Tuesday, October 2, 2012

#56 - Quinn Latimer

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Rumored Animals? Did it go through any other changes?

It’s always been Rumored Animals. I think, sound-wise, rhythm-wise, it just worked for me, but conceptually too. The book engages so many different themes and forms that I liked the idea of one central idea or image—of the spectral animal—running (or pacing) through it. With so much going on in the various poems—family, desire, loss, art and literary history, art- and literature-making—this strange bestiary was a way to bring it all together. In some of the poems the animals are lucid, domestic, quite there; in others, the animals are neither practical nor material nor totally discernable—they’re just the hint of some strange intelligence or sensibility illuminating or darkening the perimeter. Acting as an against, an other, etc.

At some point, late in writing the book, I found this wonderful Virginia Woolf quote that perfectly encapsulated the kind of animal that I was imagining, its affects and effects. In A Room of One’s Own, she wrote, rather startlingly: “The sight of that abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if someone had let fall a shade.” And so that became the book’s epigraph.

How often had you sent out Rumored Animals before it was chosen for the 2010 American Poetry Journal Book Prize from Dream Horse Press?

I sent out a much different version of the manuscript to about five contests in the year or two after I finished grad school at Columbia, and I had that experience that many poets have of being a finalist. After that I put the manuscript away for about five years. I think I knew it wasn’t ready to be published, and I wanted some time to simply write new work without book publication being the loud, insistent goal. Then, in 2010, I started sending it out again, and I clicked that year with the American Poetry Journal Book Prize.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

I tend to write short, abstract lyrics and then much longer essayistic or didactic poems that keep to a somewhat academic register. From the very beginning—and under the adept advice of my grad school professors—I structured the book into sections that isolated the long poems into their own individual chapters, and then grouped many of the shorter, lyrical poems together in sections around them. Though the poems within the chapters would change quite a lot over the years, as would the chapters themselves, I basically kept to this format. It gave the collection some buoyancy, some propulsion, this movement back and forth between tone and length.

In terms of the actual book, though, the first versions of the manuscript read pretty lovelorn: I was in my early twenties, so love and love poems were the thing. But there was always a tangible current of familial examination in some of the writing as well. Later, after my mother died, this latter theme became more, as it were, pronounced. The collection followed suit.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I work in the art world, where books are often seen and designed as art objects—even more so now with the rise of digital books and web magazines. So I always had this sense that I wanted the look of my book to be right: very intentional and beautiful and contemporary. Early on, for the cover image, I wanted to use a specific painting by the American artist Susan Rothenberg, from her 1970s series that featured horses crossed out or halved by geometric lines. Actually, last week I was reading a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, and an article on Obama’s foreign policy was illustrated with a photo of the president in a meeting in the White House, and this exact Rothenberg painting was hanging on the wall behind him. I cracked up, but I was also impressed: he (or likely his curator) have great taste. Anyway, in the end the horse painting was too literal and illustrative with my title. I just couldn’t have an animal on the cover, no matter how abstracted the animal actually was.

So I ended up asking an artist in Los Angeles, Jennifer West, if I could use one of her experimental film stills. I liked the idea of using a frame from a film, as image-making and framing comes up so much in the book, which often has a filmic touch. And I feel very close to Jennifer’s work: its themes of Southern California landscape and counterculture, feminism and punk music. The still I used is from a 2011 film of some girls surfing on a beach near where I grew up, and the image is totally blown out with psychedelic, fluorescent colors; the artist took the 16mm film stock itself and coated it in sunscreen, Cuervo, surf wax, Tecate, sand, and a million other materials that have the same tenor.

Then I asked a Swiss graphic designer based in Lausanne, Sarah Leugger, to design the cover. Book design in Switzerland is a huge thing with a very important history, and I really wanted someone here—where I currently live—to leave their mark on the book. Sarah did an amazing job, and steered me to an insane new font by the Dutch typographer Jan Duiker. I wanted something similar to Futura, with a modernist and postwar European feel to it, like Godard title cards or old Frankfurt School paperbacks. Sarah and I didn’t have any input on the interior of the book, but I think the publisher did a really nice job and I was surprised how the outside and inside ended up matching pretty well.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I had quite a few of the poems published while I was in grad school and directly after, and then I took a bit of a break—five years or so—from poetry publishing and the poetry world in general. When I won the book prize and knew the book would be published in the next year or two, I started sending out poems out again, as a way to get my name out there and perhaps do some early publicity. To be honest, I definitely should have sent out more, as it’s really the only way of publicizing your book, besides doing endless marathons of readings. Still, it’s not, and it’s never been, my main concern to have poems placed everywhere all the time. Though it probably should be.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

I actually did quite a bit of editing. My book took almost two years to appear after I won the prize, some of which was my fault for constant tinkering and also pulling old poems out and adding new poems in. I wanted to write one new long poem for the book, the poem “Bathysphere,” and that took about a year to emerge, so.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

