Saturday, February 14, 2015

Interview with Poet Greg Santos

      That feeling the executioner has
      when he hangs his mask at the end of the work day,
      I have that right now.
      Like a rabbit punch out of the blue.
      But I’m not complaining.
      I'm just singing a requiem for all decent centaurs everywhere.

       - from "The Prodigal Son" by Greg Santos

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Greg Santosnewest book is Rabbit Punch! (DC Books, 2014). He is also the author of The Emperor’s Sofa (DC Books, 2010) and two poetry chapbooks. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. His writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (Minor Arcana, 2014), Daddy Cool (Artistically Declined Press, 2013), A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (Akron, 2012), Mcsweeney’s, The Best American Poetry Blog, and The Feathertale Review. Greg is a graphic designer, teaches creative writing to at-risk youth, and is the poetry editor for carte blanche. He lives in Montreal with his wife and two children.

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I first encountered Greg Santos’s poetry as part of The Found Poetry Review’s (FPR) Pulitzer Remix project and then again as part of FPR’s Ouilpo project. I admired Greg's keen interest in exploring and interrogating popular culture, which plays a prominent role in his poetry. I found myself especially drawn to the cleverness and humor in his poems. When he invited me to review his second book Rabbit Punch!, I suspected it would be a book filled with fast-paced and witty poems, some with a dose of irreverence, poems that were funny and sad, serious and playful, at the same time. And indeed, that it is. [You can find a review of the book here.] 

For those who are not familiar with Greg's poetry, to give you a better idea of his work before proceeding to the interview, here’s a poem titled "Zombies," which is an example of his work with popular culture, containing references to the Irish rock band The Cranberries and American musician Rob Zombie.  

—Nancy Chen Long

Zombies by Greg Santos

Zombies like listening to The Cranberries

Particularly their hit song, “Zombie.”

Zombies like the song because they can relate to it.

They nod their heads, mouths agape.

“Ughhhhhhhhhh,” they grunt affirmatively.

Zombies, however, do not like Rob Zombie.

He is not an authentic zombie.

He is a live human who has appropriated the zombie name.

There is no greater zombie taboo.

Look out, Rob Zombie! Behind you!

Just kidding.

Or am I?

first published in New Wave Vomit
© Greg Santos, Rabbit Punch! (DC Books , 2014)

[This interview was conducted via email in January 2015 and was first published on Poetry Matters.]

Congratulations on publishing your second book! While getting a first book of poetry published is difficult, getting a second published is even more so. Please share with us how Rabbit Punch! came to be and how you got it published.

GS: Getting my first book, The Emperor's Sofa, published was really a dream come true. It was edited by poet and scholar, Jason Camlot, and published by the Punchy Poetry series, an imprint of Montreal-based DC Books. I'm very proud of my first book and if that had been all I had ever published, I would have been more than content to leave it at that. So I still have a hard time wrapping my head around having a second full-length collection of poetry out there in the world.

I approached Jason with a second manuscript comprised of confessional poems written while I was living in Paris, where my wife was pursuing a research fellowship for her PhD. My first book had just come out and I was a new father living in the City of Lights. It was an exciting time, everything was new and terrifying. I tend not to write confessional poetry, so these poems were also new and terrifying for me to share with the world.

After some discussion with Jason, we decided that the manuscript I sent him in its original incarnation did not quite fit with Punchy Poetry's mandate. That manuscript is still a work in progress that I'm hoping to publish elsewhere in the future. At the same time, he pointed out some poems that he felt we could work on together, in particular, "Reading Ou Yang Hsiu in a Café". He asked me if I had more similar pieces that we could compile into a separate project. Thankfully, I had been putting together a completely separate manuscript that I was planning on sending out to some poetry contests and that manuscript turned out to be Rabbit Punch!

Rabbit Punch! has a good dose of pop-culture references. In a post for the Poetry Society of America, Adrian Matejka writes “Every important idea that poetry interrogates has a corollary in popular culture, and when poetry and pop culture team up like those Marvel comics, good poems can happen.” Please share some of your thoughts on the union of popular culture and poetry, how you find pop culture impacts your writing or your relationship to poetry, etc. 

GS: When I include pop culture references in my writing, I do so knowing full well that I am potentially opening up poetry to people who might not normally be inclined to read poetry. At the same time, I am also interested in exploring the idea that everything and anything is fair game to be poetic fodder. Paris Hilton, Bugs Bunny, John McCain, Hooters, and Batman might on the surface seem like odd poetic bedfellows, but TV shows, celebrities, comics, movies, music, spending our time on Facebook, for example, these things are all part of our vocabulary and daily lives, so why not attempt to incorporate them into our poetry? I’m not really doing anything new, though. Poets like Frank O'Hara, David Trinidad, John Ashbery, David McGimpsey, Denise Duhamel, to name a few, have all made great use of pop culture in their writing. I'd like to think of myself as following in their footsteps and playing with poetry's potential to both entertain and enlighten.

Thinking back to your first full-length manuscript that was published, were there things you thought would happen, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

GS: I was expecting, perhaps naively, to get more reviews for The Emperor's Sofa, but as a relatively new writer at the time, I'm quite happy with the reviews that the book did receive. I was particularly tickled when I heard from one of my wife's relatives that they had read a review of it in the Telegraph-Journal newspaper from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, which is near where they live. It was a really detailed and thorough review and I couldn't have asked for a better analysis. Reviews aren't everything, but for a new author like me, it was exciting to know that someone had actually taken the time to read and study my work.

