Saturday, October 29, 2011

Interview Series: Megan Volpert

Happy Halloween weekend! Since October is almost over, it is time to post my monthly interview with an emerging GLBT poet. This month’s poet comes to us from Atlanta, is about to publish her fourth collection, and just turned 30 this month. Her name is Megan Volpert and I greatly enjoyed getting to talk with her. Megan and I will be crossing paths again in Atlanta in April for a poetry reading.

Until then, check out our conversation!

S: What got you into poetry? Can you pinpoint the moment when you realized you were a poet?

M: I had more books than toys as a kid, so I'm sure that had something to do with it. But the first time I recall a poem really just stabbing me in the chest with its awesomeness would be my junior year of high school, reading Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" in class. People always say that clichéd thing to me, that I'm an old soul, but I guess this moment proves there's a truth there. I remember the kid next to me was dozing off, and I just thought, "wow, that kid is a moron. He's missing this life-changing idea."

The first time I realized I was a poet was probably my first time at an open mic. I did my undergrad at Illinois State. Everybody knows that Normal, Illinois, has one of the most beloved geek squads of slam poets on the national scene. It's because there's so much crossover between the local slam and the speech/forensics kids. Well, I was a debate team kid who shared an office with the speechies, and they encouraged me to come see them at the slam. By the end of that first slam, everything in my body was just viscerally screaming, "you have to do this! Take the mic!" So that was the impulse not merely to scribble alone in my dorm, but to share. The sharing part is, I think, the essential element of recognizing that one is a writer.

S: That is well put. Sharing your work for the first time is a big step in the process. I can still remember the first poem I read my freshman year of college at an open mic. night. It is an important moment.

I always love talking to poets whose work is very different from my own. After reading some of your work, I can see that we have very different styles and approaches to poetry. How do you personally describe your work when asked about it?

M: I try to describe individual works, not "my work" in general. It's too eclectic--I hope! Through the years, I've been labeled (or libeled) a number of things, even things that compete or contradict: slammer, spoken word artist, performance poet or artist, language poet, linguistic theorist, pop culture theorist, psychoanalyst, queer, feminist, surrealist, confessionalist, dadaist, essayist, prose poet, hybrid poet, et cetera. It's been nice to keep surprising people, and poking holes in those expectations. I guess that means one feature of "my work" is that it aims to defy any expectation; it aims to turn smoothly and grippingly, to corner like it's on rails. I think also that across the books there is a certain tone, a voice that is growing increasingly clear. It has a dryness of wit, or maybe even a sarcasm, that continually rears up. But now I'm just paying myself senseless compliments, so I'll stop "describing" there.

S: As you have mentioned, you do slam poetry and have competed in the National Poetry Slam competition. How do you approach writing a slam piece? How is it different from writing a poem that’s meant to be read on the page?

M: I'm worried about using the present tense to answer this question. I was in competition as a slam poet for the better part of the '00s, and though I still pay it some attention, I know that I am not really part of that community anymore. When I wrote pieces expressly for slamming, I considered many angles of the thing. What did I want to say? What sounds did I want to make? What images would lend themselves well to blocking for the stage? What kind of hook would be best? What structure can I use to help memorize it? Ultimately, I stopped slamming because these questions led me to focus far too much on what others had done to be successful. I became unable to write what I wanted, writing instead what I thought would be winning poems. The competition aspect became too important, so I had to ditch out in order to save my ability to write. I miss it sometimes, but I am not sorry I quit competing.

So it is somewhat different from writing a poem for the page, depending on the extent to which you are willing to allow the directly competitive aspects of it to ruin you. But I learned so much about what makes a good poem, and the instinct to win over a crowd still serves me well at readings. This is one thing I am pretty sure about though: a poem built for only the page or only the stage is most likely a failure. All poets ought to make the most of both.

S: Those are interesting insights. I’m not overly familiar with the slam poetry scene or the competition involved. I do, however, read almost all poetry books aloud to myself. Hearing is key.

In December, your fourth collection is coming out from Sibling Rivalry Press. Your other books were put out by different presses. What has your publishing experience been like? Do you have advice for other poets?

M: Sibling Rivalry is my third press. Two of my books are with BlazeVOX, and one is with MetroMania. Presses are like snowflakes, and I've been fortunate to have pretty good experiences every time. My first try was fraught with tension, but that was more my own baggage and not realizing what real publication is all about. The process can be harrowing at first, and I wasn't in the right frame of mind. I learned things about myself, such as that I like to have a lot of creative control over the look of the final product. So I keep to the small/indy presses, in order to ensure the cover comes out how I imagine it, that the blurbs are from people I care about, and so on.

