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Kyle Schlesinger is a poet, critic, and book artist. His research focuses on typography, visual art, and new media. He is an Assistant Professor and co-Director of the Graduate Publishing Program at the University of Houston-Victoria. Schlesinger learned to print letterpress in 1996, and in 2001, established Cuneiform Press, a non-profit publishing house specializing in artists' books, poetry, and criticism. Cuneiform has published over 40 books to date, including titles by Bill Berkson, Johanna Drucker, Alan Loney, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson. Schlesinger is the author of twelve creative publications and two books of criticism. In 2005, he received a full fellowship to attend Rare Book School at UVA, and in 2008, he gave the keynote at the Research Group for Artists Publications in London. In 2011 he was artist in residence at The Center for Book and Paper Art at Columbia College. Professor Schlesinger has published and lectured throughout Europe and North America.

Interview by John Wisniewski

jw:  When did you begin writing, Kyle? When did you first publish your poems? What was this experience like?

ks:  First, I’d like to thank you for this invitation to talk about poetry with you, John. It’s difficult, if not pleasurably allusive, to try to say when I ‘began writing,’ because it touches on so many questions concerning epistemology, existentialism, ontology, identity, pedagogy, and so on, and how people choose to tell these stories. What does it mean to be a writer? Where does the process begin? Where does it end? What does it mean, finally? What about you? Anyway, and more to the point, I wonder when I realized that writing and reading were meaningful activities, when I realized that the way we use language can change the world and the way that we perceive it? Readings in New England Transcendentalism, Feminism, Buddhism, Radical Politics, Poetry, Experimental Education, New Journalism, and some choice stand-up comedy gave me some insight in my adolescent years for sure.

The incorporation of MFA programs, the institutionalization, and mainstream mythology of what it means to be a writer, are predatory, trendsetters, that sadly, a lot of people (teachers and students alike) fall into with the best of intentions. Neolibralism 101. Preoccupation with what’s in, what’s out, etc. distract the mind from doing what it naturally knows how to do better than anything else.

Publishing is much more matter-of-fact, in some ways. First poems were mostly published in high school and college literary journals, but the work that still interests me (purposefully avoiding the word ‘mature’), started percolating around the time I began studying with Robert Creeley and other friends and faculty was around the turn of the century. There was a robust community of poets, artists, and publishers in Buffalo at that time that I was indeed fortunate to befriend and behold. A proliferation of literary magazines were in the air at, perhaps the tail end of that analogue moment when the coffee table was flooded with books a friend-of-a-friend sent you, and you would send them one too. Then you would stop by a friend’s place and find more magazines you had never seen before, and so-and-so would say ‘you’ve got to talk to so-and-so’ and so it goes, dominos… In short, the real writing can’t be discussed without acknowledging community.

jw:  Any poets who may inspire you?

ks:  Inspiration’s a funny thing. A dear friend called from Maine the other day and said he was reading a stack of books by one of his favorite writers, Greil Marcus, but for some reason the sparks just weren’t flying and he was feeling disappointed that he wasn’t getting the usual inspiration he feels reading Greil. Inspiration and intention have a funny relationship: it’s hard to go out looking for it, but you can’t wait around waiting for it to come to you, either. I guess that’s what makes it special.

This summer I met a poet for a drink on a quiet afternoon and he gave me his books, which I found completely inspiring, in spite of the fact that his ideas about the moments of experience that lend themselves to inspiration (love, war, death, sunsets, divorce, etc.) were quite conventional, to my mind, and the prevalent end rhyme was a great assistant to my modest intuition. And I’m really not knocking it, quite the opposite: I found it inspiring because it reminded of the common assumption that poetry is necessarily about something, or that there’s a prescribed set of occasions or subject matter that lend themselves to writing, which is anything but the case, because poetry is a lens, not a medium.

