Interview with Jerome Sala
by Vincent Katz
Completed April, 2007
VK: Where did you grow up? What about your childhood and teenage years had an effect on your becoming a poet? Do those years affect your poetry today?
JS: I grew up in Chicago, in a neighborhood known as "Little Village,” near the Cook County Jail. It was known, and is known, as a "gang-banger's" neighborhood — lots and lots of gang activity. In fact, I hear the local Catholic church erected a memorial — sort of like the Vietnam memorial in D.C. — to honor all the kids killed in gang wars. I myself was in two ethnically mixed gangs (Latino and Eastern European guys — my family is Polish), though I was thrown out for not being able to fight well enough. It was an odd, scary existence — hanging out with the gangs and then reading Dostoevsky at night. After I parted from the gangs, I discovered I could sing. I sang with a few soul bands. When I finally got to college (and discovered that thing called middle-class life) I quit the bands (because I didn't have enough money for a P.A. system). That's when I took up poetry (seemed like a natural next step). It wasn't like the literary world came totally out of the blue, though. When I was younger, an older cousin of mine was already starting to write (he's an award-winning fiction writer and poet — Stuart Dybeck). Through him and his brothers I found out about books to read (and was always a sort of bookish person myself). In terms of the influence all this has had, I'd say my background has helped me appreciate the beauty of crude (street) sounding language. I don't mean this just as a political statement, but an aesthetic one (i.e., the various tones of the vernacular fascinate me — offering a sort of music and steely wit not found in more conventional writing). Poetry doesn't swear enough; there are still walls of propriety that need to be broken down — and allowing this language from my background to come forth helps me work toward this, I hope. Of course, this background affected my political outlook as well; the U.S. Protestant "up by your bootstraps" ideology seems less than convincing to me.
VK: What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager? Did this have any effect on the first poetry you wrote? When did you write your first poem? Was it a casual or earth-changing experience?"
JS: Living in an urban locale, most of the music I listened to was soul. I remember the soul station in Chicago back then was WVON, with DJs like "Herb Kent the Cool Gent.” As a singer, I idolized crooners who could hit falsetto (which I never could quite accomplish) — Jackie Wilson, etc. We also sang doo-wop. Early on too, I started collecting old blues records (Chi-town is a big blues spot, with Chess records and all). Then, when I was 17 or maybe 18, my brother brought home an album called "The New Wave in Jazz,” and we started listening to Coltrane, Ayler, Shepp — and later, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra — (then later still, Monk, Miles, etc.). (It's like my jazz education went from free backwards.) The first poem I ever showed to a group of writers seemed to feed off all this. It was written in a blues form (didn't know much about standard poetic rhyme and meter), and I submitted it to a poetry workshop as a freshman in college. Turns out the teacher, a formalist, seemed to appreciate the blues rhyme and meter. He would read poems to class without saying who wrote them. One day he said, "Out of the work that's been turned in so far, there's only one I like." He read my poem and everyone cracked up. Then he said, "Your laughter is a good sign. Poetry should be able to entertain you in some way." I now realize the humor came from another, even older influence than music — TV. When I was a little kid, I loved watching comics (and wanted to be one when I grew up). So there's a little stand-up influence in my writing. But, back to the music thing — a few years back I was reading Langston Hughes "blues poems,” and I remembered my first poem. Of course, I knew nothing about Hughes way back then — but I guess some of the same types of music informed the form.
VK: At what age did you start writing poetry regularly, and in what context? That is, was there a group of friends who were interested in poetry? Was it in school? Out of school? Was there a social situation connected to it? What poetry were you reading at the time? What other things were you reading at the time?
JS: Didn't start writing poetry regularly until my early 20s. Yes, it started in college, and there were two groups of artists I hung out with. First, were those people I met in writing workshops. Also, though, there was my first wife (though we married a few years later) and her mother. Her mother was an abstract painter who was an old time bohemian. She toured at one time with the comic Lord Buckley (her "court" name was Lady Bunny) and knew a number of his monologues by heart. (She was part of pre-beat bohemian scene — in fact, her cohorts considered the beats less than pure.) My first wife was a poet too. Some of the writers I met at school were into New York School writing, others into Surrealism (this was an influential style in Chi-town back in the early ‘70s —both in writing and painting). I was just getting my feet wet in poetry back
then, so I read everything. I liked especially Frank O'Hara for his pop wit, but also Mayakovsky for his boldness. Also was excited by Ted Berrigan's writing (met him once and he said he liked my poems), some Olson, Benajmin Peret — and Breton's Surrealist Manifesto. Together with an early friend of mine, James Feast (who now lives in NYC and is associated with the "Unbearables" literary group) I read a lot of Marxist literary criticism (Georg Lukacs, the theories of Brecht), so that material was an early influence too.
VK: Tell me a little more about your formal education. What kind of school did you go to? What did you take away from that? Where did you go to college? How was that experience? What made you decide to go back to school? Have you just earned a doctorate? What do you plan to do with that degree?
