Where There’s No There: A Q & A with Lina ramona Vitkauskas and Larry Sawyer

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Lea Graham: Both of you discuss a kind of resistance to place in your essays. Could you talk a bit more about your interest in Fouc­ault’s idea of “heterotopia”? What interests you about spaces of “otherness” or those places that are both physical and mental—and that capture time as much as place? 

Lina: Personally, I’m of the mind that all of “this” is temporary, so, I find myself consistently living in a transitory state of mind. I’ve always felt as if I’m a part of something else, somewhere else, happening simultaneously. I am a firm believer that parallel universes exist.

There is however, a part of me that is inappropriately nostalgic for places that evoke sorrow. For example, I cried when my parents sold my childhood home, even though the memories attached to that place were often sad. When living in Lithuania for a few months, I insisted to my companions that we stop and sit at Kryžu Kalnas (The Hill of Crosses) most of the day. Yet there is tension in my writing process that prohibits me from getting too close to any place or specifics. I like allusion and ambiguity. Poetry is transcendent…often leads us to familiar-yet-nonexistent places…places that could only exist in our minds (which, I feel is a more realistic place than our daily sleepwalk).

My main interest in heterotopic spaces is primarily with a communal aspect these may offer. A shared public space offers endless possibilities for action committed in that space—both over the passage of time and simultaneously. Heterotopic spaces possibly offer up a wormhole of sorts (that we can actually see!) It’s an exciting prospect for a writer. It conjures so many possible consequences.

Larry: I grew up near an Air Force base, and I often had the experience of making a good friend who would subsequently have to leave town because of a transfer. The soft anxiety of that impermanence might have seeped into my personality a little bit because I often feel acutely aware of the transitory quality of situations, whether it’s during a casual conversation with a friend or watching a film for the first time knowing I’ll never view it again in precisely the same way or staring at photos of friends or family and being preoccupied, not so much with the event being captured, but with the details that show how people have changed with the passage of time. It’s this kind of melancholy feeling that attracted me to poetry because through art it’s possible to manipulate timeor create the illusion of nonlinearity.

I came up with the idea of using Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopic space to write poetry. Students were tasked with considering a heterotopic space: an airport, cemetery, a hotel, a prison, or even the act of gazing into the mirror, to engage in the writing of poetry with multiple perspectives.

Poets are now spending huge amounts of time online and it occurs to me that browsing the Internet is similar to gazing into a distorting mirror. We tend to stop and spend the most time on the pages we can relate to. We’re drawn toward what resembles ourselves. Gazing at a computer monitor or a handheld device to read the words you are looking at right now draws you into a heterotopic space.

In this sense my earliest experiences in Chicago involved a realization that many people come and go in this town. I responded that way in the essay because I believe we are much more than the sum of our parts and never neatly defined by any geographic location, although I’ve grown to love Chicago. One of the reasons I’ve stayed on for 12 years is that Chicagoans seem accommodating toward visitors, which is a likeable quality.

People here are proud of their particular neighborhoods, but there’s also the north side/south side divide and all the associative baggage that’s attached to those two senses of place. Northsiders often can’t relate to Southsiders and vice versa; ergo, two baseball teams.

Living in Chicago truly seeps into one’s identity. There’s a reason it’s referred to as “Chicagoland.” Living in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago is different than Lincoln Square, which is a different experience entirely than living in Andersonville, Hyde Park or Pilsen. Chicago’s neighborhoods are endlessly interesting to me. The bars, old movie theaters, neon signs, old bridges, and street characters. The “L” creaking along serpentine tracks. In addition to that there’s still a sense of wilderness here, however. The random coyote sighting can drive that idea home.

Chicagoans take umbrage at criticisms about this city, rather than simply ignoring them, because the sense of disbelief is great when criticism is leveled at such a great place. New York has taken recent hits from celebrities with street cred such as Patti Smith and David Byrne because its reputation as artists’ mecca has been maligned by the fact that it’s become nearly impossible for anyone but the wealthiest to survive there. Chicagoans know that the sheer variety of experiences available, the city’s relative affordability, and the gargantuan beauty of this urban landscape all add up to a quality of life that really can’t be compared to other cities.