I would have liked to have done more readings for the book in Montreal, which is my hometown, and where my publisher is based, but like I had mentioned earlier, I was living in Paris the year the book came out. That allowed for some unexpected and very cool opportunities to promote the book. In particular, doing readings in Paris, Berlin, and London. My good friend, Joshua Levy, who's a wonderful poet and short story writer, was living in London at the time and he organized a lovely event at Goodenough College where I read alongside Todd Swift, a poet I've long admired. That was a real thrill and an honor.

When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you?

GS: "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert Service was one of the first poems I remember reading when I was a child. I used to pore over my elementary school library’s edition of the poem that was paired with the colorful and haunting paintings by Ted Harrison. I recently found the book for my father-in-law after I found out it was his favorite poem. It wasn't until I was a teenager trying to write songs and lyrics to play on the guitar that I seriously started wanting to read and learn more about poetry. My songs were my first poems. It was around that time that I started reading e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and my aunt's copy of Flowers for Hitler by Leonard Cohen.

At a young age I knew I wanted a career in the arts but I was all over the place. I wanted to be a cartoonist, an animator, an actor, and the list goes on. I took my first poetry workshop as an undergrad at Concordia University in Montreal with poet, David McGimpsey, and it was an eye-opening experience. Until then, I had been trying my hand at both prose and poetry but there was something about that class that really clicked and made a tremendous impression on me. McGimpsey was a passionate teacher and he took poetry extremely seriously, despite his writing being some of the funniest stuff I had ever read. I really admired that. It was after McGimpsey’s class and because of him that I made the decision to buckle down and focus on learning as much as I could about poetry and I've never looked back.

When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

GS: There’s a quote from Gertrude Stein that I love: "I write for myself and strangers." I don’t normally imagine a reader. I’m usually too busy writing to exorcise an idea from my head or to make myself laugh. That said, if I were to imagine my ideal reader, I guess I would picture someone like me, only smarter.

We met online when we were both participants of a Found Poetry Review project. When did you first become interested in found poetry? What attracted you to it? What sort of response have you gotten from your readers regarding your found poems?

GS: I first became interested in found poetry when I started teaching poetry workshops. I was looking for more prompts that would force myself and students to think outside of the box and I discovered Austin Kleon's Newspaper Blackout. The book is made up of poems that Kleon created by taking a black sharpie and blacking out pages from The New York Times to create new texts. It's exciting and liberating to create something new out of existing works of art. In effect it’s a type of collaboration. Around that time I was also really interested in collage and remix culture. I started constructing poems using lyrics from pop stars like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus and rearranging the words into poems that I would call “poetry remixes.” This led me to seek out other found poetry forms and writing exercises.

My chapbook, Tweet Tweet Tweet (Corrupt Press, 2011) contains more of my remixes and found poems, but I didn’t really include many of them in Rabbit Punch! except for “We Were Startled by the Sound of Fog”, which was an erasure poem using Out of the Fog by C.K. Ober (Associated Press, 1911) as a source text. I used the great Erasures website at Wave Books to create it and I was thrilled to find out that the poem was chosen to be the November 2014 Poem of the Month at The Montreal Review of Books. I was happy that an example of found poetry was being showcased, when it might not normally be seen by a mainstream audience.

Generally speaking, how do you approach revision? Do you use a checklist or have any tried-and-true practices?

GS: Revision is always an ongoing process for me. I have poems that I’ve been tinkering with for years. I don’t have a checklist but here are a few practices that I turn to regularly:

I - After writing out the first draft of a poem, I often eliminate the first line or two. I have a tendency to over explain myself and this helps cut out any superfluous words.
II - Reading the poem out loud is always a good idea. If I find myself regularly tripping over any words, then that’s a surefire sign that something’s gotta go.
III - Putting a fresh poem away and not looking at it for a while also helps when I return to it after giving myself a little distance.
IV - I took a great workshop with poet Matthew Zapruder when I was doing my MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. One of the exercises he had us do was taking our completed poems and rewriting them backwards, meaning writing the last stanza first and so on. It doesn't always work but sometimes an odd juxtaposition surprises you and makes the poem sound more interesting.

As an editor at carte blanche, what would you tell hopeful poets looking to find homes for their work?

GS: I share poetry editing duties with Patrick McDonagh at carte blanche. We both have pretty eclectic tastes. I’m not actively searching for poems that resemble my own writing style. I simply choose poems that move and surprise me. It’s hard to say what that might look like, but whatever makes me say, “Wow! I really need to help share this with the world.”

Who are you reading now? Do you have a favorite poet or poets? What poets influence you?

GS: I have way too many books on my to-read pile, and I am often reading more than one thing at the same time. I just finished two great novels, actually. Blind Spot  by Laurence Miall, who is carte blanche's fiction editor. The protagonist, Luke, is a great anti-hero. I found myself disliking him, but wanting to keep reading to see what he was going to do next. The book reminded me of Camus' The Stranger. It's a remarkable debut novel. The second is 10:04 by novelist and poet, Ben Lerner. The book really brought me back to my time spent in New York as a graduate student and aspiring writer.

The poets and writers that I often turn to for inspiration include James Tate, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Dean Young, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, Mary Ruefle, Russell Edson, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Violi, Lydia Davis, Robert Hass, Linda Pastan, David Lehman, David McGimpsey, Stuart Ross, Gillian Sze, and Ben Mirov.

If you were a place, where or what type of a place would you be?:)

GS: Gee, I've never been asked that before! I would be a traveling carnival or a place like Coney Island. Complete with cotton candy, Cracker Jacks, haunted house, sticky floors, Ferris wheel, fun house mirrors, a sideshow, and clowns.

Thanks again for the opportunity to be interviewed! This was fun.

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A sampling of Greg’s poems on-line:

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