There’s more great poetry in the world than anyone could read in a lifetime, so why do we need more poets? What does poetry, fundamentally, offer? My reading, and moments of inspiration, are probably too rambunctious to consolidate here, but today it was George Oppen, a tremendous figure in my life, and looking back, looking forward, I found some sense of affirmation that my more recent turn away from word-salad no-no’s like ‘clarity’ and ‘truth’ and ‘experience’ and ‘politics’, and felt some validation that these are meaningful pursuits, and can be done without sacrificing aesthetics, always a crux, but more importantly, putting me aside, his life and work are most inspirational, experiential, and there’s a real knowledge there, knowledge in the sense of knowhow, and that’s rare.

jw:  What may inspire your poems?

ks:  Anything, particularly the particular.

jw:  What kind of comments do you receive from readers of your work? Do you often attend poetry readings?

ks:  I attend poetry readings often because I’m interested, sincerely interested, especially in what the younger generation is doing. A friend invited me to a Youth Rise event in Austin, Texas last week, and I had no expectations, Unitarian Universalist Church, teenagers, etc. but I was completely blown away by their candid nature, their capacity to speak articulately about difficult subjects (deportation, incarceration, discrimination) to a captive audience.

In terms of comments on my own work, they take the form of letters and conversations, visual art and poems, mostly, and I like that best. Someone will read something of mine and send me something they wrote, or painted, a song, etc. I like that kind of dialogue, and I’m very grateful to be a part of it.

jw:  Do you write constantly Kyle, or keep a record of your observances? Just for a look into the creative process.

ks:  Lately, the answer is yes, I do write every day, but I don’t prescribe it. Tom Raworth once told me that he doesn’t write every day, but he does something creative every day, and that stuck with me as a completely validating bit of insight from one of our greatest poets. Against the grain of the compulsory institutional rhetoric as a closed practice, Tom’s view is much more open to the world, and poetics, to me, has always been about these interrelationships between us and the world, which includes, but is not limited to poetry. Or as Dominique Fourcade suggests, art is just part of the world, not the other way around.

jw:  Any trends that you like, or dislike in poetry and writing over the past twenty years?

ks:  I actually don’t like ‘trends’ at all, quite frankly, but there are tendencies in individuals that are more or less interesting to me than others. I admire people who hold themselves to a certain level of quality that lasts a lifetime, I mean the people who bring integrity to the work for decades. That means something. The incorporation of MFA programs, the institutionalization, and mainstream mythology of what it means to be a writer, are predatory, trendsetters, that sadly, a lot of people (teachers and students alike) fall into with the best of intentions. Neolibralism 101. Preoccupation with what’s in, what’s out, etc. distract the mind from doing what it naturally knows how to do better than anything else. I get it: everyone’s wondering how to do what they love and make a living, how to live the life, and there’s no simple answer, particularly in an age where time and individual agency are a commodity. These are extremely conservative times, and I gravitate towards people who are finding their own ways in the world, people who believe in the importance of community. One of the best things about finishing graduate school was reading without a curriculum, figuring out which writers really matter to me, and why. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but fortunately, the greatest poets and artists, the most resourceful thinkers, are pretty much all in the same boat, and I have a hunch that the social and political change we’re looking for isn’t something that we’re incapable of reimagining, happily.

jw:  Do you find writing challenging still, after all of these years, Kyle?

ks:  If it wasn’t a challenge, I would have dropped out a long time ago. Ted Greenwald used to say, that as soon as someone asks you to ‘write another Ted Greenwald poem’ or says, ‘so and so’s work is a lot like yours,’ it’s time to go in another direction, to do something new. Last time I read in New York with Bill Berkson, I was pleased to hear that old friends at the reading recognized, and appreciated, a marked difference between my last full-length collection, Parts of Speech, and my working manuscript from the last year or so, A New Kind of Country. I want poetry to surprise, to baffle, transform, and that’s a lot to ask of myself and the poems of others that I read, but that’s a reason to keep reading, evolving, writing.

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