JS: I went to a Catholic High School in Chicago's West Side ghetto. I remember the first two years, in gym class, the coaches screamed at us to get in shape — because as soon as we got out, we were all going to Nam. But the last two years, Chicago was marked by riots. The school underwent so many changes, that after that period we didn't even have to exercise anymore (we could just show up and smoke cigarettes in the back — a relief.) I remember writing little essays the English teacher would read in front of class that people would find amusing.
College was the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. The writing workshops, as I mentioned, were encouraging. Also, a few of the lit professors liked my critical writing and encouraged me to go on for a Ph.D. They introduced me to Roland Barthes, Marxist criticism, etc. I applied to a few places to go further (they didn't have a doctorate in English at that time at U. of Ill.), and got accepted at one — but I was married at the time (my first marriage) and didn't have the dough necessary to go. Always wanted to complete the process, though, which is what I started doing after Elaine and I moved to NYC (NYU had a lot of graduate classes at night, so even though I was working fulltime in the day I could attend). I'm actually completing the dissertation in my spare time at night right now (in American Studies). I've been drawn to
critical/scholarly writing in addition to pure poetry for a long time — I mean really hardcore scholarship (something that used to surprise people, given the rambunctious styles I've written in over the years). I'm not really into the whole deconstructive/world-as-text tradition that was so popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s, though. I've always been oriented more toward writing/culture and its intersections with sociology, history, etc. This sort of stuff integrates a lot of my interests: high art, pop culture, ideology, capitalism, cultural studies, etc. My dissertation uses a lot of ideas from the late, great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. When I'm done with this degree, I'm planning to write critical essays in addition to poetry. By studying this stuff systematically, I'm hoping to gain the ability to write in a more counter-intuitive fashion.
VK: I believe I heard you referred to as a "punk poet" in the early 1980s, or maybe it's a term I made up. Was punk important to you as poet, either in terms of performance tactics or general stance toward society, its use of language? Were there particular groups, artists, that were important to you then? Could you talk a little about the
influence of music, popular and otherwise, on your poetry, and maybe discuss a little how that has changed through the years. What do you listen to these days?
JS: Great question. Everything changed after I got out of college. After my first marriage broke up, the age of punk began. I hung out on that scene and started performing work in the back of punk clubs. My style got a lot more performative (I guess incorporating my old soul/rock singer sense of being on stage). Mayakovsky became an even bigger influence then, along with anti-poets like Nicanor Parra (who wrote with incredible directness). Also: crazy manifesto type tones — as Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto (as well as funny pieces like "Down with the Tango!"). At first there was no literary context for this new style. Then I met Elaine Equi (who was also influenced by punk) and we began performing together. This started an early performance poetry scene in Chicago. In any case, when Elaine and I started doing events together, my style came more or less into its own: direct, pop — with elements of parody and (I hoped) social satire.
Early on, I did get dubbed a “punk poet.” One reason for this was that I used to recite my poems in the back of the first punk disco, Chicago's La Mere Vipere, on Halstead St. As a result, I built up a following there and when I'd give a reading a number of these people would show up. I made a lot of friends on this scene. The whole punk thing affected my style as well. Like at a punk concert, I'd taunt the audience and they'd reciprocate. Early on, I remember doing a reading with a punk performance artist, which was unusually crowded for a poetry reading at that time. Lit cigarettes would fly back and forth between the crowd and stage, along with insults. But it was all in fun. And doing readings like this, you could get away with wearing outlandish get-ups and hairstyles.
Poetically, punk reintroduced the joy of negativity. I remember writing early poems with titles like “I Hate You” and “Love is Dead” — meant as a parodies of the conventions of love poetry. Also, allusions to punk fashion, slang and its weird obsessions would get into my poems — bizarre images like “wedding cake bride and groom figures stuck into cream of sandwich cookies.” The pop culture in punk was all broken in some way — and that was a big part of its charm. And of course, all of the above was deeply influenced by the music and its personalities, who embodied the style and attitude so perfectly — everyone from the Sex Pistols to Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys and later L.A. and San Francisco Hard Core. As I remember it, the movement had a short, but powerful influence; by '81, it seemed to be over in Chi-town. It's been hard to top that music when it comes to something to listen to (but I can't go back to it either). So lately I've turned over a new musical leaf and am into American Minimalism (Glass, Reich, etc.).
VK: I realize it's not easy for me to pin down your influences — I came up with Frank O'Hara meets Sir Walter Raleigh in the mosh pit at a James Chance gig. Then I thought probably comedians have been influential — Lenny Bruce, maybe — and popular fiction — Hammett, Chandler — and TV and the movies. Does any of these strike a chord? Are there things I'm missing completely that have influenced you? Painting?
JS: You're totally right about Frank O'Hara and punk. Maybe not Sir Walter specifically, but I have read widely in the English tradition — so I'm sure it's rubbed off. Here are some other things that have had an effect. Wild declamatory writing, as in the Futurism of Mayakovsky and the Manifestoes of Marinetti. Roman Satire — especially Juvenal.
Comedians — Lenny Bruce, yes, but also Jerry Lewis. Later: Jack Benny deadpan.