Getting a book ready for publication is one thing, but then putting it out there on the market is quite another. There is sadly little audience for contemporary poetry, and the realization that one's book will not sell hundreds of pre-orders can surprise poets who do not understand the business end of poetry. Very few presses want to put real money toward the publicity or touring of a poetry collection, so poets are doing more of their own legwork than ever. Because of my slam experience, I had a somewhat more do-it-yourself attitude already in place. The rise of social media has made doing publicity both more and less difficult.

I have one piece of advice for other poets: do not pin your self-worth on the dream of winning a Pulitzer. A dozen poets are born every day, and dozens of poetry collections debut every month. Let yourself be special by staying true to the writer that you are, and if it turns out that the writer you are is the one in a million capable of garnering fame or fortune through poetry, you can be satisfied that you've earned it. And if it turns out that you've lost the crapshoot for this mythical fame and fortune, you can still be satisfied that you've stayed true to the writer you are. I hope that doesn't reek of discouragement.

I often discuss this with one of my dear friends, who is by any reasonable standard a very famous and fairly rich poet. He is getting up there in years, and on his birthday, I always ask him whether he feels successful. He invariably answers that he does not; there's always a fresh brass ring for him to work toward reaching. And I think that's so true, that even the Pulitzer in some ways cannot be enough. So I try to find enjoyment and contentment with whatever small successes publication has brought me, and not fret too much over winning big. You can see how this issue of competition is not unique to slam.

S: No, it’s not. Thank you for your honesty. These are issues that poets face. I’m about to release my first book and it is a challenge. You want to be successful, but true to yourself.

I’ve been interviewing emerging GLBT poets all year, and getting their perspectives on the queer poetry world. From your perspective, what do you think the role of young gay poets should be? Are there issues we should be tackling? Anything particular to the lesbian community?

M: This set of questions puts a crinkle in the bridge of my nose. I wonder whether I am still "emerging" or still "young" or even whether I am a "queer poet." I've written four books, I'm thirty years old, and I'm not sure any of my books are particularly queer. They sometimes make mention of my wife, or discuss icons of queer culture like Andy Warhol, but I mean, is that enough? Do I have all my badges?

I also don't think of myself as knowing much of anything about "the queer poetry world." Since I am Co-Director of The Atlanta Queer Literary Festival, that might seem like a silly thing to say. At the risk of offending a certain type of writer, I will say: yes, there is an issue we should be tackling--poetry. Look, I am as out of the closet as a queer can be, but the identity of my person does not precisely mirror or translate to the identity of my books. I am queer and a poet, but I don't think my books are all that queer, and I don't think I am obligated to make them so. I think it's utterly necessary for any queer person to be as visible as s/he can without risking safety or sanity. But I don't write books that are just for queers, and queerness is usually not the primary way I like to assert myself within my books. Probably queers find a layer of meaning or enjoyment in a lot of my work that other people do not, and for that I am glad. But it is just gravy.

Put down the noose, dear reader! As a queer, I think there are a lot of issues we should be tackling--all and any queer issues. As a poet, the only issue I am tackling is poetry. If they occasionally overlap, fine/good. When they do not overlap, I don't apologize for it. I feel comfortable with and proud of my strong record of queer activism, and do not see valid reasons why that record must necessarily bleed into my sphere of concerns as a poet.

S: In some ways, these questions also depend on how you define “queer.” For me, I don’t see any separation. I am gay and therefore that is part of my work and a place I write from. I’m also from the Midwest, which plays a part in my work. I’m also a male, which plays a part in my work. What I like is the broadness that the term “queer” can have.

Who are the poets who most influence and inspire you?

M: I don't read as much new poetry as I probably should, and then there are poets who inspire me as people even though I don't relate much to their work, or poets whose works inspire me even though I don't like them as people. OK, I'll stop qualifying and just answer the question. My go-to answer is generally Laura Mullen and John Yau. But the field in this ballpark is broad: Christian Bök, Taylor Mali, Eileen Myles, Amy King, Bruce Covey, Randy Prunty--that's a glance at one or two shelves on my bookcase. Then I'm also a voracious consumer of nonfiction and pop cultural stuff: Roland Barthes, Camille Paglia, Andrei Codrescu, Hunter Thompson, Wayne Koestenbaum, and many more. To tie in to your previous question, perhaps I should also note that I tend to read more things that probably qualify as "queer nonfiction" than "queer poetry."

