Smack in the middle of a Manhattan poetry reading, a silence builds in the room.
The crowd of New Yorkers—a little impatient, a little uneasy—inch forward in their chairs, waiting for the banter or the next title to come.
Leidner closes his book, 2011’s Beauty was the Case that They Gave Me, and looks out at his audience.
“One day when I was undercover,” he says, “my contact at the NSA was this cocky black guy with scars all over his face.”
He continues unspooling the story before anyone has time to ask themselves if they’ve heard him right.
“And one day I was feeling insolent so I called him Scarface to his face, after he had given me orders over the videophone, like, Yeah I got this mission under control, Scarface.”
One by one, line after line, you can feel the members of the audience relinquish themselves to their blunder: what they thought was an earnest, Georgia-born poet preparing them for his next poem—that was the poem itself.
This is how Leidner’s work operates throughout Beauty, one of the strangest and boldest books of poetry to arrive in the last year. He’s always inhabiting a form or working upon our expectations of language in order to reintroduce us to its vitality, humor, and ability to unsettle us. With free verse poised to remain king for the foreseeable future, Leidner appropriates forms outside of poetry—romantic comedy, gossip, memoir, and aphorism—and carves out a place for his work in the walls they provide.
Mark and I talked on and off over a few weeks about form and expectation, titles and punchlines, and why simple, Socratic irony has never been enough in poetry.
The Rumpus: The last time I saw you read ‘Memoirs of a Secret Agent,’ you read the poem without introducing it by title or banter. Talking to you afterward, you admitted that this was intentional, as you wanted the audience to think that you, Mark Leidner, were engaging them in a story irrespective of the poem. There are words for this. Ruse comes to mind. In comedy I believe one calls this a foil. And confidence men, in establishing a plot for their deception, refer to the subject of their con as a mark, a distinction that falls on your audience in this instance. You were using conversation as a form for building trust and establishing a ruse with your audience. In this way the realization that we’ve been deceived leaves a bigger dent. In this way the poem itself acts as a punchline.
Mark Leidner: Sometimes poetry is a box we put words into so we don’t have to think about them. If you get up and say ‘This first poem is…’—whatever follows that comes inside the box. You could say anything you wanted, and at the end of the poem, even during the poem, the audience can write it off as ‘just poetry.’ If someone says ‘FUCK FUCK FUCK TITS TITS TITS’ in the context of poetry, no one bats an eye. But if someone says that outside the context of poetry, we wonder, ‘Why are they saying that? What? What are they doing? Are they crazy? Are they a threat? Who are they? What might they say next?’ That kind of active listening is what I seek in myself and in audiences. Stripping away the box that poetry comes in, presenting it naked, sometimes allows people to confront language with less mediation. Feeling befriended, and then deceived, and then curious about the deception, and then smarter than the deception, and then humbled by it, and perhaps finally satisfied by it—that gives a listener more emotions, a more contoured experience with the poem than a straight up, ‘This first poem is…’ experience. It seems poetry occurs where the walls of expectation crumble and a new language-reality filters in. The line between poem and banter seems like a good one to blur, since during a reading they are genres adjacent in time and space. It would suck if such a ruse reduced the poetic to the mere joke. You hope rather that joke and poem get paradoxically knit. To feel punchline and poetry meet without seam in a single instance. My favorite property of poetry is its desire to imitate, imperialize, and exalt non-poetic language and experience. In this sense it is omni-formal.
Rumpus: Throughout Beauty, there’s an obsession with erecting walls of expectation, as you call them, in order to knock these walls down within the poems. Titles, I think, afford us these rare moments in which we can establish expectation and misdirection in poetry. With your ‘Night of 1,000 Murders,’ for example, we expect a horror-movie massacre that never arrives. And ‘Story,’ which blows a metaphysical kiss toward Beckett, becomes as much about the burden of telling a story—‘the story,’ the poem calls it—as it is about the actual narrative. I love how that poem’s ending laughs in the face of both storytelling and the title itself: ‘It doesn’t end. It isn’t a story, it’s a poem.’
Leidner: Expectation is subverted in order to be fulfilled. We want to be shocked by the climax of a story, but in that shock glimpse inevitability. Great stories twist throughout, on the macro level of act, on the micro level of scene, even in dialogue beats. In Dickinson, turns occur from line to line, sometimes from word to word. She sets a thought in motion, twists it in the following rhyme or iamb, extending the original thought through slanted terrain. Over the course of the poem, these turns become a legend for the map of expectation we bring to each word. This gives writing the illusion of life. When we reread it years later, because our notions of these words have changed through our own experience, the poem seems to have been updated. That poetry maps expectation makes it natural to extend the act of cartography to satellite forms in orbit around it: titles, epigraphs, arrangement of poems throughout a book, book design, font, blurbs, banter, Facebook behavior, even this interview—they’re all verbal playgrounds where we set expectation for the lyric animating the center. Mostly we think of titles as the ‘first’ thing readers confront that inflects their interpretation of the poem, but it’s just as true to think of them as the final expectation-hurdle of hundreds or even thousands that the reader has already leapt before they enter the lyric.
Rumpus: Hurdles, I like that. I wish more poets were in the business of writing poems that aspire to be steeplechases. Let’s talk about anaphora, another way in which a poem creates hurdles. In ‘Blackouts’ and ‘Romantic Comedies,’ it’s as though you’re improvising over and over again, with each poem’s anaphora as your starting block.
Here are three lines from ‘Blackouts’:
It’s like trying to write a thriller with a shotgun pointed at your head.
