-winning poet and editor. He is the author many books of poetry, including Secrets of my Prison House (BlazeVOX 2010), Kenmore: Poem Unlimited (Casa Menendez 2009), and HouseCat Kung Fu: Strange Poems for Wild Children (Meritage Press 2008). He is also the author of the yearly Thanksgiving Menu-Poem Series, a book-length poetic tribute for prominent poets, now in it's tenth year. His visual art poems have been displayed in the gallery showing Occupy the Walls: A Poster Show, AC Gallery (NYC) 2011 occupy wall street N15 For Ernst Jandl - Minimal Poems with photography from the fall of Liberty Square; and in Language to Cover a Wall: Visual Poetry through its changing media, UB Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY) 2011/12 Language for the Birds. Geoffrey Gatza is the editor and publisher of the small press BlazeVOX. The fundamental mission of BlazeVOX is to disseminate poetry, through print and digital media, both within academic spheres and to society at large. He lives in Kenmore, NY with his girlfriend and two beloved cats.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Why write Apollo? Talk about its premise? What's the goal of the book? What are the main conversations?

Geoffrey Gatza (GG): I was drawn to write Apollo after falling in love with chess. While studying the game, I realized Marcel Duchamp, arguably one of the 20th century's most important and influential artists, was an intriguing figure in the chess world. Apollo traces the central strategies and themes of Duchamp's work. Movement, displacement, doubling, isolation, pun, and metamorphosis are the tactics used by Duchamp to estrange the ordinary. More than just a collection of poems, this book is a readymade, taking the form of a souvenir ballet program detailing a one-night-only performance of Apollo by Igor Stravinsky to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Armory Show in New York, in which Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 caused a sensation during its exhibition. At its heart, this book is about Marcel Duchamp but it is also about chess. It was thought for a long while that Marcel Duchamp gave up art to play professional chess. However, this was found to be not true with the revelation of his last major artwork, Étant donnés.

Using the form of a ballet, this work calls attention to the acts of performance, movement and choreography as well as the rhythms and balance of dance. These ideas are also found in chess. The conversation between dance and chess runs through this work. Each character is represented by a chess piece and their movements are conveyed and correlated as dance, thus the reason this book takes the form of a ballet. Marcel Duchamp, his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, Dorothea Tanning, Leornona Carrington, and Gertrude Abercrombie perform the ballet. Max Ernst leads the orchestra and Dizzy Gillespie performs a special solo.

The ten sequences in Apollo are performed in poem sections unfolding with specific functions towards the production and appreciation of the creative act. Duchamp famously said, "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act." This book establishes a more active role for the reader, who is asked to participate in creating meaning from the text. The work becomes collaboration between the audience, the poet, and the tradition that they've all inherited. The diversity of these works echoes the complexities of the subject, but together they posit something specific, the heightened relationship between the interior self and the exterior world.

LK: Is Apollo a conceptual poetry collection?

GG: Indeed, this is a conceptual collection; conceptual with a lower case 'c.' I say this to distinguish this book from some of the Conceptual poetry being written by Kenny Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and Divya Victor.

The whole book is an art object, taking the form of a souvenir program of a ballet performance that never took place. In the proper spirit of the performance, I sent out invitations to the ballet, giving an address and performance space that did not exist. The text of the book needed to move beyond the ordinary form of poetry, so a Stravinsky ballet was chosen to act as the template/stage for the work to happen.

Opening with an introduction narrated by Duchamp's female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy sets the stage for the evening's performance and as hostess for the evening, tells the story of Tiresias. The first tableau details the birth of Apollo and how Apollo created the game of chess for Caissa in an Ovidian style of mythic writing. This is followed in turn by the myth of how Duchamp gave up painting for other forms of more engaging art.

A dada chess poem and a photo ballet of a chess game are used to illustrate the moving perceptions of chess. Highlighting Duchamp's work, forms a relationship with it, and gives relative weight to the subject.

Three long poems look at the work of three prominent female surrealist painters. Dorothea Tanning's painting, Birthday, is contemplated in "The Twelve Hour Transformation of Clare," a story of a woman who disappears into words. Leonora Carrington's work is thought through in "Recipe for Water," a poem of time and contemplation of relationships within a mystical space. The Ivory Tower by Gertrude Abercrombie is enacted in a retelling of the Lady of Shallot.

Duchamp Draws Rrose Sélavy is a three-act play that sets up an imaginary scene between Marcel Duchamp and his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. They play a game of chess in the final moments before Duchamp completes his last major piece, Étant donnés. At the end of the play, the audience is trapped in the tableau of Étant donnés, left in a museum. To complete the book, the ballet takes the form of a complaint letter to the director of the Albright Knox. Detailing the true story of how I was kicked out of the museum for carrying an umbrella, the ballet ends on the outside steps with the author anticipating the redundancy of death.