1950s teenage Sci Fi atom-bomb apocalypse flicks; bargain basement horror and Sci Fi in general. Schlocky crooners: I was a stagehand at Chicago's Empire Room when I was younger and caught a lot of Vegas acts "on the way down." Influences in my later years were William Carlos Williams and the more philosophical objectivists (like George Oppen). My poem, "Scenes from the Dick Van Dyke Show," is a re-do of WCW's "Pictures from Breughel." TV of any era.
VK: Turning to the writing of poetry, how do you usually write? Do you tend to write poems in one blast or over protracted periods? Do you edit a lot after the initial writing?
JS: My usual method is to do lots and lots of automatic writing in notebooks and ignore what I've written for a couple of months. Then I skim through what I've got and things jump out — sometimes whole, sometimes in pieces. I finish those. At other times, I'll write something and it will excite and scare me at the same time. This can be a sign that that the piece is ready as is. My editing process usually goes one of two ways: either minor tweaking or I find what I've got is just a stanza or section of something longer that gets expanded on.
VK: A lot of your poems seem to me quite formal, not in the sense of meter but in the sense of rhetoric. How do your ideas for the themes or riffs of your poems come to you?
JS: I'm usually improvising with concepts that come from my reading of philosophy, or social and political theory. As I mentioned, I'm not doing this very methodically. It seems I keep fishing around until I discover some sort of associative logic. The formal quality you notice might have to do with the fact that I want to see how the logic of the rhetoric plays out when you take it to its "end."
VK: My final questions have to do with politics. Is it possible to include politics in poetry? Is it a good idea? In your poetry, ideas usually come in at an angle, as opposed to going for a direct hit, even when the subject is clear cut. Do you have any models for political poetry, or political art? My feeling is that you are more a satirist than a political poet. You attack fallibilities rather than projecting a coherent platform. Are you a fan of Swift's? Thoreau's?
JS : You're right, I'm more of a satirist — and, in fact, although my style consists of straightforward statements, they're rarely written with a straight face. The political aspect of my work has more to do with criticism than platforms. But I do think politics and poetry go together. I know the standard rule of Modernism (which we still haven't escaped) is that poetry should be loyal first and foremost to itself, but political imagery provides lots of opportunity for aesthetic pleasure. Recently I was reading Du Bois’s The Souls of the Black Folk and there's a scene, rendered in very poetic prose near the beginning, about how, during Sherman's march through the South, his army gathered a second army behind it, made of tens of thousands of refugees — a “dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns.” Du Bois’s description offers a grand panorama, with the aesthetics of a rich mural, and I wondered why poets (myself included) don’t play more with public events as a source of inspiration. Oppen, Auden and Ginsberg were all able to do this, as were Shelley, Blake and Whitman before them. It may be that as poets once again start experimenting with a more public voice (as they seem to be doing — witness the growing sophistication of performance poetry), they will begin drawing on the aesthetics of public life again. As far as my own satiric models go, yes, I have loved Swift over the years (my poem, “Mute Griefer,” in Look Slimmer Instantly! is a take on Swift’s “Modest Proposal”). Also, a big early influence on me was Nicanor Parra, who I think achieved his ironic, parodic and satiric effects precisely by writing more clearly and directly than other poets (flirting at times with a kind of flatness, or extreme deadpan).
VK: Turning to the poems in your most recent book, Look Slimmer Instantly!, whereas in the poem "On Pain And Gain," you attack greed in a generalized way, almost as a moralist writing about the seven sins, and in "On Money And Bullshit," you even seem to include yourself as susceptible to moral weakness, in the poem "God Bless America," you go for a direct hit on the U.S.A., indicating that you think the U.S. is the ringleader in fomenting the moral crises you allude to in other poems. Have you written other poems that are more direct and do you imagine you might in the future? When getting the idea to write a poem like one of the three poems referred to in this question, how do you decide which particular approach to take?
JS: When I consider my poems direct, politically or otherwise, I mean they employ direct address to the reader — sometimes breaking the fourth wall. But the poems themselves all have an ironic level (which is why they get laughs). This effect is achieved by having the speakers of the poems say nutty things — a bit like the scene in the movie Alice's Restaurant where Arlo Guthrie tells a draft board official that he can't wait to get to Vietnam so he can kill lots of people. So, in the “Money” poem, the poet/speaker talks about worshipping money; in “God Bless America,” the poet/speaker gets aroused by looking at the flag, and in “Pain and Gain,” the poet/speaker adopts the stance of a didactic, agit-prop preacher, whose poems “are not about trivial entertainment/but to teach.” I'm after a dual critique: on one level, of a specific political or social issue, on another, of poetry itself. That is, I don't like the pious quality of poets being “above,” say, commodification. I try to make the speakers sound like jerks (a carryover from the punk days, no doubt). What I'm aiming for is not just a subject (the great poet) criticizing an object (the misguided social order), but rather the staging of an example: here is the way someone might talk if they were fully overtaken by the “dark side” (to use a Star Wars metaphor). To achieve this effect, I need the two levels I mentioned — so my writing can never be as direct as say 1960s agit prop (or today's performance poetry). I need that ironic layer to make it work.
Read it at Sibila