interview: Christopher Salerno
Christopher Salerno is having a busy year, with two chapbooks and a full-length poetry collection coming out late fall and early winter. We recently had the chance to speak with him about his work, his masters and influences, and his advice to younger poets, both as artist and professor.
Congratulations on winning the Laurel Review Midwest Chapbook Contest. Automatic Teller is due in the fall and, according to one of your blog entries, you say it contains “out-takes” and work that may or may not be in your upcoming full-length. How are your chapbook and your upcoming collection different from your previous work?
CS: Thanks. Well, I’ve been super duper blessed in that, a few months ago, my full-length book, ATM, was picked by D.A. Powell for the Georgetown Review Poetry Book Award, and a month later my chapbook, Automatic Teller, was selected by Mary Biddinger for the Laurel Review Midwest Chapbook Contest. I had two really lucky days last spring, and so this fall/next spring will see a few collections coming out. I’m also doing a chapbook with Poor Claudia this fall. That one’s called Aorta.
To better answer your question, the chapbook, Automatic Teller, and the full- length, ATM, are both part of the same three-year-long project. But the chapbook contains some poems, and versions of others, that won’t be in the full-length book.
After my second book was picked for the Mississippi Review book thing in 2010, I felt this weird sense of downtime between the moment of acceptance and the release of the book. I had basically no free or new poems to speak of. And I also felt like the poems that made up my first two books were done with a real sense of control and seriousness that wasn’t really an approach I felt like honoring anymore. And so I wanted to make poems where the stakes were much, much lower, if that was possible. I wanted to goof off and enlist some of my breezier moods in the making of poems for once. It’s been the most fun I’ve had writing poetry.
Liam Rector often spoke to writers, particularly poets, about having masters, persons whom one reads and rereads, converses and argues, challenges and admonishes. Who are your masters, former and current? How do they affect you? And what else do you take direction from?
CS: Well, I’ve had my masters and teachers, but I didn’t really know what I was doing with my poems until about ten years ago when I read Victor Shklovsky, a theorist who wrote 100 years back about the idea of “defamiliarization” in literature. I always hope that my work has “heart,” but on top of that I really want to read (and write) poetry that has the ability to startle—startle by getting beyond the automatism of commercial and habitual and unconscious language. Shklovsky said, “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’... to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
I know this might sound like difficulty for the sake of it, but it’s not. Maybe it’s just a matter of decontextualization, maybe it’s the kilter of syntax, maybe it’s the reimagining of speech patterns, maybe it’s a weird pack of phonemes hitting in an interesting way, but for me there’s got to be a difference between the sound—no, the experience of reading a poem and listening to a car commercial.
It’s not as academic as it sounds.
As a musician, I also consider the need for silence and quiet, and balancing intensity and quietness. So, I guess I should say John Cage has been an important figure to me, too. I listen to what’s there, and what’s not there. But I could just as easily name a pop band like Wilco, who do the silence thing really well in their mid-career music, as an influence. So silence and intensity and pacing... These elements are usually what compel me to write a poem. I see no end to the fun of making poems. I’m out buying pastries or paint or bananas and I get this itch in my lung—I wish I could be home right now working! Otherwise, revising allows me to prolong the fun beyond the initial impulse. I really like the later stages better. I could rewrite the same poem every day for a year. One. Poem. A. Year. I would love that. But of course I know better. I’m supposed to move on.
Outside of the letters, what is the greatest influence on your poetry?
CS: Oh, animals. The shock of the appearance of creatures and critters. The groundhog who lives under my house and leaves muddy prints all over the deck at night so that I see what he’s been doing when I wake up. I catch him gnawing one of my tomatoes and he books it around the house. The skunk running past me when I walk out and startle him in the late afternoon. The deer standing at my backdoor, smelling the doorknob—he doesn’t notice me watching him from inside because of the glare on the glass. But I’m like a foot away, listening to him breathe. The snake I scare back into the rocks in my driveway. I have no idea what kind of snake he is. I worship these animals exercising their instinct against the backdrop of a planned environment (suburbs). To me, that’s not far off from the making of poems, or at least what I do or attempt to honor in my work. It goes back to startling. Everything goes back to startling.
In the spirit of Fahrenheit 451, which poem or book of poetry would you memorize in order to save it from utter destruction?
CS: Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium. What a pleasurable book! And what a first book! I was an altar boy as a kid, like Stevens, and I, too, have come to see poetry as a means of redemption, as he eventually did. Oh, but didn’t he have that death-bed conversion? I think he did—I’m going to try to avoid that. I’m also going to try to avoid getting punched into a puddle by Hemingway. Anyway, like Stevens, I see imagination as the most godlike thing I’ve experienced. Stevens said, “Art makes the world more.” I get that. You make a metaphor, and bam! The world has grown a new little nipple or knob.
What is your advice to the younger poet? I am particularly interested in your advice with regards to the relationship between teaching poetry and writing poetry.
CS: Yeah, I struggle with this. Because I know how I feel as a poet teaching, say, a poetry workshop one day, and teaching a modern American poetry course the next. I realized a few years ago that I’m probably not a scholar, and that that greatly affects how I teach a literature course. I fear that my writer’s perspective takes over sometimes. Do we teach the heartbreak, or the line break?
My advice to the younger poets has always been to take stock of what others are doing (i.e., read more than you write— you’ve surely heard this), and to find your own place in that sea based on what strains you find striking there. And to get outside of poetry, into other media, for other perspectives on art. And that once you find the weirdest part of your poetic sensibility, your aesthetic, exploit the shit out of that. And don’t worry about having nothing to say. Sharpen the tools for when you do. Go read what John Cage has to say about silence and about listening to traffic. Go read what Charles Olson has to say about the breath, and about occupying the page. Go read everything from Emily Dickinson. Then compare that to Whitman. Then compare that to Pound.
Then make all your poems like pop songs.
Many poets see their poetry as part of a particular context or purpose, such as therapy, social consciousness, politics of all stripes, redefining the limits of meaning, et al. Does this notion apply or appeal to you?
CS: I like your phrase “redefining the limits of meaning.” Can I pick that one? Yeah, the idea of “meaning” has gradually become suspect for me in recent years. Like, what does any poem, any line, any metaphor really mean? I’m thinking of Stevens now, of his “Let be be the finale of seem.” That poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” is nearly impossible. Think about the meaning of an “emperor of ice-cream.” It makes sense in the context of the poem, but beyond that? Think about some of the gems Ginsberg drops in “Howl,” like “the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” Or, before that, the crazy linguistic anatomies found in the poems of Hart Crane, who wrote about “New thresholds, new anatomies, wine talons.” What is a “hydrogen jukebox?” What is a “wine talon?” I will never know this with the part of my brain that knows what kind of bird is sitting in my lilac tree. But that’s the godlike part of poetry, to me. It is difficult to get at the meaning of these poetic anatomies, to mediate them with rational discourse, but that’s what makes them so enjoyable to me. I have religious faith in them. I don’t have to use my academic brain. I can just love the freshness of their constructions. I get them with another part of me.
What neglected or forgotten writer, corner of knowledge, or limb of investigation would you like the world to know about?
CS: My dad died six months ago, suddenly, at 62. My grandfather died last month, at 85. My cat died last week, at 17. My house is filling with ashes.
Interview by Ismael Ricardo Archbold.
Photography courtesy of the author.