Beyond math is poetry: A Conversation with Katy Bohinc

Katy Bohinc grew up in the outskirts of Cleveland and graduated from Georgetown with degrees in Pure Mathematics and Comparative Literature, leaving her studies for a time to work in Beijing with the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, a human rights organization. Now living in New York City, she works as a data scientist and marketer. Since 2013 she has collaborated with Lee Ann Brown in directing Tender Buttons Press, a distinguished publisher of experimental women’s poetry for which she edited Tender Omnibus: The First Twenty-Five Years of Tender Buttons Press (2015) and Please Add To This List: A Guide To Teaching Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets and Experiments (2014). Bohinc is the author of Dear Alain (Tender Buttons, 2014), letters to the French philosopher Alain Badiou about poetry, philosophy, and love, and a book of poems about the divine feminine, Trinity Star Trinity (Scarlet Imprint, 2017). Publisher’s Weekly describes her most recent title, Scorpio (Miami University Press, 2018) as “an astute, witty, feminist collection.”

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Erica Bernheim: I loved the range of surprising and sometimes succinct titles in Scorpio, my favorite being “Self-Centered to the Point of Remembering Birthdays.” In some cases, like “Obama’s Speech,” I got the sense that the title came before the poem, although I surely could be wrong! Do you have a deliberate or conscious process for pairing titles and poems?

Katy Bohinc: I was watching Obama speak in a bar in Washington D.C.’s U Street called Next Door. I went there often when I lived there. You are apt to pick up that with Obama’s Speech, yes, I think the title came first. With Self-Centered the title came after the poem, which was written at Tryst, a coffee shop in Adam’s Morgan. Or maybe it was written about Tryst, and many of the friendships I conducted there. It was a sort of “hang-out spot” when there were still IRL hangout spots that aren’t the internet. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. The focus is the poem and if the title comes after it comes after—which frequently it does. If the title come first, it comes first. Usually, broadly speaking, the title very often comes after for me.

EB: As a writer with a strong background in pure mathematics, can you speak to where these two disciplines intersect for you? I was reading about pure mathematics and its usefulness in finance and cryptography, and I’m wondering, also, if either of these fields has been in your mind when you’re writing. How—if at all—does your commitment or investment to each inform your poetry? I’m thinking specifically of your lines, not just the breaks, but the spacing in some of them, such as “Ohio”?

KB: I always say “beyond math is poetry.” Pure math sure has applications in finance and cryptography (and many many things from fintech to big data to astrology), but pure math is the language of logic and how logic works on spatial or geometric levels. The applications are endless. In poetry, the application is “getting beyond logic.” The poems in Scorpio come from an emotive place, a place of the “unconscious.” Many of the poems I wrote in a sort of haze and barely even recognized that I wrote them afterwards. Math is not like this. Math is completely aware at each step of the logical puzzle. Poetry is to me getting to a place where it pours out—it is a place where all the logic has been ingested and digested, and just a step beyond this math lies the poem. It’s a way to say it that encompasses the emotional consequences, which math does not. I only know this place because I know math.

As a corollary, I don’t like poetry generated by computers. The point is we need humans and poetry in order to be more than our logical capacities. We need the human heart; we need love; we need more than logic.

EB: Speaking of Ohio, we are both originally from there, although from different parts of the state. How does landscape impact your writing? Did you find that you wrote differently when you were living in China, not solely in terms of content or project, but also formally? Does your eye or ear function differently?

KB: China dramatically changed my writing. It made it more serious, it made it more dark, it made it more politically aware. The landscape in China is one I know we will face here soon—utter capitalism with a government trailing behind controlling things, supporting business. An environment that is devastating in its daily horror and murderous capacity. We are not there yet but we will be there too soon, unless there is a miracle.

In China, the eye and ear function differently because I have much less power to speak at leisure, because the language is foreign. I am thereby relegated to watching. Moreover, Chinese culture does not support the “I” that is so present in American culture. Here, we never speak for others. There, you never boast of the singular, which leaves out other present company. It’s a different linguistic focus and thereby different focus of the self, different loci of the culture.

Question from Lauren R. Korn, Director of Content: So many of the poems in this new collection speak to the individual as she is in relationship to “we” or “you.” Much of this is written as loneliness and/or tension with another. How do you see these ideas as representative of contemporary poetry? Of contemporary culture?

KB: I wanted to write not about the self—the “I” of poetry—but about the communal. Many themes in Scorpio are about things that are not 100% my own, like religion or the culture of my youth in Ohio and Feathers and Marbles. In China it is literally poor taste to use the word “I” when speaking in a group. It gives a different POV on the world around. As the epigraph at the front of the book says—“these words are not my own”. They are the words that when I walk down the street, I feel in the world of America around me. They are the narratives that saturate the culture around me. They are “we” and “you”, in the sense that “we” and “you” make “I” and maybe even in the sense that “I” does not truly exist without “you” and “we”. Or, more accurately, “I” is literally a collection of moments of “we” beginning with your mother and whoever else was present at your birth.

Art tends to oscillate between these “I” and “you” and “we” and right now we are in an “I” moment and I really do not know that it matters but it’s always shifting. Right now, we can only say “I” if we want to be true. But if we are poets sometimes there is no “I” —there is only walking down the street and soaking it up and writing it out. Sometimes, I feel like this is me, and I try to discern my “I” from amidst the other pounding impulses but…it is what it is. I’m an empath!

