I saw this interview with Michael Jordan once where he talked about that game vs. The Blazers. The one where he hit all of those threes and shrugged. He said the game was happening in slow motion for him. That everything was coming at him, and he was absorbing all of it, becoming a smarter/better player with each minute. I sometimes think I’m watching Marty McConnell in slow motion. I learn so much from her work, even in three-five minute bursts when she performs it in front of me, I can’t explain it any other way. When I got this idea, Marty was on the “must have” list. I’m glad she (excitedly) said yes, because the things I have gotten from her, even in ways she doesn’t know, have been incredibly necessary to my development as a writer/artist. When I was last in Chicago, Marty was kind enough to trade me her book for my chapbook (a trade that I got the better end of, to be fair), and I spent the whole trip home reading. Re-reading. Quoting poems out loud. There are times when you turn a very real corner. When you can feel it as it happens. Reading Marty’s Wine For A Shotgun changed me. And larger than just me, Marty has been taking risks with her work for years. Teaching all of us how to push against the boundaries. I’m really thankful for that. I truly think that we do something interesting. We engage and engage and engage without truly understanding our impact. I hope Marty fully understands what her impact has been, and how so many of us have benefited.
First of all. Can I tell you how cool it was for me to not know a damn thing about slam (or poetry at all) in 2012, and STILL have the absolute joy of watching you on stage within hours of participating in my first ever Rustbelt? There aren’t a lot of times I can express those kinds of things to people in a direct manner. I think of the layers in your work, and the way that you seem to find a great balance in using language that is poetic, sharp, and accessible. I often times hear younger writers talking about writing “slam poems”, or writing “performance poems”. What guidance can you give on just writing good poems and letting the rest sort itself out?
Well, I feel like this question basically answers itself: write poems, make them as good as you can, and then say them on stage as well as you can. It’s interesting because when I first started performing and slamming, we had a sense of performance as fleeting, momentary — if you had any desire for your work to be accessible to your great-grandchildren, or even just shared with people not directly in front of you, it was going to need to be in print. I mean, think about it: when I first went on tour in 1999, 2000, and 2001, our merch included just chapbooks, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. Why no CDs? Because making a CD would have required going to a studio, having someone record and edit it, and having it pressed and packaged.
And that was kind of amazing, actually. There’s this pretty terrible TV show running now called Once Upon a Time, and one of the recurring concepts in the show is the idea that all magic has a price. That’s how I think about technological advances, in a way: you gain some amazing ability, but in exchange, something is taken away. It’s phenomenal that people can access recorded performances easily, that any time you get up on stage there may be a camera or phone recording you, and thousands of people might get to witness that. It’s had a huge impact on the growth of the art form, particularly in terms of bringing young people to a new understanding of the role poetry can play in their lives.
But it can be restrictive. In the same way that it can be totally crippling to think during your writing process about what magazines or publishing houses might like your work, it can be extremely limiting to focus on about what audiences, live or internetted, will think of your poems. We didn’t have as broad an audience to which to aspire in performance, in the absence of YouTube and Upworthy and Def Jam, so the stakes were lower and therefore in some ways it was easier to take risks.
The last thing I’ll say about this (note that I said the question answers itself and then went on and on and on) is that one of my favorite experiences as a poet is that of surprise. Because I’m not trying to write for editors or for slam judges, I’m constantly surprised by which poems resonate for people on paper or aloud. And if that stops, if I start knowing what’s going to score or get accepted, then I will have collapsed into formula and need to take up topiary sculpture or puppetry or something.
You have put down roots in both Chicago AND New York. I want to touch on both, in two separate questions. You were kind of around in the earlier days of LouderARTS. What was that like, and how did being there guide you towards slam?
Oh, louderARTS. I was actually there from the very beginning of there being an actual louderARTS Project – the first year of “a little bit louder,” the reading series that preceded the organization, I was still in Chicago, but I got involved pretty soon after I moved to NYC (well, Bronxville for school), in 1999. In the early 2000s, the scene around louderARTS was wild. We were obsessed with poetry, with the slam and breaking down the barriers between academia and performance (though that was a little later in the decade). In retrospect at least, it seems like nobody was married, nobody had kids, nobody had a job that couldn’t be done hung over every Tuesday morning. The show would start at 7:30 or so, and run until midnight sometimes, and then we’d go get food and more to drink, and argue about poems and argue about poets and argue about who left without paying her share of the check and then we’d do it again the next week. Over the years, it was like a lot of things – it’s hard to condense it – but that was how it felt to me at the beginning. Heady, and engulfing, and very, very New York.
