Stacy Szymaszek on the Liberatory Possibilities of Outsider Poetry
Sallie Fullerton Talks to the Author of Famous Hermits
The titular poem in Stacy Szymaszek’s new collection Famous Hermits begins with a quote by Agnes Martin, delivered at a Poetry Project talk in 1980. “I know that you’ve been conditioned to…become famous, and make your mark, and all that kind of thing, but you won’t go very far…” Though it appears halfway through the book, the statement settles over the poems like a portentous cloud. A moment of shared recognition and complicity. The poet, however, seems to have already given this idea quite a bit of thought.
Szymaszek left the city where people go to become famous and went, in fact, quite far. After thirteen years living in NYC, eleven of which were spent as the director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, Szymaszek relocated, first to Montana and then to Arizona. It is in this transition that the poems find themselves. The poems are ecstatic and clear headed; cavernously internal and polyphonic (we hear from Leslie Marmon Silko, Etel Adnan, the narrator’s lover, dentist, the specter of the city…). The result is not an argument for the relative morality of urban versus rural life, institutional versus independent engagement, but instead a continuous grappling. Famous Hermits searches for the actual power of poetry and how one pushes (and at times contends with) the limits of their own autonomy.
Stacy Syzmaszek is the author of seven books, most recently The Pasolini Book (Golias Books, 2022). She is the recipient of a 2014 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a 2019 Foundation for the Contemporary Arts grant in Poetry. From 2007 to 2018, she served as the director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City.
I interviewed Stacy Szymaszek about her latest book Famous Hermits out this past winter through Archway Editions.
Sallie Fullerton: You wrote Famous Hermits in response to leaving New York City, where you had previously lived for some time. Did you have a sense of the book before you moved? Was it already forming?
Stacy Szymaszek: Good question. When I left NYC in August of 2018, I believed I would be coming back after a semester of teaching in Montana. That said, I gave up my apartment and put all of my belongings in storage, so, in retrospect, I like to think I was, not totally consciously, making room for the possibility of not returning. And I never did. And I was one of those people who would get pissy when friends would move away from NYC. I protested too much. Once I got out, many surprising things happened. Most notably, my timing reset back to slow, and I started to be able to see my 13-years there from different angles and experience what it meant to not be there, to no longer have that social position, or title, and entitlement. I couldn’t have anticipated how wild it would be. Famous Hermits is about being there for that wildness, a lot of love and anger, and risk. I did leave the Project so that I could center my writing and shake “the admin curse,” so in that sense I was anticipating a time where I could be a full-time poet. And I managed it for a little over 3 glorious years and wrote 3 books.It seems necessary to me that we be critical of structures and forms, especially those we participate in.
SF: I’m interested in your timing being reset back to slow. In the book, you get the sense that this shift is a healing one. That you are being put back to some kind of factory settings, like in the line “I know I’m still unwell because my mind mistakes the shine of a book/ for my phone detonating with messages.” Did you have this sense? Was the collection a therapeutic journal in some ways of becoming well? Or noticing the ways in which you were not?
SS: I didn’t and don’t think of it in those terms but maybe in a related way of sorting myself out after some big life changing experiences and finding “right relationship” with myself, the natural world, and others. I’m listening to Lucinda Williams’s new memoir on my rural commutes and thinking about how I used some of her lyrics in FH (at the time I didn’t know that her dad is the poet Miller Williams, who translated Nicanor Parra). Her song “Passionate Kisses” asks things like don’t I deserve this, am I asking too much? The idea of reciprocity was and is really important to me. The experience of loving and being loved by my partner, Kimberly Alidio, also a poet, is such a big part of the book’s arc. She once said to me, “organizations don’t love people,” and because of my past as an “infrastructural poet” I kind of resisted that idea but knew it was true—so another part of FH is mourning the fallen idol of the literary org.
I continued grappling with this theme big time in The Pasolini Book, and then less so in my unpublished MS About the House, and a long poem I just finished called “Starving is the Energy.” It still holds a lot of energy for me, but not as much pain. I kind of love to launch complaints in my poems. Poetry of complaint. It seems necessary to me that we be critical of structures and forms, especially those we participate in. It’s a form of curiosity.
SF: I love the idea of poetry of complaint and a complaint as a kind of fluid conversation with oneself and the world. One that may or may not ask for reciprocity. I’m wondering what it is about poetry that feels especially suitable for launching a complaint?
