Six Poets, Six Questions: Mark Bibbins in Conversation
Mary Jo Bang, Mark Bibbins, and Brenda Shaughnessy presented a panel titled "The Anxiety of Audience: Who We Write For, Real & Imagined" at the sixth annual Poets Forum in New York City, October 18-20, 2012.
Poets.org: How do you know when you've finished writing a poem?
Mark Bibbins: When I no longer feel the need to tinker with it, which might take days or years. The components click into place in a way that I can't explain, but reading aloud is always crucial to the process. Joy Katz compares figuring out where to end a poem to bending a piece of asparagus to see where it snaps; ending and finishing are not synonymous here, but I like what the analogy says about ceding some control to the thing that's being made.
A person recently reported having written two or three poems one morning and submitting them to journals or wherever the very same afternoon. I would advise anyone who is not Eileen Myles not to do this (I say so not knowing if she does this).
Poets.org: What word are you proud of sneaking into a poem? What word would you never put in a poem?
Bibbins: Not sure how one would sneak a word in—acrostic? French? Sometimes I have to sneak them out: I didn't realize I had used the word "subsist" three times in my last book until just before it went to the print factory. I don't mess too much with pride.
Any word I would never put in a poem is also hideous enough for me not to broadcast here, but there are plenty of poetry moves that should be retired—like saying a mouth is shaped like a letter O. I'd be happy never to see that in anyone's poem again, let alone use it.
Poets.org: What do you see as the role of the poet in today's culture?
Bibbins: To point out that today's culture has spinach in its teeth and egg on its face.
The question chafes a little, partly because of the definite article lurking in front of "poet," but I also understand why you wouldn't ask it of the cellist or the tree surgeon. It reminds us that you can't "just" be a poet—which when rent is due is absolutely true—therefore we get pretend titles like Ambassador and Legislator and Seer. The upside is that we are free (or, downside, forced) to find or invent roles for ourselves (and our poems) that engage differently with the material demands of our culture.
So do I want to make and/or read poems that act like doilies or smoke alarms? It's reassuring to know a vase isn't leaving rings on the credenza, but I'd also like something to wake me up if the place is on fire, which it is.
Poets.org: Which poet's work do you continually go back to?
Bibbins: Of course I want to list a whole bunch here, but instead I will say that, rather than going back, I am always looking forward to Gertrude Stein. (At least you didn't ask which one I "turn to"—ghastly phrase.)
Poets.org: Are you on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr? How does that fit into your writing life, if at all?
Bibbins: Pretty sure I don't distinguish a writing life from the parts of it in which I am not writing. I have to blame Erin Belieu for luring me onto Facebook: she said all the poets are on there, and that was weirdly convincing, probably because it's not true.
Turns out one of my best friends is the "hide" option, which at some point changed its name to the more euphemistic and less satisfying "unsubscribe." Still trying to figure out what the advantages of Twitter might be. No Tumblr—do I have to?
Poets.org: What are you reading right now?
Bibbins: I was asked to write things to go on the backs (presumably on the backs) of two forthcoming books, and I'm reading those: Lynn Melnick's If I Should Say I Have Hope and James Cihlar's Rancho Nostalgia. Both terrific, as you will see. Who else? David Markson, Marjorie Perloff. The Grand Piano, which is a ten-volume autobiography by ten Language poets. Just ordered Cynthia Carr's biography of David Wojnarowicz. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (finally—we sure are a mess).