Before I got to New York, I’d become invested in performance poetry, but wasn’t wild about the slam. Trick was, by the time I got to Bar 13 from Sarah Lawrence, often the open mic list would be full, but there would be space in the slam. So I’d slam with what I brought for the open mic. Because we were so invested in the fusion of great writing and performance, and eliminating the divide between them, I didn’t have to create some great distinction between what I was writing for grad school and what I was slamming. I think you probably can’t ask for a better launching point to the competition than that.
I’m going to be asking questions of a few Chicago poets this month, and I think I may ask them all this question, formed in different ways. I feel like the Chicago scene is unlike so many others that I’ve spent time around. There was this weird moment after I featured at the Green Mill last year where I sat down at this long table at the Mexican spot next door, and I looked down the table, and you’re there, and Marc Smith is there, and Emily Rose is there, and Patricia Smith is there, and real valuable/consistent contributors to the art. Not just locally, but nationally. And everyone was joking around, laughing, drunk and/or drinking. And I remember thinking, “This is it. This is what a community of talented AND good people looks like.” Granted, that was just a snapshot, but how has moving in that Chicago scene been healthy for your art, and what role do you feel you play in it?
Coming back to Chicago has been so healthy for me, and by extension my art. There are times I miss the constant stimulation/overstimulation of New York, the sense that Something Important is Happening All of the Time, but I feel sometimes that I survived New York, and I live in Chicago. There is a groundedness to this city, I suppose especially for me since my blood family is here, that anchors my work in crucial ways.
One of the really rewarding parts about being part of the Chicago scene is how comparatively easy it is to have an impact – I know intellectually that my work with louderARTS affected the city and national landscape, but it always felt kind of incremental or a stone in the ocean of everything that was always going on in that city. Here, I was able to identify a specific need, and fill it, and see fairly immediate changes in people and spaces because of that.
Can you tell me a bit about Vox Ferus? The origins of it, and where you hope for it to go?
Nice segue! So initially, Vox Ferus was a concept that Andi Strickland (of the Morrigan, the group that toured together starting in 1999) and I came up with in thinking about my move back to Chicago in 2009. It had very lofty goals including an artists’ residency, which actually did run for two years, but to make a long story short, eventually it narrowed to me running a regular writing workshop out of my living room, along with occasional salons and other workshops focused on performance, publishing and other topics. This is strange for me to say, but I don’t really hope for it to go anywhere. I love how simple it is, how straightforward, how people find it when they need it and stay as long as it serves them. I’ve mapped out big plans, and know it could be more, do more, reach further, and so on, but I’m not sure it needs to or should. I’d like to compile and have someone publish a guide to community-based workshopping using the format, poems, and prompts I’ve developed over the past few years, because I really believe there’s a need for spaces like Vox Ferus to be developed and maintained, but it’s not urgent. When it becomes urgent, I’ll make it happen, but I’m very aware of only doing what I can do and no more.
So often, we see poets take a difficult/tense subject matter and ride in on horseback, blindly waving a sword. While I don’t want to discount the many ways there are to dig something out of yourself and lay it bare, what I notice in my reading (and re-reading. And re-reading.) of Wine For A Shotgun isn’t only how fearlessly you take on some of those subjects, but the gentle way you handle them. Not gentle like soft…more in a way where the crafting around these topics is very evident. There’s an overpowering honesty in what you’ve created with many of the poems in that collection. I couldn’t help but be carried away by even the loudest moments in the book. How do you reach such heights? What responsibility do you feel to the topics you approach?
I feel an enormous responsibility to tell the truth about the world. I think that the gentleness you speak of in this question comes from the way that I experience the world when I am most aware of and engaged with it, as when I’m writing or in love or deeply afraid. At those times, I’m experiencing a moment or a person with my entire being, and that requires gentleness. That requires, sometimes, being submerged in water. That requires, sometimes, pouring the experience into the container of metaphor so that it can acquire some visible form.