Plus, the art here is in flux. It’s in the process of becoming. To quote Rilke: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” If stasis is death, Chicago is filled with life because it really moves. It actually moves you. You just have to keep going.

Lea Graham: This resistance to place (at least in the most tangible way) is interesting given that you both seem so rooted in the poetry community in Chicago. You are such a big part of the poetry landscape through Larry’s work running the Myopic Poetry Series; your journal, milk; The Chicago School of Poetics that you started some years ago; and what seems like a pretty full calendar of readings from your own work. Can you talk about Chicago as both a poetry town and a place where you’ve made your lives? I’m wondering what—if any—parts of Chicago help you as writers? There’s the lake, of course, but I’m also wondering about architecture and political history? What about your own personal memories within Chicago? How does the city provide you with artistic energy?

Lina: I’ve spent 39 of my 41 years in Chicago (I was born in Portsmouth, VA at a naval hospital). I was raised between Marquette Park in the 70s (then a thriving Lithuanian immigrant community) and the southwest side in the 80s and 90s. Marquette Park slowly turned into hotbed of gang activity in the early-to-mid 80s and even today is in close proximity to much of our city’s gang violence. I’ll never forget the news story I read in the 90s about the church where my brothers and I were all baptized, and where my folks got married (Navity BVM): a woman was raped right in front of it in the middle of the afternoon. As a Chicagoan, and as a writer, that terrifying story stays with me.

Chicago itself as a place has traditionally welcomed outsiders—ethnically, within the arts, and generally speaking, those whose lifestyles are a bit on the fringe (above the law, even). Misfits, dreamers, and Midwestern-values family folk.

What I love about my city is that it augments the absurdity of life by juxtaposing the “normal” or “regular” (the predictability of daily routine, the “city that works” [insert images of the dedicated business man on LaSalle Street and the committed, blue-collar family man engaged in physical labor, perhaps fixing yet another pothole in the street], and/or our distinct dialect [pluralize anything in this city, it’s allowed!]) with the bloody-violent (new gangs, old gangsters, stockyards); the corrupt (politics); the bizarre (curses on sporting teams that involve goats; obsessions with meats; sightings of Resurrection Mary, Wesley Willis, and Walking Man); and the beautiful (architecture, the lake, and our profound history). Chicago is a place an artist can come and work unencumbered, free of scrutiny by peers, and can find community with others (where other cities may offer rigid competition in the arts). The art of improv, for example, was born in Chicago and offers its practitioners the mantra, “I got your back”. This is indicative of how our inclusivity—no matter where you are from originally—makes you feel part of the whole. This is definitely a place where you can come and experiment. Try it out. Tweak it. Fix it. Perfect it.

Re: milk, The Chicago School of Poetics, the Myopic Poetry Series, my involvement in all of these things is as co-conspirator and supportive member. In all of these efforts, we (Larry, our co-contributors and fellow poets, and I) emphasize community first and foremost. Quite often these days, conversation in poetry can be isolated, one-sided, shoved coldly out onto the Interwebs for others to consume and knee-jerk react to. We try through events and readings to open up dialogue.

Re: Chicago and my work and energy: Chicago has contributed as a place in that I’ve met so many great poets and writers. The non-pretentiousness of the place helps. People are more relaxed—approachable. If anything, Chicago lends its blue-collar sensibility to the mood of events and readings. People are willing to reach out to one another and talk. Important and silly dialogues often happen here. The absurdity of life, the pain of life, everything seems a bit more real or tender in Chicago. I think it’s the taverns.