Current contemporary poetry, and contemporary American culture, are very interested in “the I” via social media, the memoir trend, and maybe just generally pop culture. I do think this Scorpio collection is of a different alignment than that trend.

EB: Having edited two anthologies. Do you plan to edit more? If so, what sorts of topics interest you?

KB: I’d like to do a history of poetry which is women writers. Currently our histories of the avant garde are largely white male. So there is no history to read which includes key female figures. It makes it look as if women did not exist and I believe strongly this is a false narrative; they existed! More and more evidence appears all the time this is the case.

I’d also like to do a Teaching Guide on Dodie Bellamy’s work at some point (another Tender Buttons author), and one on Lee Ann Brown’s work eventually. Both of these teaching guides will be amazing! Julie Patton comes to mind!

Also it’s probably about time for a “new American poetry” to come about…things have shifted dramatically in the past five years and I would love to do a “groundbreakers anthology” of all the new voices on the scene. That would be really special.

EB: Can you describe the process of ordering and arranging the poems in Scorpio? Were you thinking of a specific trajectory that you wanted to create? How was working with Miami University Press different from assembling the poems in your earlier collections?

KB: Oh my god. So this is how the book became dedicated to Sheena Grewal. The universe brought things full circle. Sheena was my dear friend at Georgetown who went spiraling, joyfully in tears down the poetry rabbit hole with me our senior year of college. Many poems from Scorpio were written that year. Self-Centered to the Point of Remembering Birthdays was written for Sheena. Last Christmas, I visited Sheena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is based. We drove across the flat lands ten hours to Taos, New Mexico. Over those ten hours we read Scorpio out loud, maybe ten times. I was searching for the right order of the poems to make the book sound like a symphony, or a music album. It’s a hard collection for me; it reminds me very much of China, which was an emotionally difficult time in my life because the work we did there—human rights work—was, as you can imagine, emotionally impactful. No one really knows me like Sheena, or that time from my life. And Sheena has a great ear. Together we finally found the way the poems should go so that each of them could sing. Or, at least, we tried.

The order was very important to me. This collection, one title before Scorpio landed (and stuck) was “Hits From the ‘80s, ‘90s and Today”—that cute little radio ad riff I heard all the time growing up. I felt these poems were so influenced by music, by pop songs, by “my American generation’s” music. And it was really important to me that they be ordered in a smart way so each could sing. It was shocking to find that for some reason, Self-Centered to the Point of Remembering Birthdays really sang after The Grand Canyon, for example. There is totally zero obvious reason to me why this is true, but when we sounded it out, it just popped.

EB: I promise not to ask too much about your writing process itself, and yet I’m wondering how much influence music plays in your writing. In poems like “Waiting” and, of course, “Hidden Track,” I felt like I was hearing different parts of an album in my mind while I was reading. Do you listen to music while you write?

KB: I think music is what differentiates poetry from “short prose”! Or even, math, you might say. Music is the resonance which carries the emotional weight of a poem, I believe. It is also one of the most valuable tools a poet has for playing with language and its arrangement.

I love the idea of poems as little songs. I think their arrangement is like an album, which I refer to in this “Hidden Track” section, like those music albums did in the ‘90s, when I was growing up.

I do not listen to music while I write. But when I write “beyond math” it often comes with emotional vibration which one might call “music” or “lyric.”

EB: I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the importance of resistance in your work, whether focused on the personal or the political. Where do the two overlap for you most crucially?

KB: I think it’s more that this work comes from the inevitable melancholy you feel when you acknowledge the truths of resistance movements.

EB: Who are some poets, philosophers, or other artists whose work you are currently enjoying or are looking forward to?

KB: I always look forward to Monica McClure’s writing. She is writing a memoir and I really can’t wait. I always enjoy the poetry Birds LLC puts out, and Wonder Press. I recently met Narcisisster and she is so fucking amazing. I saw Nick Cave perform recently and he is always sublime. I wish Gil Scot Heron was still alive. And my friends who know more about hip hop make fun of me for my mainstream basic hip hop tastes, but I really don’t care: I love both mainstream hip hop and more avant garde hip hop.

As far as theory, Jamieson Webster’s new book on Somatics from the Lacanian POV is really great. And the two artists who run Scarlet Imprint—Alkistis Dimesh and Peter Gray—yes please. Also, please watch for Eliott Edge. He is going to blow your mind regarding tech things. He gave some recent talks on VR and oh, man…Eliott!

Oh! And Katie Pollard’s occultist fashion designs! Wow. The power of the thread, needle and design gives me total shivers. She’s a genius.

Finally, Cassandra Gillig is writing children’s books, apparently, and I know whatever she touches is always brilliant, so I can’t wait for that.

Chad B, of the Poem for Chad B, has a new comic book out, Chad in Amsterdam. I love Chad B, and everything he does.

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Erica Bernheim
Erica Bernheim

Erica Bernheim holds degrees from Miami University, The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her first full-length collection, 'The Mimic Sea,' was published by 42 Miles Press (Indiana University South Bend). She is also the author of a chapbook, 'Between the Room and the City,' and her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Denver Quarterly, New Reader Magazine, and The Missouri Review.

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