I think that what you’re talking about with the poet riding in on horseback, is the ego writing the poem. Reading or watching those poems, I feel like all I can see is the poet standing in front of the experience she or he theoretically wants to share with me, the reader or listener. My goal is to get out of the way, and maybe that’s what you’re experiencing as overpowering honesty, or as craft – it’s my belief that technique is only useful in releasing the meaning of the poem, which is to say enabling the reader or listener to have the experience of the poem without becoming distracted by the intervening presence of me, the writer, the ego on horseback.
I’m super interested in your relationship with myth and magic. Some of your poems have characters pulled from tarot cards. You write sometimes of monsters, both literally, and as metaphor. It adds an element of depth to a lot of the work. How did you build this relationship with magic and get comfortable with working into the poems so well? Also, are you a wizard?
Magic is everything, and everywhere. Air is magic. How is it that this invisible stuff, made up of gajillions of other invisible things, enters us and leaves us and makes life possible? Magic. And we don’t see it. I think that what I do, what poems do, is make magic visible. We point out the magic. When Adrienne Rich writes, “which of our visions will claim us,” we know in that moment the magic of manifestation, of making things happen, and we also know that what we make happen makes us happen, makes our lives happen.
I built a relationship with magic by paying attention. This is the thing about art, right? It forces us to pay attention. So much wants us to tune out, to sleepwalk, to tolerate, to just make do. But art says no, look at the car. It’s not just how you get to work, it’s what your father gave you when he taught you to drive. It’s your procrastination in the gas tank on empty. It’s the miraculous way we all abide by the written and unwritten rules of not smashing into each other in giant steel machines.
Also, I’m a witch. Not a wizard.
I like your relationship with the internet. I follow you on Twitter, and many of your tweets start with “Steal This Line:” before exploding into something brilliant. I think that is appropriate, since so many corners of the internet have fallen in love with “Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell”. Which, on the surface, isn’t a bad thing. But, of course because the internet is the internet, it has become less of a good thing. On top of that, there is this kind of fantastic career timeline of you that plays out on the internet. There are videos of you on Def Poetry that still hit me as hard as videos of you performing in 2013. I don’t know if a lot of poets can say that, or have that experience. At the risk of presenting a broad question, what is your relationship with the internet, when taking those things into consideration?
I talked a little bit about this in the first question – the internet is the proverbial double-edged sword. I think that as with all forms of self-representation, it’s dangerous to take too seriously. If you are hyper aware that every performance could be broadcast to thousands, you can either let that push you to do new and terrifying things each performance, or you can let it box you in to doing the same thing every time you take a stage, so that you’re sure you won’t make a mistake or do something embarrassing. If you are super concerned about your work being misattributed or plagiarized, you can spend your life policing instead of making art.
The Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell poem is a good example. There’s part of me that is so annoyed by the misattribution and the overwhelming amount of poor font choices used in making designed versions of its most commonly quoted line all over the internet. But on the other hand, literally thousands and thousands of people have read and loved that poem, or at least one line from it, and I know that would not have happened without the confusion over its authorship. So on some level, I have to put my ego in check and understand that the poem has a life of its own and is doing good work in the world.
I do draw the line at people making money off it, though – that crosses into “do your homework/Google that shit and look at more than the first page” territory.
So in sum, the internet is awesome and also a portal to madness.
Some of the aforementioned topics that you navigate comfortably and in a way that really speaks to me, as a reader are gender and sexuality. Poems like “The Empress Is A Drag Queen” really stick out to me as pieces that allow the reader an informed platform to explore and discover. How important is working messages that teach us about desires, and how the body deserves to indulge in them?
I mean, desire is at the root of everything. Without desire, we are either fully transcendent or inanimate lumps of clay, depending on how we got to that absence of desire. Either way, we’re not moving and doing things in the world. I think your question though means to deal more with sexual desire, which we’re generally taught to repress or leverage in ways which are often unhealthy to us as whole humans.
In writing “wine for a shotgun,” I was particularly interested in exploring issues related to sexual desire, and how that gets embodied or sublimated. I think it’s incredibly important, especially in this era, for us to talk about these things. In this country at this time, we are at the cusp of a new and broader understanding of gender, a new and better concept of sexual consent, and a new level of integration between queer and mainstream worlds. As a poet, I am interested and invested in writing about and of and from my time, and these are the issues that echo in my body and brain daily.