It’s like learning the German word for the specific kind of shame astronauts experience when they masturbate in space.
It’s like kissing someone with lipstick made of crushed match heads.
And here are three lines from ‘Romantic Comedies’:
She’s a sassy black oncologist and he’s a racist with prostate cancer.
He blew up the World Trade Center and she blew up when she heard he blew up the World Trade Center.
He gouged out Christy Schumacher’s face in the yearbook and she is Christy Schumacher.
You inhabit the romantic comedy and the blackout as forms, each of which bears with it its own anaphora. I wonder if this liberates the work for you: since each poem is composed entirely of you riffing on these anaphora, you have the freedom to experiment, fail, go crazy, chase a glimpse, succeed, try again, fail again, fail better. Because there is always that next hurdle, that next anaphora, to clear.
Leidner: I used to think form meant rhythm and meter. That’s where I found the most meaning in the old poems I read. But trying to force my self-expression to fit into blank verse left me with poems that sounded tinny and felt false. It took me a long time to realize that I had a limited definition of what form was. I was also blogging, chatting, collaging, updating statuses, telling jokes, watching movies, etc. It dawned on me that those forms were just as valid as five-beat lines; moreover, they were the native inhabitants of my imagination. It was like discovering free verse, which I had misunderstood as an abandonment of form for formlessness—instead of what it was—reaching into the universe of non-poetic forms and dragging them kicking and screaming into the context of poetry, and the farther you have to drag them the better. Maybe every poet’s work is a hybrid of the vaulted poetry they have read and the secular forms of their culture and experience. The unpoetic part of me is forced to grapple with the discipline of anaphora, alliteration, or rhythmic imperative, and the poetic is forced to grapple with the absurdity of a Hollywood imagination. Leaping one hurdle raises the height of the next. The agony of defeat, as you say, is instantly ameliorated by the excitement of the next challenge. But the opposite is true. The pleasure of victory instantly evaporates in the anxiety of the next problem. You try and try but can never hurdle the horizon. It’s honest and perverse to name this inability to ever be comfortable ‘freedom.’
Rumpus: It’s true. It’s like de Kooning said: ‘Art is the thing you cannot make.’ So in a sense saying a poet is given freedom by form is like saying Sisyphus is given freedom by hauling a rock up a hill. It’s ugly and true, the irony in that. Among emerging poets in America right now, irony has become a prevailing mode of expression. What sets Beauty apart, I think, is that you never employ Socratic irony. That is, the voice in your poems never feigns ignorance toward its language or subject in order to elicit a revelation. Rather, yours is an irony that invites dissonance: desire is coupled with the grotesque, humor and parody are fused with stark imagery and tragedy. Beauty’s cover—which features the World Trade Center rising over a city that isn’t New York, with a collaged basketball player rising up to dunk between the towers—is a terrific example of this.
Leidner: I’ve never heard irony broken down into Socratic and dissonant, but that taxonomy works. Irony is more like a necessary feature of truth than its opposite. Good and bad, right and wrong, gruesome and beautiful, smart and stupid, are always coupled. I guess their fusion feels dissonant because cultural institutions train us to separate them, perhaps for good reason. If we were forced to unpack, over and over, the infinite complexity of every object, moment, and utterance, we would kill ourselves. Filtering through too much awareness is exhausting, so we allow reality to ice over with cliché. We stop thinking and fall into the sleep of life. We let certain images and values off the hook and do not apply relentless analysis to them. Survival rests on this trade-off. 90% of my life is spent not thinking about what is real, and I wish it were higher. But art’s job is to pierce that armor—reintroduce the mixture of calamity and ecstasy that is the present moment.
Rumpus: And ultimately, we write and we laugh as a means of not letting that absurdity and complexity undermine us. Maybe that’s what certain people mean when they say all poetry is an act of protest. I find I’m resistant to that logic, but I like that all jokes are acts of protest by that logic too. We sat in a bar a few months back and played a game called 147. The premise was simple: 147 of something—clowns or war heroes or anything—walk into a bar, and you have to tell a joke about them on the spot. I remember one, for example: 147 Oldsmobiles walk into a bar and say, God am I fucking exhausted. Even when the jokes were terrible, the game had integrity. Because you’re writing, improvising, delivering in the present moment. Do you want to end with some improvisations? Some laughter?
Leidner: 147 grains of sand walk into a bar and dune know to order. 147 courageous, humble, and perceptive movie critics walk into a bar and buy drinks for everyone who thought Hugo was a dramatically flaccid exercise in high-gloss bourgeoisie treacle surpassed in interestingness by its own Wikipedia article. 147 boxcars walk into the bar and order non-alcoholic beverages because they’re in training. 147 New Yorkers walk into a bar while outside a cop tickets their double-parked dreams. 147 losers walk into a bar and proceed to drink all night in unhinged merriment, laughing raucously at each others’ anecdotes, and generally achieving unexpected levels of happiness, never imagining they are losers at all. 147 futures walk into a bar and order 147 memories, but the bartender gives them weak pours. 147 sad wisps of smoke filtrate into a bar and the bartender looks at them and asks them what’s wrong and as they are sucked up into and split apart and evenly redistributed throughout the atmosphere of the bar by the ceiling fan, the bartender hears them say melancholically that they all just got fired. 147 punchlines walk into a bar and order a setup ‘well.’ 147 sand grains blow into a bar and decline the bartender’s offer of free tapas on the grounds that they are full because there’s a universe in them.