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A riveting new collection by New York poet and curator Vincent Katz
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Vincent Katz’s new collection, his first in a decade, presents an aesthetically and emotionally diverse series of poems that attempt to tune in to particular details of the poet’s life, from friends and family to larger geopolitical issues.
In staccato rhythms and with crystalline matter-of-factness, Vincent Katz surrenders once again to “the tug of street.” A 21st-century flâneur whose wanderings range from the sidewalks and subways of New York City to the crowded beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the poet brilliantly taps the “energies of long-buried poetries,” whether to summon distant childhood memories or to nail fleeting details of the lives flowing around him. Never forgetting the threats hemming the edges of everyday beauty and good fortune, the poems in Swimming Home evidence Katz’s growing concern with geopolitics and mortality. Writing explicitly in “the middle of my life,” he never lets the reader forget that “the constant losing of things is part of the dive.” These poems remind us that the perceptual world is, indeed, wondrous, if we would only lift our eyes, for a moment, from the hypnotizing screens of our smartphones.
Carter Ratcliff (Rail): I’d like to begin by asking you a question about a passage in “Sidewalk Poem,” the final poem in your recent book of poems, Swimming Home. In that poem, you write:
Could be a time for poetry,
but outside, not in
not on the inside looking out but rather
on the outside on the outside looking,
sensing the air, rain, drops, sidewalk […]
This is striking against the backdrop of all the poetry from the late 18th century onward that makes a point of presenting itself as an emanation from deep inside the poet’s soul or sensibility or whatever—which implies that poetry is somehow apart from the world and quite possibily superior to it. To be “on the outside looking” puts you in the thick of things, a part of things, and I wonder if you would like to say something about that.
Vincent Katz: I want my poetry to be impacted by things external to myself. I don’t want to be in control of the poem. I want the poem to be a vehicle for experiencing the world—in particular, other people and the contingency of things appearing and disappearing in my environment. I get a buzz from being on the street, and it’s my favorite place to write. I’ve approached the task in different ways: sometimes returning to the same block or neighborhood over several days or weeks to compose a poem, sometimes registering specific external stimuli paratactically, sometimes, as in the poem you quote from, “Sidewalk Poem,” by attempting to construct a more generalized, or abstracted, field from the experience of being on the street (this is helped by the compositional technique of composing by phrase, rather than by traditional syntax), and in even more experimental poems, by waiting for several minutes and trying to compress everything I see during that time into one word, then another.
I feel a commonality with Frank O’Hara’s practice of composing poems in the middle of cocktail parties, just going up to the typewriter and typing a few lines. Or typing poems at the Olivetti showroom on his lunch break. The idea that the ideal place to write poetry is subject to the chaos and incident of daily life, if you are open enough to it. My favorite line of his is “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” What do the subway and a record store have in common? People, and contingency. Another benchmark for me is James Schuyler’s poem “February” with its lines, “I can’t get over / how it all works in together / like a woman who just came to her window / and stands there filling it / jogging her baby in her arms […]” Well, he was inside technically, but his vision was outside. I’ve been influenced too by the social freedom of the Beats, the Warhol scene, poets like Ted Berrigan, John Wieners, and the cross-fertilization of artists in Wallace Berman’s Semina circle. Part of that has to do with the ability to circulate. I was amazed to find that Robert Creeley, a poet I love, had a diametrically opposed method of composition. He would leave a social gathering to go up to his room to write a poem when inspiration struck.