Sunday, May 10, 2009

Interview with Greg Santos by Nathan Tyree

MotD's Nathan Tyree interviewed Greg Santos. Greg is an editor at Pax Americana, as well as being a great poet. He is Canadian, which is interesting. The following are the results of that interview.

NT: Do you feel that a poet should attempt to focus on a single theme (or set of themes) that run through their body of work and create something unified?

GS:I don’t think a poet should have to do anything. It’s up to an individual to decide whether or not they want to keep writing about a single theme or a set of themes. That being said, I get bored when I see the same thing over and over. I mean, how many times can Billy Collins keep writing the same poem about staring out a window? I love Billy Collins but the same persona can get tiring after a while. In my opinion, a great poet, or any artist, for that matter is someone who is able to adapt and change over time and build on their corpus.

NT: What sort of poetry (or which poets) have effected you the most? Would you say that your work is directly effected by a specific school (or poet) and if so, which?

GS: I’m always adding to the list. When I first moved to the US and starred studying in New York I devoured poetry by the first generation of The New York School poets. Particularly Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. Koch’s poetry is absolutely hilarious but extremely rich. I mean, I could only read “Some General Instructions” and “The Art of Poetry” for the rest of my life and never get tired of them. I also think Koch’s book Making Your Own Days on the pleasures of reading and writing poetry is brilliant. I teach a weekly poetry workshop to 8-year old kids and his book Wishes, Lies, and Dreams on teaching children how to write poetry is my bible. As for Ashbery, I don’t always understand Ashbery’s poems but I get him, you know? I find myself thinking about his poems a lot after I read them because they make my brain feel like a Rubik’s cube. I guess some other names I’ll throw out there are James Tate, Russel Edson, Dean Young, and Mary Ruefle. Whenever I’m stuck and I’m not able to write anything, I turn to Dean Young and Mary Ruefle to get unstuck. Read Ruefle’s Indeed I Was Pleased With The World. It’ll change your life. I also really love Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. She had a small body of work but man was it good.

NT: Has the internet (and the rise of internet publishing ) changed poetry? If so, are these changes good or bad?

GS: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s only changed poetry but the entire publishing industry in general. I like how the internet has allowed publishing to become much more democratic. Everyone, in theory, can be a published writer or editor. The internet is good for building links and it allows for poets to expose their work to a large audience at the click of a mouse. That being said, that also means there’s a lot more writing to sift through. The fun part, though, is discovering sites and online journals that have work you enjoy reading on a regular basis.

NT: Do you like editing? What is the best thing about editing a magazine? What is the worst thing?

GS: The best thing about editing a magazine? The power to rule with an iron fist, of course. Being an editor often helps me approach poets whose work I enjoy reading and admire without seeming like a weirdo. But the best feeling is receiving a submission Ben, Carter, and I end up falling in love with from someone we’ve never even heard of and sharing it with our readers. That feels pretty rad. The worst part is turning down someone’s work. It’s someone’s baby. No one wants to have their child rejected. Sometimes I really like a poem but it just doesn’t fit with the theme of an issue or there’s some other variable at play. That’s the way it goes. Though, it doesn’t make rejecting someone’s work any easier.

NT: Do you feel that your duties as an editor detract from your ability to spend the necessary time writing and submitting your own work?

GS: No way. If anything, I think editing helps me read and write better. There’s a lot of navel-gazing that goes on when you’re constantly thinking about and working on your own stuff. Editing others’ work, like teaching, gives me the opportunity to stop thinking about myself and forces me to focus on someone else for a change. And with all the crazy stuff that goes on in that noggin of mine, it’s often a very welcome change.

NT: My favorite poets are Baudelaire and Bukowski. Which do you prefer? Who is your favorite poet?

GS: I like Bukowski but in small doses. I really liked Bukowski when I was younger. It was around the same time that I was really into the Beat writers. I think I was first introduced to his writing from an anthology I seriously dog-eared when I was in my late-teens called Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing. It was hedonistic writing at its best with stories, essays, and poetry, by people like Bukowski, Spalding Gray, and Nabokov. I find a lot of Bukowski’s poetry sounds the same but maybe I’m just too old of a fart now to appreciate his writing. I don’t know. As for Baudelaire, I don’t really read a lot of him now but when I first started writing poetry seriously, I was given a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal when I graduated from college by my then-girlfriend and current fiancĂ©e. Baudelaire really influenced a lot of my early writing. I remember writing a poem about a pigeon after his famous albatross one. I’ve been writing a lot of prose poems lately and I haven’t been conscious about the way Baudelaire wrote prose poems but now that I think about it, his prose poems were the first prose poems I was introduced to. That must account for something. I don’t have a favorite poet. I have favorite poets. But there isn’t any one poet that I consider to be better than anyone else.

NT: Have you ever eaten raw meat?

