Edwin Torres

In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?

Well, I'd like to think that anything can happen when I pick up my pen…and America is a land of opportunity…so I suppose there is a shared freedom found in that analogy. America is freedom and so is my poetry, to me at least—my poem is the open road of possibility which categorizes both America and her citizens. However, I do think poets are citizens of language more than nationality. Ours is a shared humanity, our shoulders, our lineage, our language—beyond territory. I am a poet before I am an American poet.

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about American poetry past and present? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film?

Hard to say what makes a poem American because there are so many Americans…not to be flippant. The sheer range of people, and poets, and poets who claim to be people, in this country sort of cancels out one particular type of poetry. Maybe there's a commonality more in the experimental than the mainstream… because in the experiment is the alchemical alliance. We're all scientists, looking to evolve the species…or at least to let it evolve without burden.

As I think about it, there is a definite pointedness or sarcasm that cuts through a lot of contemporary "American Poetry" (with quote marks), which is no doubt a reflection of the times we're in. If we ever were a gentler nation, it was during a gentler world. Is our face to the world now, both the Mac and the PC guy…wise-cracking satirists trying to sell you something? Too simplistic and fascist maybe, but in looking for a thematic reach…there's probably a survivalism to American poetry hidden within the day to day that prompts a certain chip-on-the-shoulderismic tone of "just trying to get by." The hard-working PC guy who doesn't catch a break…the smug Mac guy who knows it all…survival at its edges. But isn't all poetry about survival? Am I allowed to ask a million questions? American Poetry is about a million questions! Right?

What role do historical and geographical factors play in American poetry and in your work specifically? What other aspects of your life (for instance: gender, sexual preference, class, ethnicity, religious beliefs) relate to your sense of being a poet in America?

America is so much about work—has always been about being number one, competition, "making it." Growing up in New York City, working as a graphic designer, discovering poetry outside academia…I was always inspired by the poets who had jobs in the workplace. The notion of technology or progress, the machinery of humanity, the glassy transparency that shows my flaws while reveling in my "American" individuality…would be factors that have shaped my work as "American" more than other surface differences like gender, race, class, necktie, etc. I am a worker bee. Part of the team. My conflicts, aspirations, contributions, downfalls…same as yours. Uniquely yours and mine. Because I'm like you, I'm nothing like you. And I revel in this spirit of individuality.  This voice that lets me be my own voice--is that being American or is that being a poet?

Is there something formally distinctive about American poetry?

 I don't see a formal distinction in its structure. It is, maybe (I keep saying maybe because trying to will my definition into being attaches my baggage to my definition which undercuts my "be all" as "end all," i.e. who knows) in its attitude than its formalism? Its genetic makeup, contemporary American art in general, is all-inclusive…impregnating the work with a scream to stand out, to be fed, listened, received. Makes me wonder if the quiet ones know how quiet they really are? America is such a contradiction (which I love)…it's so much about itself while embracing the world. And how would that appear on the page? How do you convey that sort of vulnerable arrogance with lines of text on a piece of paper? I guess I prefer the no-definition approach, the organic gene pool of mistakes looking beautifully off and unique, daring recognition in its limitless refusal to confinement.

What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?

Popular culture is a spice and push in American Poetry but it's not at its center any more than politics, sports, news, nature. The awareness of the every day wouldn't make for a specifically American poem, while a slam poem about a reality show like "The Jersey Shore" could only be American. Whereas Twitter, Youtube and other social medias, I feel, have been lessening our collective attention spans contributing to a realignment of structure—how information gets presented as opposed to the info itself. Making for another approach to American poetry, a shortening of the line, of thought, of reaction, a hybrid-linking of tangent to tangent. And there's probably a backlash waiting to all this brevity…something like "The Slow Poetry" movement or "Slow Cooking."

But there's always going to be reactions back and forth… where eventually the speed levels off, the structure maintains itself, exposing the content for what it's always been—people in the act of being (people).

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think of American poets, non- American poets? Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

My own tradition was hatched by the zaumists from Russia. While I've since opened my eyes to poetry's orbital complexities, my first inspiration was sound-based. Growing up in a multi-lingual household, my ear was tuned to the space between words…between meaning, interpretation and outcome. The sound of language at its core and the fun of playing with mistranslation. In the pioneering spirit of new beginnings, I felt an affinity between the Russian Futurists of the 20's and the influx of Puerto Ricans into New York City during the 50's which would become the Nuyoricans. In each circumstance, meaning and rhythm set root against each other in the guise of language. As I grew into my writing, my mentors began to appear where I needed them… radical beings who believed that the universe was at their center. Eventually settling into a sort of body-politic, a galactic nomad within me, at ease with drifting between territory. Dancers, artists, musicians who molded this American boricua  out of star stuff.

The American poets with lasting impact to me…who make noise living inside their center…the shoulders I stand on...here's a personal list: Charles Bernstein, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, e.e. Cummings, Yusef Komunyakka, Anne Waldman, Sharon Mesmer, Rod Smith, Pedro Pietri, Anselm Berrigan, Rae Armantrout, Anne Tardos, Jackson MacLow, Cecilia Vicuña, Allen Ginsberg, Eileen Myles, Billy Collins, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Robert Creely, Leslie Scalapino, Bruce Andrews, Alice Notley, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Bob Holman, Juliana Spahr, Lisa Jarnot, Sapphire, William Carlos Williams, Harryette Mullen, Kenneth Goldsmith, Willie Perdomo, Noelle Kocot, Gary Snyder, Frank O'Hara, Miguel Algarin, John Yau, Brenda Coultas, Rodrigo Toscano… everyone of them, distinctly American to me. But the thread that runs through them to make them American…I couldn't say. Which would tell me that difference and opportunity are binding similarities, when it comes to this country.

What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?

Maybe the social media I mentioned in the question above will lead us down the rabbit hole, force us to outwit the next century, re-invent what we've got already and call it 'normal.' There is a new normal—behind our screens, our phones, our tweets—a new speed that wants to catch up and leave us in the dust. A movement like Flarf, points towards the rat-pack mentality of future survival—using the resources in front of us (internet, google, blackberry) to synchronize with our personal speed. Eeking out free time between chores, between stanzas, between sounds, to write, to catch what zooms past our ears. My only possible prediction would be that poetry captures the time of its being. As America grows inward, towards cultural implosion, poetry will probably follow suit…looking at itself from the inside. But then, some new movement will gain friction which counters the current. I imagine the ship will always remain on course because of its deep roots…poetry will always be underground because of its freedom, its ability to both bend and break with the time of its being. I'd personally like fun to not be feared, but change is a scary thing. And the job of art is to point both out and in, a reminder to breathe when living in your world. On that note...thank you for letting me participate in this!




Continue browsing Q & A: American Poetry