SS: There is a classical tradition there that I feel connected to. You see it in Dante, Chaucer, Catullus. And in Pasolini of course. I just reread Plath’s Ariel and see it there. The poem “The Applicant” really stood out to me this time. I became really attuned to complaint or insult as a contemporary possibility through Bernadette Mayer’s work (her Catullus translations, Sonnets, Utopia). I love how she writes about money, and how she would make public complaints about who should pay her, or how little she was paid. I felt encouraged by her to direct my grievances into poetry. I remember when I was editing Journal of Ugly Sites for publication, which was one of her experiments (“keep a journal of beautiful or ugly sights”), I felt I had to take out certain information pertaining to people’s obnoxious behavior because I was the Director of the Poetry Project. Now, with more autonomy, I feel less worried about saying whatever I want to say, even though I know I pay for it in silent ways—by the work being greeted by silence, fear, being ignored or excluded by power.
It’s hard to accept the way things are for poets. I haven’t answered your question about what makes poetry suitable for launching a complaint. I do think of myself as a civic poet (like Pasolini thought of himself) and for me that means the space the poem creates serves as a public forum, to reach actual people. Like you say, reciprocity may or may not be forthcoming, but the work holds the space for readership, and desire for it, for care. That space is vital. The poems I love to read and write grapple with difficulty in some way, they tell us what the world is really like and that we must learn how to be a person, and not a monster, in it. What do you think?
SF: I think the poem as a complaint has a kind of dimensionality to it. You can really examine the facets. It’s not so direct or demanding, but as you said, grappling. I think my poetry complains a lot too, though I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s a complaint that doesn’t necessarily anticipate change, but does anticipate an audience. In this way it’s kind of like whining—like Eileen Myles’ take on pathetic. Non-pejorative but existing in, taking up the sometimes troubling “way things are for poets.”
You mention autonomy and the freedom that allows. You write in FH “my movements invent funny grace/ between precarity/ and autonomy.” It feels a bit like the book lives in this zone between precarity and autonomy. In the realization that you can actually do what you want, which could be anything and provoke anything. What was the experience of writing in this space? Did you see a shift in form?
SS: Absolutely, and everything I’ve written since lives in that zone as well. Though I would say that my realization, what I pay attention to, is that I can’t always do exactly what I want, so then I make a social map of those pain points in the work as I try to live my life. Those are the complaints! If you read all of my books you’ll see that I usually write long poems or book length poems, so I surprised myself when the first half of Famous Hermits came out as a bunch of discrete poems, you know, each with their own title. I hadn’t written much since I finished A Year From Today in 2016-ish. I guess I was busy blowing up my life. I say that with laughter. Those poems are raw and kind of primal. Literally written at the base of a mountain. I needed to get at that energy to take me to “Famous Hermits” and do the kind of work I wanted to do but felt I couldn’t. I had become too familiar with myself and had to unknow me.
SF: The “elite city” is a looming character in the poems. I wonder if you can talk more about the presence of elitism in the book and what it means to you as a poet? Or what you see as the connection between the hermit and the elite?
SS: The “elite city” character emerged after listening to a recording of the Agnes Martin talk at The Poetry Project that I quote in the beginning of the poem “Famous Hermits.” She says a lot of striking things that make the audience respond with laughter, but she’s totally serious. It’s an instance of an archival recording where the audience delivers another layer of meaning. I transcribed most of it in my notebook. She says, “To demand attention that is not willingly given is exhibitionism and is a crime. Our attention is the most valuable thing we have…it’s our life.” And then I read somewhere that she said she left NYC because she wanted to die everyday from “an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
One of the most memorable moments in my life was when I bicycled away from my Brooklyn apartment in June after also having left the Project, and I had one key to get me into my sublet. I probably had 15 keys that I relinquished. In the context of the famous hermit, I can comfortably swap the word exhibitionism with elitism in Martin’s statement. I had never spent time west of Wisconsin, so living briefly in Missoula and then Tucson, I generally experienced that either no one cared that I was a poet rolling in from NYC or they had a defensive attitude—and it seemed that few aspired to ever go there. I had to contend with my own sense of elitism that I felt as a New Yorker. New Yorkers tend to get busy and unreachable and there is some romanticization of that. I always fought that, and at least tried to retain my true nature as much as possible, my amble. Difficult. And then there is the thread in the book where I am contending with the elitism of the university and institutional gatekeeping.