LK: What constitutes conceptual poetry? What's the point?

GG: Conceptual poetry takes a very different form than what is presented in Apollo. In Conceptual poetry, the actions of the poem take the form of the uncreative action to produce a new original work that focuses on the ideas of the process over the final poem. This creates a wide-open field in which poets can react to the world around them. Apollo differs in the regard that is a conceptual work as all the ideas contribute to a single overall theme under a unified performance of a ballet.

The point in any form of poetry is always an illusive element in understanding what its purpose is, what utility is there to be found. The process, goals, and history of Conceptual poetry is wonderfully detailed in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith.

The point of Apollo is much easier to answer. When I was writing, I needed to create an interesting multimedia book of poetry, to move through the static form of reference to find a bending point in the infinity of both chess and the creation of art. Duchamp is a towering figure in the 20th century, and still to this day is deeply admired. And employing Duchamp as a character, two characters actually, in this ballet with Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and Gertrude Abercrombie serves as a point of entry to dance with universal questions and allow readers to think deeply about the concept itself, and view poetry through a new lens.

LK: In "Thirteen Ways of Thinking about the Poetic Line," Dana Gioia writes: "Every element in a poem -- every word, line break, stanza pattern, indentation, even all punctuation -- potentially carries expressive meaning." Does this statement apply to surrealist poetry?

GG: This is a great question. As much as I admire him, not everything in Mr. Gioia's essay would apply evenly towards the surreal or contemporary experimental poetry. However, this line certainly does. There are many provocative statements in this essay, which many writers actively work against to achieve their poetic aims. Potential expressive energy is what each poet strives to concentrate their focus upon and share the unspoken with the reader on equal terms with the written word.

Ezra Pound called this aspect of the poem, how it is presented on the page, Phanopoeia, the casting of images upon the visual imagination. Each poet uses his or her own methods to interpret how one can read meaning into a piece of literature. Surrealism uses these items to separate the self from marketplace, the commodifiable, and use a world of dreams as a reference point to illuminate the experiences of the mundane world. Poets who pop to mind who influence my writing by using these techniques to their fullest would be Ernst Jandl, Anne Waldman, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein and of course André Breton and Tristan Tzara.

LK: When is it OK to break the rules?

GG: It is ok to break the rules once you know what the rules are and how to control them. Once that is learned, you can then discard what you do not agree with as you would an unraveled orange rind. I have always been drawn towards the avant-garde colored section of poetry's rainbowed umbrella. As a young writer I hated to hear this. Now as a middle-aged man, I understand what my teachers were talking about. I would like to go back to the young self and hold my own hand and point out what this cliché actually means. To me, today, it means to read and incorporate into your poet self everything you can get your hands on. Even if it means entertaining poetry you hate, read it and understand what you admire, use that technique as a tool. Also, it is important understand what irks the craftsmanship of your writer's hand, and actively avoid it. In experimental poetry, failure is part of the process. And if that means to disobey what the current trends, then know that that is satisfactory.

But the true arbiter in this equation is the reader. They are the ones who will let you know if you got away with it. You can only revolutionize the world if the world is ready to be revolutionized. The reader knows what he or she likes, enjoys, respects, and finds relevant to their identification to the world. Each poem must contain a trap. A snare in which to capture the reader and ensure they continue to read, move on toward the next line. It is difficult to accomplish, but rewarding when it is achieved for the writer and the reader alike.

LK: Is poetry alive? How can the writing community nourish it?

GG: Nothing revives the spirit of poetry quite like checking for its pulse. Poetry is very much alive and I can happily say that in Buffalo, New York we have a vibrant writing community. I am also fortunate to participate in several online writing communities, so I feel nourished. Poetry is not Football, Poetry does not occupy the same cultural status as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Mad Men. But the place it does occupy, it does so very well.

I think the best advice for any writer is to be relevant to their community, in whatever form that may take. I run a poetry press, host poetry readings, and write an annual Thanksgiving Menu-Poem as a poetic tribute to honor prominent poets. Also, in Buffalo, I participated in a local reading series, BIG NIGHT, run by a leading literary organization in Buffalo, Just Buffalo Literary Center. On their website, they say, "Big Night is more than just another poetry series. It's an event! Featuring innovative poets from around the country reading along side local media artists, musicians, filmmakers, visual and performance artists and anyone else we can think of to put into conversation with poetry. Add the mouth-watering culinary creations of Chef Geoffrey Gatza to the mix, and you have the recipe for a great night out!" I have found a nice way to take all of my disarrayed talents and combine them to be relevant to friends both near and far.

Apollo is available from Small Press Distribution, Amazon and the BlazeVOX [books] webpage.