Between Writing and Poetry [Q&A]

This is a Q&A with Toby Altman. 

How did you get into writing? How long have you been writing?

unnamedWhen I was five or six, my best friend’s mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up; I answered, without thinking, “a writer.” There is some deep compulsion in me to write, some need that exceeds all practical considerations (about money, for instance, or talent). Freud says that every dream has its navel: a point beyond which interpretation simply cannot pass. This compulsion is the navel of my life: something so fundamental that I can’t think through it.

When did you get ‘serious’ about writing? Any one moment or has it always been your goal/hope/plan?

When I was a teenager, my father started to write poetry and he took me with him to open mics around Chicago. (In particular, we spent a lot of Friday nights at Coffee Chicago, at John Star’s open mic). My parents were divorced and I lived with my mother, so it was an important event for me: a chance to spend time with my father as equals. Because open mics are democratic spaces: everyone is equal in front of the mic. (That’s a bit utopian, but the thought is at least 40% true).

Anyway, my exposure to that community of writers—and to their work—gave me the spark to start writing poems with purpose and seriousness. I tried my hand at other things—including a mortifying stint as a rapper (stage name: Mr. Smackey)—but poetry is the art that feels most congruent with my capacities and inclinations.

Where did you learn about writing, whether technical like college or mentors, a time period, etc?

During all my studies, I think I’ve taken one poetry workshop. I learned about writing through much more informal channels: by attending readings, by talking to people, by reading intensely on my own. It’s a roundabout way to do it, but it had a distinct advantage: it allowed me to develop an idiosyncratic practice, and an idiosyncratic relationship to the history of writing.

Between poetry and playwriting, is there one you prefer? Or is there one you feel you’re stronger in?

I think of poetry as a zone of contamination: an international airport where viral generic strains cross, comingle, and multiply. I’m invested in a kind of writing the deranges all borders and masters: no gods and no genres. I like the obscene pleasures of penetration, language that cuts. Arcadia, Indiana, my new book, is addicted to such pleasure: its thrills are the thrills of the knife, the thrills of cutting through thick cloth, velvet curtains that crumble when touched. In other words, between poetry and playwriting, I prefer the between, the narrow space of contact where both genres lose their stability, their edges, and become liquid and flexible.

How are the two similar? How are they different?

People like John Stuart Mill like to say that poetry is overheard speech: that reading poetry is like—inadvertently—eavesdropping on someone’s private confession. The genre presumes an audience, a stage, a fourth wall. My wager: why not radicalize that idea? Instead of simply presuming a stage on which the poem parades, why not give it one—described in absurd detail?

How did you go about publishing your work?

I think of publication in an expanded sense. Not just placing poems in magazines or scooping them up into books, publication is all the collaborative acts through which a poem circulates. The advantage of working in a semi-theatrical context: it amplifies the opportunities for such collaborative interventions. Recently, for example, I gave Arcadia, Indiana to the extraordinary performance artist Mark McCloughan and told him to do whatever he wanted with it—rewrite it entirely, turn it into a dance performance, etc. The result was an extraordinary mélange of our respective gifts, a hybrid text that belongs to both of us, and that was published only the stage.

Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?

My writing begins with reading. I am, I think, deeply susceptible to other people’s voices. I hope that I do not have a voice of my own. As I read, I find myself (often unconsciously) imitating the text I’m reading. I pay close attention to the mechanics of such texts and I try to steal their secrets. I plagiarize compulsively. A text like Arcadia, Indiana is thus a quilt of more or less obvious quotations and imitations. My aim is not (merely) a slavish devotion to the past: I’m trying to explode the smooth surfaces of the canon, to discover in its folds and crevices pockets of subversive possibility. I seek the shock of the old, rather than the shock of the new.

Arcadia, Indiana is recently published. What was the story behind this? What is the story? Where’d the inspiration/idea come from? How was writing it? How’d you get the publication?

unnamed (1)Arcadia, Indiana started off as a collaborative sonnet sequence called Sonnets to Orifice that my (now) wife Emily Barton Altman wrote to each other when we were dating. (That’s how poets flirt, I guess). Eventually it mutated into this cancerous tragedy. Its plot is simple: a worker in an Indiana factory has been injured at work; his wife sleeps with the Foreman to keep him from being fired. Masculinity being as toxic and fragile as it is, tragedy ensues. Though I finished it in 2014, it is, I think, a tragedy for our moment: a tragedy for a world overwhelmed by trash, by the toxicity of the past. Honestly, though, I didn’t think much about its politics while I was writing it: I wrote it instead as a series of formal experiments. I wanted to see if I could take some of the most mundane, over-worked aspects of the canon—the sonnet, the iamb, the five act tragedy—and weaponize them, turn them into avant-garde devices. It was a tough book to write: I wrote it at the level of the phrase, sometimes even the word, collecting mountains of material and then stitching them together into poems and scenes. I think that accounts for some of its density and difficulty: each phrase is charged with a maximum of sonic intensity and meaning. My friend—the incredible poet Jay Besemer—read the book in manuscript and recommended that I send it to his friend Tyler Crumrine, publisher of Plays Inverse. The rest, as they say, is history.

What’s your writing schedule? How do you keep yourself writing?

Haphazard, but obsessive. I don’t keep a schedule. I find myself—for two or three months—constantly returning to a project, working on it every day. Then I ignore it for months. I work very hard at writing, but I do so according to an idiosyncratic schedule, a schedule which makes it feel less like wage labor and more like sorcery or agriculture: an act that depends on the weather, the seasons, the atmosphere.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

In my experience writer’s block has less to do with writing and more to do with ego. I find myself most seriously mired in it when I start caring less about the poems and more about prestige, publication, fame. I have been trying for a long time to put those things out of my mind: to work on the project for its own sake. This has been tough. It’s something we all struggle with, I think: every writer I know feels that they should be better known than they are. We work in an obscure field, where no one is given the respect due their talents. But I think that comes with advantages: we are able to work collaboratively, to write for each other and to support each other. And we are free from many of the concerns and constraints that afflict more profitable forms of literature.


Toby Altman is the author of Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017) and five chapbooks, including Security Theater (Present Tense Pamphlets, 2017). His poems can be found in Crazyhorse, Jubilat, Lana Turner, and other journals and anthologies.

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