I got a profanely dirty cardboard sleeve in the mail as I was about to take my dog for a walk. We proceeded to the river and I stared at the book as we walked along it. I had been so worried how the cover image’s fluorescent colors would come out, about typos, all these insane, ridiculous things. But really it was just wonderful and weird. I had been thinking of what my future books would look and feel like since I was about ten years old, so it was really just extraordinary and reassuring and strange, in this very normal way.
If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

Well, it’s not about animals, despite everything I said before. This is a difficult question. Every review I’ve gotten of my book so far has surprised me in its diagnosis and analysis; the reviewers have all been right, and so wonderfully acute, but I never would have come up with many of the ideas and themes they laid across my pages. However, that’s not much of an answer. I suppose one way I understand the book is as an exploration of criticality and corporeality, of the way they course through each other—of thinking through or against landscape, body, form, ideas.

As has been pointed out, Rumored Animals definitely limns themes of cinematography, of portraiture, of feminism. But I also sometimes think that, as a poet, I work like some old-timey painter or photographer: I write a landscape—the apocalypse of Southern California, the glowering West Texas desert, New York, or heavy Mitteleuropa—and then I plant some sort of thinking, feeling, contemporary figure within it. More specifically, though, the book might be about grief—the inherited kind and the situational sort. It might also be about my mother.

What have you been doing to promote Rumored Animals, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I have been doing lots of readings around Europe for the past six months, which has been wonderful. Sometimes my audiences are strictly literary—I read with the poet and translator Michael Hulse recently at the University of Basel—but more often they end up being a crowd of artists, curators, critics, and musicians, as that is my scene and set of contacts here, mostly. At first this was strange, to read poems to people who were not poets, which is the expected audience for poetry readings in New York or LA, where I read before.

But then it became exciting. I started thinking of the readings as performances, performative turns or lectures or spells. At my book launch in Zurich, I was accompanied by five films by Jennifer West projected across the glass walls of the space, which turned the whole room into a kind of magic lantern. And I read underneath an enormous, gold Art Deco palm tree from the 1960s. That was super strange and great. In Berlin, at the great bookstore Pro qm, it was much more straightforward. I simply read to the assembled crowd of friends and strangers. I had a particularly lovely reading in Geneva last month too, and an impromptu one a few weeks ago in Elba, where I just finished a residency—it’s mostly been excellent. I plan to do a small reading tour in the US early next year as well.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

Practically, I suppose it would have been good for someone to impress upon me the fact that I would absolutely have to turn into a crazy, self-promoting monster for a year or so. No one did, though, or perhaps I closed my ears.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

One of the best and oddest things about having my first book of poetry done and published is that it completely motivated me to spontaneously and seriously devote myself to the second. Rumored Animals took such a long time to come together, it spans so many years and themes, that I felt like moving into the exact opposite direction with my following collection. The new book I am working on uses compression both as a formal theme and a conceptual idea: the poems follow one specific form and then they spin off of quotations from artists, filmmakers, writers, theorists. Taken together, the poems form a kind of notational hive—not a linear construction of narrative or meaning, but something more mutable and temporally unstable. Paradoxically, I also see it as a kind of récit or poetic notebook—but we shall see.

I also just finished a book of essays ostensibly about the artist Sarah Lucas, but also exploring Artaud, Mexico, the modernist female nude, Sontag, fertility icons, Napoleon, Beckett, colonialism, and distance. It should be out from Mousse, a publisher in Milan, later this year. I am very excited about it.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

This summer I became quite obsessed with the second volume of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks. I really can’t recommend it enough. She was quite close to Joseph Brodsky, and her journal is full of his quotes and notes about him. Here are three from December 1977, when they were in Venice together:

Joseph: “Censorship is good for writers. For three reasons. One, it unites the whole nation as (or into) readers. Two, it gives the writer limits, something to push against. Three, it increases metaphoric powers of the language (the greater the censorship, the more Aesopian the writing must become.”

A few pages later:

Joseph: “I feel like crying all the time.”

And a few pages later:

The poet-in-exile [Brodsky], born in Leningrad, walking alone on the wet empty streets at two in the morning. It reminds him, “a little bit,” of Leningrad.

Quinn Latimer is an American poet and critic based in Basel, Switzerland. Born and raised in Southern California, she was educated at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York. Her poetry has appeared in Boston Review, The Last Magazine, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first book of poetry, titled Rumored Animals, won the American Poetry Journal Book Prize and was published in April 2012. She is a regular contributor to Artforum and frieze, and her criticism has also appeared widely in Art in America, Bookforum, Kaleidoscope, and Modern Painters. She recently edited the publication Paul Sietsema: Interviews on Films and Works (Sternberg Press, 2012), and her book Describe This Distance will appear in late 2012 from Mousse Publishing in Milan. Latimer is currently on the faculty of the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, where she teaches writing. Her website is: http://www.quinnlatimer.com/