Larry: When I started milk magazine in 1999 it was in print. I was living in Dayton, Ohio. In those nascent days of the Internet, editing a poetry journal was a way of bringing the world to me. When I met Lina we decided to put milk magazine online and she made that happen. It’s been our labor of love. It was one of the first poetry websites. It was a prime conduit for my aesthetic interests. It still is.

I’m fortunate that poets want to visit Chicago because I can hear them at Myopic Books! Chicago has become a destination for poetry. There are so many writers here. This city can be really difficult and frustrating but despite long commutes, absolutely evil weather, and waiting endlessly in line for everything, there’s the culture. This is what I was starved for. I never really felt that in New York or San Francisco. Chicago was more in-your-face, exciting, rude, raucous, and un-PC. Chicago felt more punk and less posh, which is what I wanted. True; moving here means enduring for a few years and possibly getting ignored a bit but only because the locals are in such a rush. This city does work.

My two first books were kind of like love letters to the city. Although the first one, Unable to Fully California, has a slight subtext about not feeling quite alright out west. I only felt weird because I was already a Chicagoan and that was the context for that critique of what seemed phony to me. Chicago, if anything, is genuine. The people here aren’t pretentious. It makes sense that improv comedy and theater have such deep roots here. One does indeed get the sense that the city is going to allow you to succeed if you just keep it up.

Lea Graham:  Talk about starting The Chicago School of Poetics. What led you to create the School? Who are the poets you’ve included so far as instructors and/or mentors for the project? 

Larry: Francesco Levato already had an idea to start a school. I think I turned up the volume a bit. In the fall of 2011, Francesco, Lina, and I were talking about it, how it could work. We thought: let’s start our own school with our own vision. We wanted to focus on experimentation and innovation with an eye to craft. I wrote the course descriptions and web copy and Francesco designed the site. Francesco was already writing poetry that relied heavily on collage technique and also creating cinépoetry. He gave us a copy of A Humument by Tom Phillips, as an example of what was possible. I was writing surrealist poetry also influenced heavily by media culture, musicality, and a sense of the absurd.

Soon we were writing to Ron Silliman and Eileen Myles, asking them to teach master classes. I started as an instructor and then became co-director.

We’ve had students from Morocco, Japan, and Australia, as well as all over the U.S. Recently I taught classes on media culture, publishing, and also Level I and Level II poetics, alongside classes taught by Lina, Barbara Barg, Sharon Mesmer, Kristina Marie Darling, and Steve Halle. Courses include offerings such as Red-Headed Stepchild: The Unholy Spawn of Poetry and Story, Shock the Monkey: Poetry and Mass Media, Erasure Poetry, Pulse Poem Pulse, and a new master class with Pierre Joris on April 26. We update the schedule frequently with new courses to keep things interesting. I was floored when Ron Silliman commented that “This is what a school truly should bethink of Black Mountain Collegebeyond all the boundaries & borders.” We overcome geographic boundaries but also financial boundaries. I set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise scholarship money for students in need.

It’s more than the fact that we’re merely offering online instruction. We created an entirely different paradigm. The instructor is rewarded for the work involved. Each course is truly a shared experience. It’s a collaborative environment with a radical accessibility. Students comment that they learn from one another as much as from the instructors.

Talking about hybrid forms, conceptualism, the New York School, and all of my favorite poets is really exciting for me. We operate from the premise that one shouldn’t have to go into debt to study poetry. The American poetry landscape in the past few decades started to experience what looks like gentrification to me. We stand in opposition to that.

Our visual conferencing software allows classes to happen in real-time. Students can share video and audio clips, PDFs, and interact or choose to simply listen. It’s focused entirely on generating new work. I take a constructivist approach and focus heavily on generating new writing. It’s wonderful to hear when a student gets another poem published.

 

 

Photo By: phvolmer




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About Author

Lea Graham is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch (Apt. 9 Press, 2016), the poetry book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011) and the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above /ground press, 2006). She is an Associate Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York when she is not on a bus in the Andes, hiking through Galicia or stuck in an airport somewhere. She is a native of Northwest Arkansas.

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