S: If someone came up to you who hasn’t read much poetry, what is the one book you would tell them they have to read?

M: I try to think of what they might like; I'd never give a blanket recommendation of the same book to everybody. People get different things out of different books. Some people need a book that validates what they're up to, and some people need a book that smashes what they're up to into pieces. With my high school students, I often recommend Nicole Blackman's Blood Sugar, or something from Daphne Gottlieb or Rachel McKibbens. If I'm talking to somebody whose tastes are fairly classical or conventional, I often recommend Bök's Eunoia. If I'm talking to one of my poetry friends, I try to recommend other poetry friends and broaden the network of all of us. Lately I have been sending a lot of people to Jillian Weise's first book, The Amputee's Guide to Sex, as it continues to haunt me.

S: I love Weise’s book. I’ve recommended it to many people myself. You currently teach high school English, which I admire greatly. I can only handle teaching college. How do you approach poetry with your high school students?

M: Thanks, I do love my job. I approach poetry with my high school students through their ears. It's not difficult. First a little pop or hip hop they already know well, then ease over to Bob Dylan, on to Dylan Thomas, backward to Keats or whatever. High school students have an innate understanding of poetry because of their cultural dependence on the wonderful therapy of music. They go to my class website, and this week it's an Edna St. Vincent Millay mp3 they've got to download instead of Lady Gaga, but they will still be curious and comfortable working with it. And a lot of them are covertly writing it. Kids are always sneaking into my room at lunch to leave poems on my desk, asking for a little extra guidance. Many academics, and perhaps the public at large, think of poetry as something like calculus, something that's necessarily difficult or that younger people cannot appreciate. In my view, that's quite mistaken. Kids love poetry, though they don't always know that's what it is when they see it. I have a more Whitmanesque attitude about its accessibility, I guess.

S: What has your experience been like teaching high school and being an out lesbian poet?

M: It's a burden I find well worth carrying. On the positive side, students rely upon me for reasons not to kill themselves, reasons it gets better. Teachers likewise rely upon me for insight into the unique challenges queer students face, and I often end up as the spokesperson for more general anti-bullying campaigns. On the negative side, there are parents out there who probably fantasize about burning crosses on my lawn. I get anonymous hate mail through my author website a few times a year. They scrutinize every aspect of my teaching in hopes of catching me doing something that could get me in trouble. For this reason, I strive to be twice as ethical and professional as other teachers.

Being out as a poet is actually perhaps the more difficult position, because censorship is still fairly socially acceptable even where bigotry is not. My work is not found in my school's library--much of it contains content or language that various sources, including me, would deem inappropriate for fifteen year olds to access in a school setting. I keep my writerly life separate from my teacherly life, and do not discuss my work as a poet with my students. I do not encourage them to check it out on their own time either, though of course, a quick attention to Google yields a cornucopia of stuff. Several times, it's happened that a kid has been caught looking at my work at home on his/her own time, and when the angry parent confronts the kid, the kid says I gave my author website to the class or something. I would never do that, and I understand why the kids would want to deflect blame from themselves, but it does land me in the Principal's office to help handle these irrational parents. Fortunately, I work at a school with a very supportive administrative team, and they trust that I am keeping the two spheres as separate as can be reasonably expected.

Both of these identity issues are obviously in stark contrast to the climate of the university. Unless you work at Brigham Young or something, being a queer liberal who publishes cutting-edge work is a privileged and enviable position. But as a high school English teacher, it leaves me open to the possibility of persecution. Quite literally though, I am saving lives. These students need me, and I will continue to serve and protect them to the best of my ability, in a manner that denies or compromises my own identity as little as possible. I'm not a martyr by any means, but I am definitely a soldier.

S: Good for you. I can only imagine the challenges, but also the rewards. You just turned 30 this month. What did your 20s teach you and what are you most looking forward to in your 30s?

M: Well, my image of myself is that I have been 45 for a long time now, so turning 30 was not as much of a challenge as I was led to believe it would be. I'm not waiting for anything--I've already got a great job, a lovely wife, a nice house, etc. My twenties were well spent, half working my ass off and half enjoying myself so much I can hardly remember the details. I suppose people in their thirties do both of those things still, but with more impunity. So I am most looking forward to making the decisions I've always made, with a little less judgment from others.

S: Now for some fun: What poet(s) dead or alive would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?