No. But it’s on my to-do list. The last time I was in Montreal I ate pig’s feet. That was awesome. I watch Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel all the time and lots of the stuff he eats looks absolutely nasty but now and then I’ll see something interesting and think I want to try that. For instance, in one episode he goes to Ethiopia, I think, and eats raw meat dipped in lemon juice and spices. It looked like sushi! Only bloodier.

NT: T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound were geniuses; great poets, but on a personal level they were shits. These men allied themselves with the Fascists. Does that change the way you read their work? Should it? That is, can you disconnect the art from the artist, and should we even try?

GS: You can’t take away their contributions to English literature. When I first read Eliot’s The Wasteland it was a revelation. His use of polyphony in that poem opened up what I thought poetry could do with multiple voices. A lot of Pound’s Imagist stuff was also great. But then again they were douches. Eliot was a raging anti-semite and Pound was a fascist. I appreciate what they did for literature but it doesn’t mean I have to like them.

NT: If a stranger punched you, would you hug him?

GS: I would start with a friendly hug and then sneakily turn it into a wrestling bear hug. That’s how I roll.

NT: What is your favorite color?

Supernova. Is supernova a color?

NT: Is there anything that you would like to mention? This is your chance to pimp upcoming work, your magazine, anything. Go:

GS: Well, I just finished writing a poetry manuscript for my MFA thesis. Any takers? People can order a copy of my chapbook Oblivion Avenue from Trainwreck Press. Check out pax americana online and also order copies of our print issues. You’ll be the most popular kid in town. That or you’ll be chased by an unruly mob brandishing pitchforks but at least people will be taking an interest in you. Our next web issue is going to be guest-edited by the beautiful people who bring you New York’s Poetry Brothel. pax americana also has a short story contest in the works with a cash money prize, so keep your eyes open for that.

NT: Do you feel that poetry is more pure than prose?

GS: No, I don’t think it’s more pure or has any more truth in it that prose or any other art form. Though, I personally prefer writing poetry. I used to be all over the place. I did theater before I really got into poetry, I also wanted to be a cartoonist when I was younger, and I did publish some short stories. At one point I realized I needed to focus on one thing and poetry ended up being the art form I was most passionate about. For me it isn’t just a career. It’s a vocation.

NT: What are your thoughts on "prose poetry"?

GS: I’m a big fan. Like I mentioned earlier, I was turned onto the whole prose poem genre by Charles Baudelaire. I then discovered work by poets like James Tate, Russel Edson, Charles Simic, and so on. There’s an irreverence to the genre that I can’t get enough of. One of my favorite poetry anthologies actually is Great American Prose Poems edited by David Lehman. When I write poems, I don’t necessarily have a switch in my brain that helps me differentiate whether it’s going to be a prose poem or not. It just sort of happens. The poem decided how long its lines are going to be and if they’re going to have line breaks or not. Sometimes I write my prose poems in blocks, other times I break them up into a series of sentences because that’s how they want to be. I think it’s possible that when people encounter my prose poems, my work could be considered flash fiction or something like that but in my mind they’re always poems.

NT: Name a website that all poets should read on a regular basis?

GS: Moondoggy’s Pad and pax americana, of course. Also, Ben Mirov’s blog. Ok, that’s several. I’ll keep going. I always go on The Poetry Foundation’s website for poetry news. Some other poetry or poetry related sites I frequent are Eyewear written by Canadian expat Todd Swift, Bookninja, and HTMLGIANT. I love what Brandi Wells is doing on The Brandi Wells Review. She posts 100% of the submissions she receives. You’d think that would water down the quality of the writing but she publishes some pretty kick-ass stuff there. Paul A. Toth runs some pretty cool sites, too. He’s the editor of Hit and Run Magazine which publishes writers’ raw notes and materials as well as Sitting Pretty Magazine which displays writers’ desks and workplaces. They’ve very addictive.

NT: You're from Canada, but live in the U.S. What is the biggest difference you noticed between this country and yours?

GS: The US has less polar bears running around mauling people. I miss that about home.

NT: Are all Canadians as affable as they seem on TV?

GS: Remember Terrance and Phillip from South Park? They’re Canadian. You know how they have flapping mouths and beady little eyes? We Canadians are exactly like that. It’s almost scary how accurate the portrayal is.

NT: What are your thoughts on MFA programs? Are they really useful or just a waste of time and money?

GS: MFA programs can be expensive so it’s not for everyone but it also depends on how much you want to learn from the workshops and classes you end up taking. I went in there eager to learn from everyone around me and I think that’s a great way to approach it. I personally had an awesome time in my MFA program. I can’t believe it’s almost over. The supportive community of students and professors really made my experience something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I would give my life for them. You’ve heard of those crazy exploding poison-tipped bullets? I would so take one of those for them.

NT: Is there anything else (anything at all) that you would like to share with the 76 people that read this site?

GS: Stay in school. Don’t do drugs. Floss every day. That’s about it. Thanks.

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