Eryk Wenziak Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
In my poetry, I haven’t used punctuation in the type of way you use it (for example, beginning or ending a poem on slashes or a colon), and I haven’t interviewed many poets – if any – who do. So it’s exciting to me to have the opportunity to ask you about it! First off, how do you think of punctuation? What are some ways punctuation and form can add meaning to a poem, or otherwise add to the experience of a poem? (I’d love examples!) And what draws you to create meaning (and otherwise add to the experience of the poem) in nontraditional ways, like by using nontraditional punctuation?
Well, that’s a great question. Last year during a workshop, an “academic” poet told me that I really shouldn’t use ampersands—that I should spell out A-N-D. He said how ampersands really don’t have a place in poetry and I should change them. I knew I was on to something at that point! Seriously though, I need to give a shout-out to visual poetry. This genre heavily influences my use of punctuation when I write. My visual poetry chapbook, 4am, published by Derek Beaulieu’s NO PRESS, exemplifies this. Punctuation, for me, creates a mood or atmosphere—an environment that I can’t necessarily express with words, nor would want to waste them on—which envelops the theme of a particular poem. It really has nothing to do with being grammatically correct. Don’t ever try to read my pieces for grammatical correctness. I use punctuation to replace entire words or thoughts. For instance, I see a period as representing finality—an ending, whatever that means. If a poem ends with a period, it just stops. It’s self-contained on the page. That may be fine, of course, if a piece has a “and they lived happily ever after ending.” But with many of my shorter pieces, I leave endings open, unresolved, or in the middle of something where you wouldn’t traditionally just stop or expect a break. At times it’s because I don’t have a resolution and I leave it to the reader. Other times it just seems the appropriate place to end. In contrast to a period, I see a colon and whatever follows it as being vast, left to interpretation—unending, if you will. Having a colon as the last piece of text, followed by white space is something that blows my mind. I’ll just say that sometimes I use punctuation for how it aesthetically looks on the page and nothing more than that. I love the shape of colons, semi-colons, and commas. Just read some of the conceptual poets out there who’ve “written” entire pieces of just punctuation marks with no words. That excites me. If a punctuation mark looks visually pleasing to me, and I can fit it loosely in context, then I’ll do it. There are other times when I’m using punctuation solely for the purpose of “painting” a picture. In my experimental chapbook, 1975, published by the amazing Joseph Quintela’s Deadly Chaps imprint, I use various punctuation marks to “draw” a picture of the Killing Fields in Cambodia. And if you think about it, the lack of any punctuation marks in an entire piece also sets a mood. Like I said, take off your grammar hat when reading my pieces.
Often, the imagery you’ve chosen is surprising and fresh at least in part because one image is positioned next to an image I didn’t expect to come next – in other words, because of the great juxtapositions in the poems. Is there a theme to your juxtapositioning – are you looking for a similar thing (a reaction, for instance) each time, or is each one accomplishing its own goal? Another way of asking this is, is this a community of juxtapositions that inform each other, or is each one on its own, solely serving the purpose of its poem?
This question is a difficult one to answer because it presupposes some things about my creative process. One, that it is planned in some logical way. A lot of times, I’m not sitting down knowing what I’m going to write. I don’t have a complete idea of something I’m looking to express. The one thing I do know is that it’s “time” to write. The catalyst of my poems usually comes from one of four places: a single word, visual, sound, or smell. Sometimes it’s a combination. From one of those, I’ll just start writing, quickly. I’m not really one of those guys who can write each day for a set number of hours. I’ve never done that. I can’t. Not because of time, but because if I had to sit down with a complete idea in my head and was “forced” to write and express that idea, I couldn’t do it. It would sound forced. Writing for me is not something that I do, it’s something that happens to me, so trying to conjure up and make something happen is artificial, not authentic. I write when I’m inspired or feel something needs to come out. Not writing doesn’t alarm me at all. It just means I’m not ready. I need to be ready to write. Maybe if I sat down and tried to simply write, it would produce something of value, but I don’t like change. I’m sticking with my method. I can tell when there’s something rising in me and it’s time to write. At that point, I need to stop wherever I am and start writing or at least take notes. It can be debilitating, depending on where you are. I had to duck into an ally on 42nd street in NYC to write a first draft of a poem. It can be a frustrating process, but it’s all I know. They happen at dinner parties, walking down the street, sitting in a doctors’ office, etc. I’m not saying that’s the right way, it’s just my way. And once that surge is gone, it’s gone. If I didn’t write it down, I lost it. I also create in other mediums and genres, so if I’m not writing, I’m probably working on photography, using stencils and acrylics to create visual poetry (my most recent piece was published as a set of silk screens by Red Fox Press in Ireland), creating collages of found materials, or working on one of my 2 conceptual novels: the first involves MapQuest, the second, spam email. I’ve actually started some cover designing, also. So like I said, not putting words to paper for weeks doesn’t concern me.
Sorry, back to your question. I will admit, that very often, when I've finished a piece, I am amazed at the meaning people find in my imagery, especially when a writer knows enough about me to connect the imagery and ideas they suggest to experiences in my own life.
As I said before, I am often inspired by an image or scent in my mind, or something I notice, like crumpled flower petals on a stone walk. When these things stir my mind, I sit down and am just putting words to a page. The images come to me that way. Like the “nails on a plate of China” in the poem [in]ability, I hear the sound of them scratching the China and it is disturbing, which goes to whatever is happening somewhere beneath the surface in my thinking, if you will. This piece began with a visual: shudders banging against the outside of a cabin. The piece trivium was written after hearing the word on a television program and then needing to look up the definition. Once I had the definition, the next visual that entered my head was that of a mockingbird. And as you can see, that became the ending. Lastly, IMMINENCE began with the image of blue chalk.
When I sit down, I am thinking in these images. I am not using these images to communicate words. These images are my words. If you think about it, language at its origin is formed for that very purpose: to give shape to our ideas and extend the human ability to think and reason. So in a sense, I am going backwards. My reader is the one who translates the juxtapositioning and relates it to life, to my life, and to their life. For me, this is something that happens after I’ve finished writing, not before.
If I had to pick a single line by an author that has had the most impact on my writing in terms of juxtapositions, it would be the following quote from Isidore Ducasse’s Les Chants de Maldoror: “He is fair…as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!”
As people communicate, we’re constantly defining and interpreting words, quickly figuring out denotation(s), our personal and communal connotations, and the connotations and implications the speaker brings to the words. This defining and interpreting process is so much of how communication works and how it fails. I love that your poem beginning “slave: (n)” shows this as a circular process – it begins with one word, formatted as a dictionary entry, and it leads to another word waiting to be defined. The form of this poem, then, adds layers of meaning to the poem and describes communication as it communicates. Compared to narrative poetry, some of your other poems seem to “end” in media res in other ways, too – for instance, with the colon at the end of “//i look beneath your skin:”. This unending circularity fascinates me. In what ways does it fascinate you? Does any poem (or any communication at all) have an ending? (Or are you more interested in something else altogether?)
I love ending where I began, and vice-versa. That whole circular nature fascinates me. There’s no linear thought process in my writing. And other times I love to end simply for the sake of ending without reason. I don’t care if it’s in the middle of something, at a climax, or whatever. The ending to a piece, in my mind, does not necessitate closure. Nothing is ever done or complete, is it? Russell Edson does a lot of that in his prose poems and I’m a huge fan of Mr. Edson.
I’m so honored to be interviewed and have my poems in Connotation Press, Kaite. I can’t thank you enough.