M: Well, let's dismiss the "alive" part immediately. How awkward! I'm a professional and I love my wife, and that's that. So my best answer is: Emily Dickinson. Then, rumors surrounding her sister-in-law aside, we can put the whole is-she-or-isn't-she controversy to rest. Plain though she was, that whole uptight New England vibe is sometimes sort of a turn on.

S: What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

M: I try not to think like this anymore. Envy is such a useless emotion; I try to convert it into ambition, into more positive and productive things. But I do wish I could play the guitar--there is a parallel universe where I am not a poet, but a rock and roll star. So I will say: Tom Petty's "Anything that's Rock and Roll is Fine." That's my favorite song in the world.

S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?

M: I might say Chloe Sevigny, because we have the same slouchy bodies, and she always looks sort of snobby and unhappy. My face likewise has this look. I can be having the greatest time at a dinner party, and people will still leave thinking I didn't enjoy their company. I'm just not one of those people who walk around with a grin on all the time; I'm one of those people who think that looks stupid. But on the upside, when you get a smile or a laugh from me, it's completely and verifiably genuine. Maybe a man should play me. One of the Culkin brothers? Or Tilda Swinton. It would take a person who could represent with a lot of attitude. The ability to mouth off is essentially my defining characteristic. Maybe a slightly fearsome person, like Isabella Rosellini?

Those are my instincts, but really, I was clueless on this question. So, I asked my wife. She said: Parker Posey, Sally Field, and Kristen Stewart. Obviously, my wife has a more generous interpretation of my character than I do, for which I am grateful to her. But she also really liked the Culkin brothers idea. Fuck, am I an anti-hero?!

S: I love how seriously you took the question. I’m a big fan of Chloe Sevigny, so I’ll vote for her. What’s your favorite curse word or phrase?

M: Fuck. One of the nicest compliments I ever got was when someone once said to me that he felt I made better use of the word "fuck" than anyone he'd ever known. What a noble accomplishment! But yeah, "fuck" is the greatest. Its part of speech is so versatile, and its monosyllabic exclamation can be inserted seamlessly almost anywhere in a conversation. It's so emotive and primal, a perfect little nugget of an expletive, and a classic.

S: That is a great compliment! Lastly, what are you currently working on?

M: I'm very pleased to say that I'm contracted to edit the next anthology from Sibling Rivalry Press, slated for publication in 2013--This Assignment is so Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. This is obviously a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and equally obviously, a book that has been missing from the marketplace for far too long already. "It gets better" is an excellent idea, but it can only carry us to a certain point. This anthology will collect the experiences of queer teachers, in an attempt to make visible the diverse, conflicting and conflicted facets of their perspective. I hope it will shed some light for other teachers, give fresh energy to queer students, and of course be enjoyable poetry. Anyone reading this who might be interested to submit work for the anthology should look for the call for submissions at the end of this year. Also by that time, I'll have the website up and running: Can you believe no one else already owned that web address?!

The anthology will be my second project with Sibling Rivalry Press. Though I've had good experiences with several editors, I can say without question that it simply doesn't get better than Bryan Borland. My new book, Sonics in Warholia, comes alive on December 6th. Thanks to Bryan, this project has already turned out so much better than I could've imagined. Pre-orders begin on Halloween, and the first fifty pre-orders sold through the Sibling Rivalry website will also receive a free download of the audiobook companion.

Then, as usual, I'm also working on another manuscript. It's a series of epigrammatic prose poems, or micro essays, that addresses concepts of death and autoimmune disease through metaphors of motorcycling and rock and roll music. Somebody called them "funnyserious, tinybig" pieces, which I think is just lovely. To me, it also feels a bit like Joe Brainard's I Remember.

S: Those sound like great projects. I look forward to reading them.

photo by rob friedman

-Stephen (Q&A)


  1. Such a great interview! That is such a fantastic anthology idea. Leave it to Bryan to come up with something like that. I'm torn, as a straight teacher, to allow my students to write about gay rights/marriage etc in their argument papers. I don't allow abortion or the death or penalty, and next semester no more right to bear arms. I worry about negative responses. I still, sadly, hear too much gay bashing :( I threw a student out of class earlier this semester for it.

  2. wow, every time i think i get up to speed on just how cool and smart you are - you surprise with more of both!

  3. Yep, nodding my head at every point Megan makes. I write poems/short stories/vignettes, but have not ventured as much into the performance aspect of words. I especially like what Megan says about applying her performance experience to the act of writing, as well as what she says about how to work a crowd. Some readers of poetry don't even think about their audience, and they put us to sleep.