You have been an introduction into poetry for many, many people. With that in mind, who are the people you found early on in your discovery, and who do you turn to as inspiration now?
I’ve been a reader of poetry for as long as I’ve been a reader, really. One of my favorite books as a small child was A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six,” this (in retrospect) kind of bizarre collection of poems. I mean, come on:
She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
“Winter is dead.”
In high school, I memorized William Blake and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, fully unaware that there were living, breathing poets writing things that might be more relevant to my actual life.
Once I started reading poems publicly, after undergrad, at open mics and such, someone handed me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” shortly after I’d stumbled on Adrienne Rich’s essays on poetry and politics, and from there I started reading the poets, mostly women, whose poems sounded like the inside of my head: Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and more Anne Sexton.
My inspiration now is a mixture of those I regard as friends and peers, and those poets I think of as mentors at a distance – though these two groups come closer together the longer I work in this art. In the first group, at the peril of leaving out many important people, are Jamaal May, Rachel McKibbens, Patrick Rosal, and lots of others. I have a long-standing obsession with Li-Young Lee, and currently am wildly inspired by the work of Keetje Kuipers, Matthew Zapruder, Terrance Hayes… and Anne Sexton.
I read an interview with you in Muzzle once, where you talked about the hardest part of slam being knowing when to NOT slam. Knowing when you don’t need to engage or compete in that way. To expand on that, how do you know when that time is? What are the things that tell you that you are not needed in that way, and what does your work do in the meantime?
At the time of that interview, I was slamming a lot more than I am now. I’ve been so focused this year or so on getting the book out into the world, and figuring out the direction for the next half of my life (turning 40 is no joke), that I haven’t been engaging as actively with the slam world. Which I think is healthy – the slam community is my family, and I hope and believe that I’ll always have a place there, and a role to play on some level. In my last few years of actually competing, I really felt like my job was to bring poems to the stage that didn’t fit any mold, that were unlikely to score well, to take different kinds of chances than someone brand new to the game might be psychologically able to without my accrued numbness to losing. I still compete occasionally at the Green Mill or Mental Graffiti, just for the fun of it, especially when I can rope other old folks into doing it so that we can really rumble. Maybe winning the underground nationals was a swan song? Can you top doing poems barefoot in an alley at 4 in the morning, and as a consequence getting to do a poem on finals stage for thousands of people? I don’t know.
What my work does in the meantime is get performed in non-slam settings – I still do shows and lectures and send the work out to magazines and anthologies. I am working on a multi-disciplinary, audience-collaborative, strange and terrifying (to me) new performance with my partner who is a visual artist – it builds on a poem of mine entitled “when they say you can’t go home again, what they mean is you were never there” and deals with the idea of voluntary exile, mark-making, and the untrustworthiness of memory. The city is putting it up this fall, so we’ll see where that takes us. Somewhere new and strange, I’m sure.
Marty, thank you so much. Thank you for being such a hero, for me.
MARTY MCCONNELL is the author of wine for a shotgun, released in October 2012 on EM Press. Part of the vanguard of poets fusing and refusing the delineations between literary and oral poetry, McConnell’s work blurs the lines between autobiography and personae to comment on and illuminate what it means to live and love outside the lines in early 21st century America.
“wine for a shotgun” is a finalist for both the Audre Lorde Award (Publishing Triangle) and the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian poetry. Both prizes will be announced in spring 2013.
McConnell’s work has been published in numerous anthologies, including A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Movement, Spoken Word Revolution Redux, Women of the Bowery, Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader, Bullets and Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry, Will Work for Peace, Women.Period and In Our Own Words: Poetry of Generation X, as well as journals including Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Crab Orchard, Salt Hill Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat, Rattle, and more.
A member of seven National Poetry Slam teams representing New York City and Chicago, McConnell is the 2012 National Underground Poetry Individual Competition (NUPIC) Champion. In 2011, she completed her first European tour and debuted her one-woman show, “vicebox.” She is a two-time recipient of the Community Arts Assistance Program grant from the City of Chicago’s Office of Tourism and Culture, and received a 2013 grant from the Illinois Arts Council.