When I first read San Francisco-based poet Julien Poirier’s Out of Print, recently released via the City Lights Spotlight series, I was struck by way Poirier embraces that ephemeral, experiential unity we call a moment. In a poem like “Stage 4 Lung Cancer Won’t Wait,” we read: “Untenable / — that’s the word I’m after . but if you brings you / pleasure, my dear / I’m all for it — though we can’t afford to live / in this city / we can always gad about / in books / picked for portability.” What stands out here is Poirier’s willingness to flirt with hokiness while making a highly nuanced remark (not to say generalization) touching on the overwhelming fragility of existence. Elsewhere, in a poem titled “Investigation,” we read: “we’ll rot, nothing wrong with that, each of us / in a kind of private self-enclosed BIG BANG, the same for everything that lives.”
Reading these and the other poems that make up Out of Print what struck me was less the ostensive morbidity of Poirier’s images than the searing honesty underlying them. In his reflective unselfconsciousness, he seems to put on the bardic mantle of Walt Whitman, while deflating any pretence of immortality. Poirier is writing for the moment — so it was gratifying to capture another moment when I interviewed him at a little coffee shop on the Lower East Side. For the duration of time it took to drink a cup of coffee, we talked about writing, the importance of death for comedy, teaching poetry to kids, and the specter of literary posterity.
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Jeffrey Grunthaner: Based on reading your work, it seems like you really enjoy writing.
Julien Poirier: Yeah, I do. Definitely.
JG: Do you build up poems from fragments? What’s your process like?
JP: Over the course of writing this book it certainly didn’t feel fragmented. When I was living in New York I was constructing poems more from other poems, doing cut-ups and experimenting with different ways of building up poems. But more recently it became more … the poems would just sort of come out, or not. I don’t think I spent more than a few minutes rewriting any of the poems in there.
JG: I feel like there’s an almost Whitman-like impetus behind your work. For example, at the beginning of “Investigation”:
A thousand poets are working together
on this same great poem but they don’t know it
yet, only you and I can make this obvious
— and many of my favorites are alive to this compulsion
though their practice demands a temporary, however
longterm deflection of the obvious.
Is this sincere?
JP: Well, the comic idea is to take something as far as possible, like rhetoric. So you start out with a hunch, you start following it and try to get out to the edge of that hunch.
JG: You have an interesting take on death in this book. Again, I almost trace it to a Whitman-like mode. There are two moments in here where you mention death that I thought were …
JP: No, there’s got to be more.
JG: Okay, so what’s your take on death?
JP: Not to lean too heavily on it, but it’s a comic subject. It’s the end point of any comedy. You arrive there; it’s the negation of the comedy, and it’s the driving force behind it. It’s the anxiety that you can turn around into something funny. The ultimate absurdity is our values and meanings and the reality of death. At some point I thought I was overdoing it. I was constantly talking about it.
JG: In this collection?
JP: In everything! I kept coming back to it and thought: everyone knows — I don’t have to constantly mention this. I mean there’s a graceful way of doing it that alerts people to the presence of that beauty: the great emulsifier of death. But it can become kind of a screeching underneath everything, too.
JG: Even in a poetic context?
JP: Yeah, I think so. Death is really the big inspiration. It’s the reveal. It shows you the absurdity that becomes the exhilarating thing to write about. If you’re talking about it, then it’s almost like showing the trick. Whether it’s maudlin, frightening or funny — you can beat it to death.
JG: In “Heavy Losses, Boss” you say:
When I die recycle me in Chinatown,
I want to come back a Chinamen in a long silk gown,
but fat as ever, fat
JP: Right. I was reading a lot about old San Francisco, and it’s written in the voice of an old mogul: a rich San Francisco character who ends up falling on hard times, sleeping under the newspapers he was in. The imagery was taken directly from the earthquake era, early 20th-century San Francisco: the insanity of the gold rush, the silver rush after that. The one hundred-dollar watermelon, the thousand-dollar plate of oysters, the insane wealth.
JG: San Francisco is kind of like that now, isn’t it?
JP: Underneath it all, that’s its skeleton. Boomtown. It’s a boomtown all over again.
JG: Why did you call the collection Out of Print?
JP: I was looking for a title that was looking to the future. I could have also called it Out of My Hands.
JG: Is it part of being a poet that this stuff ends up out of print?
JP: Not for everyone, but I don’t think people have too much control over it. It’s strange. Probably Blake won’t go out of print now. But by the 19th century he was forgotten, except by two people. And then some of my favorite poets I only know because I accidentally came across their book in a friend’s house. Like John Thorpe, this great California poet. Even within the poetry world he’s not known. And there is no justice or reason for that.
JG: You read the other day [March 30] at Berl’s Poetry Shop in Brooklyn. How did that go?
JP: It was great. It was fun. But I was mostly singing. Everyone in the audience seems to enjoy singing. It seems to make people happy and it sort of creates —
JG: You sing?
JP: I’ve been doing these songs that I end up recording while I’m driving. I’m driving a lot. And if these songs get stuck in my mind, then I end up singing them. I’ve made albums, which are really just Soundclouds. And maybe I’ll make a lyric book of them and send it out to people.
JG: Do people sing along with you at those readings?
JP: They don’t, but it involves song, it involves people. It’s like during an earthquake: the vibrations liquefy the earth. So a song liquefies distance. You are exposed, but this way you let people in. And it’s very physical; you’re using your whole body.
JG: Can you see these poems [in Out of Print] as having a similar structure coming through them all? What would that be?
JP: Well, Garrett [Caples] is a brilliant editor. He chose pretty much every poem that I felt was an essential poem. That was the book that he made, and it’s only in retrospect that I can look and say these are similar in any way. It’s still very hard for me, except for the ones that were written in that two-year span [between 2013 and 2015].
JG: Were you writing daily at that point?
JP: Yeah, I was writing daily, but I felt like it wasn’t working. Even beyond the stuff you know doesn’t work, the stuff that I though was working wasn’t working. A poem has to have all of these unspoken levels in it. You can feel that when you read it. If it’s too emotionally simplified, it’s obvious, and it becomes bitter or sentimental or whatever. You can have bitterness and sentimentality in a poem (it can be wonderful and beautiful) but it has to be part of this world of other anchors and weights. And most of the poetry I was writing daily didn’t have that. I wasn’t able to get all of that in there. And you can’t really try to get it in there. All you can do is when you know it’s in there, know it’s happening, is just go with it. Because it only happens every so often.
JG: Has teaching children in any way informed these types of poems that you write?
JP: When I was teaching in New York I was at a low point. Half the time in writing I was lost and didn’t know what I was doing. But I could teach really well. I think inevitably it’s changed me, and I think hopefully it’s made the poetry very extroverted. The poetry I bring into class tends to be [extroverted] also, so maybe it’s my bias. I’m not personally into critique, a critical conceptual framework. I’m into this sort of “outering,” you know? And that must have to do with teaching.
JG: You say you’re not into a conceptual framework or poetics, but I think a poetics of “outering,” of externalizing subjectivity, does emerge pretty clearly.
JP: In a way the book is line of defense against literary criticism, which has seeped into poetry. There are these poets that are sort of like Grover Norquist, who said that he didn’t want to destroy the government, but just wanted to make it small enough to drown in the bathtub. Poets that didn’t want to destroy poetry, but basically take everything out of it that’s any fun at all, so it’s emaciated. I feel the kind of poetry I like has been on the ropes for a while; people have said that stuff is irrelevant and bourgeois or whatever. In this book I wanted to poke fun at that, and make examples of poetry that could live in this place that people have said is irrelevant or not livable.