At the time, 2019, I thought I could make a living by getting more visiting writer gigs, but the fact that I don’t have a MFA, I think, was an obstacle. In some ways I’m really old-fashioned and thought that my 5 (at the time) books and leading the Project for 11 years would be a compelling equivalent to that credential. There’s maybe a larger social factor at work in that those worlds are also so insular and self-referential and I haven’t been initiated. I refuse to get an MFA. I felt pretty disillusioned, but it also forced me to figure out how to make a living in the least evil way possible, to continue making up my own path. I work in development on a nonprofit organic dairy and vegetable farm now, which is good for now. I don’t work with poets but I feel deeply appreciated for being one. After I recently had a poem in the “New York Times Magazine,” I have people on the farm who I don’t know waving to me “you’re a poet!” Maybe that’s the famous hermit right there. Recognize me but let me be. As much as I relate to Agnes Martin, she didn’t have to have a day job.
SF: That quote is fantastic. I probably would have been one of the audience members who laughed out the sheer discomfort of recognizing some of this crime in myself. I’m reminded of your line “power hates when it realizes it is being moved slowly to do certain things/ that disrupt accumulation.” Maybe a loaded question, but what is your relationship with power?I’m very averse to feeling controlled by opaque logics that are essentially anti-poetry whether it’s the state, an institution, a publisher, or an individual.
SS: That’s a great question for everyone to ask themselves. There is so much to say about it on different levels. I gained one of the ways I think about power from something Pasolini said about his film Salo: “Nothing is more anarchic than power. Power does what it wants and what it wants is totally arbitrary or dictated by its economic reasons which escape common logic.” It’s undeniable that there is a global appetite for dictators, and something I deal with directly in the next book I wrote, The Pasolini Book, are the effects when this mentality seeps into the arts and there is individual shock but no structural analysis. That book is a poetic reply to your question. I like the Pasolini quote because it points to power as completely lawless, beyond human, and outrageous.
I’m very averse to feeling controlled by opaque logics that are essentially anti-poetry whether it’s the state, an institution, a publisher, or an individual. I don’t want to drink anyone’s Kool-Aid. I also want to acknowledge that my experiences in leadership positions helped me work out how I wanted to live with the authority I had, knowing my actions and decisions would impact a community of people. I think the key to being in right relation to power (that’s when power can be good) is to never accept one model, which means you are recognizing the people and the issues as complex and alive.
SF: Thinking of opaque power logics as “anti-poetry,” what do you see is poetry’s relationship to this kind of power? Antidote? Exposé? I assume this relationship becomes especially important when a poet finds themselves within an institution, as many do. Maybe I’m just looking for advice….
SS: I like both of those words. My advice is to know your own mind, the way it is when you are alone and at your most free and unconsumed. We all find ourselves within institutions. A way I’ve dealt with it is to form small cadres of dissent—and to complain together. And to make art on our own terms that enacts our freedom. Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons is a great book to read and return to.
SF: I was also interested in the other quote at the beginning of “Famous Hermits” from Lew Welch “I saw myself/ a ring of bone/ in the clear stream/ of it all.” This feels related to your desire to “unknow” yourself in order to harness a deeper, maybe more authentic energy. I found that a lot of the poems to be a real celebration-of-self feeling, actually. Could you speak more to this quote?
SS: When I was 24, I did a summer workshop at Bennington and worked with the poet Kate Daniels who essentially told me to read less Whitman and more Auden. I love that feedback and came to prefer Auden. I think I went to self-celebration for personal reasons, after having felt demeaned by some people I was close to—writing the book had the dual action of getting right with myself and making space for myself in society as a weird fat butch lesbian poet.
So, the quote. I like how the Welch and the Martin lines work together to kind of form a portrait of the famous hermit. In the same talk I referred to, Martin talks about how artists who get distracted by thinking that art is “personal performance” need to realize that we are on our way to zero. I connect that zero, with the ring of bone—I think they are both talking about an unknowing of self. Which is a kind of death or could be literal death. Would we recognize our own bones? I love the Welch poem. For those that don’t know, he disappeared into the woods in 1971, assumed suicide, but his body was never found. I’m fascinated by poets who seem to write about their deaths. He does it in “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” too. The next stanza in the quoted poem is:
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through
SF: Do you feel like you’re in the process of writing toward zero?
SS: The zero which is a ring of bone, yes, though I wouldn’t have put it that way before this interview. Lineage and the idea of literary transmission is very important to me—and most fully realized in The Pasolini Book, where I become a dead man. I feel my life as a poet, in a way, is a life of the living dead, and that I am writing into posthumus space. Kimberly and I were just talking about how important it is to each of us that our poems find readers who need them as we needed to find the poems that helped us become who we are. That’s the broad view. The older I get the more I feel the dissolution of the already thin curtain between states of being.