Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the full-length poetry collections THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST (2014) and Fur Not Light (2019), both from Burnside Review Press. He’s also the author of a short poetic biography of the French avant-garde composer Erik Satie and a short essay collection focusing on skateboarding, poetry, and The Notorious B.I.G., as well as several chapbooks. Recent work by him appears in Poetry Northwest, The American Poetry Review, and The Hong Kong Review of Books. In addition to his own writing, Alessandrelli also runs the literary record label/press Fonograf Editions. He lives in Portland, OR.
Peter Kranitz: You’ve said that the poems in Fur Not Light were inspired by Russian absurdist writers like Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky and Nikolay Zabolotsky. What draws you to that genre, and how do you approach writing in that mode?
Jeff Alessandrelli: One of the interesting things about that group is that they lived under the banner of Stalinist oppression and, essentially, death. All of those writers that I was influenced by, in terms of the Russian absurdist ones, they all died prematurely, largely unknown. What I find inspiring about that group—and it’s not particular to me in my life—but they had to write the way they did in order to write at all. You can’t say, in 1936 in Russia, “Stalin’s an asshole.” You have to kind of go around that, because if you did outright say that, you’d be immediately killed. (As compared to being slowly starved to death like Kharms or Vvedensky were.) What inspires me, though, about that group, is also their ability to take risks, and their ability to not be content with simple epiphanies. I think one of the things with certain types of poetry, certain narrative poems, they have a set structure—and I don’t necessarily mean a form-based thing—but they lull you into some type of realization or epiphany, and then they move elsewhere in the next poem, and you forget that epiphany pretty quickly. And this occurs again and again throughout a full-length collection. For me there’s no—the closure is too closed with those types of poems. With the Russian absurdists, they’re constantly jumping around, they’re playing with language, and reading their work you realize it’s hard to understand why things are the way they are; oftentimes there is no rhyme or reason to what happens. It’s bad luck, it’s good luck, it’s all these types of things. I think in Zabolotsky and Kharms and Vvedensky, they relish that aspect of life, and they don’t try to cohere or conform to “this is the way things are, I’m going to make a nice pat little poem out of it, then I’m going to move on,” because their life was essentially unlivable—and yet they were living it, trying to make sense out of it. That type of courage and determination is next-level for me. It sounds morbid, maybe, the way I’m saying it, but what they wrote is incredibly freeing and inspiring to me. And powerful.
PK: How do you go about finding subject matter for an epiphany-less poem?
JA: I don’t think all poems necessarily have epiphanies. I think there’s so many different types of poems. I mean, the Russian absurdists wrote list poems, wildly disjunctive poems, play-poems, they wrote pseudo-narrative poems that just ended abruptly. For me, I don’t worry about subject matter as much as I do the initial poetic impulse. If I find an initial impulse for something, the subject matter can fade away, but that impulse stays. That impulse is normally something weird or interesting in language, whether it’s an image or metaphor that seems to be a little weird, or just seems to be a little off, and I sometimes don’t try to figure it out, I just try to build up or against that off-ness.
PK: Throughout these poems, there seems to be an emphasis on the idea of a future that is always out of reach, like the mantra in the first “Nothing of the Month Club” poem [“tomorrow I have the life I’ve always wanted it’s called tomorrow I have the life I’ve always wanted it’s called”] and the trilogy of poems called “The 32nd of December.” It’s almost like the book occupies a similar space—the opening poem being called “Fin,” everything coming after that is like something that comes after the credits roll in a movie. Can you talk about how you see your poems in relation to that sort of postscript-ness idea, or the sense of an unreachable future?
JA: One of the things with that first poem—and this kind of indirectly or maybe directly ties into the absurdism—if you start a poetry collection with the title “Fin,” it seems to not make a lot of sense, since the bulk of the collection is after that poem, but it also seems to refuse the normal beginning-middle-end ordering. You know, we never live in the present and we always kind of live in the future, because we’re always one second behind who we are or where we are. And I guess one of the things with some of these poems—because I was moving around a lot—I started writing Fur Not Light in 2014 and I guess I finished in the middle of 2018. During that time I moved across the country twice and I wasn’t always entirely present. Meaning present as a human, in my own life and body—and I think that that sometimes is seen as a negative thing; we think being fully present is good, most especially in terms of our own lives. But that wasn’t something that I was really able to do, because I was thinking, “Where am I going to live next, what class am I going to teach next at this new school, where is the best place to walk with my dog in this new neighborhood,” etc., etc. I think that comes out in Fur Not Light in the way that I couldn’t always—you know, it’s a luxury to live in the present, and a lot of people don’t have that luxury because they have to think about where they’re going to find their next meal, where they’re going to find their next source of long or short-term shelter. I’m not like that, I have a very luxurious life compared to someone who’s searching for those types of necessities, but at the same time, I think that while writing this I was also thinking about not what’s happening right now, but what’s going to happen next. I wasn’t directly aware of it, but I guess that does come out in some of these poems.
PK: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in Someone Living” opens with a full-page pictogram of a person taking a selfie, which then appears again throughout the poem, in-line with the text. Tell me more about the pictogram, and your thoughts on the selfie. You write later on in the poem, “I’m writing daffodils again, / Trying to superimpose / Thought’s psychogeography / Into sound, word.” Is the pictogram a sort of refusal to superimpose the thought into sound and word?
JA: That’s the oldest poem in the book and one of the longest. It was a poem that originally had the word “selfie” in the title, and it was initially more focused on the concept of the selfie, as well as being a little more negative to the selfie. So the initial vision was sort of anti-selfie, and after I wrote it I put that poem away—a couple of the sections in it came out in different journals— and I went back to it in late-2017/2018. I mean, I think the boringest thing in the world is to be like, “Selfie’s suck,” you know? Circa 2020, it’s just not very interesting to say, nor is it true. I wanted to use that pictogram to have a neutral take on the concept, because I do deride selfies in a couple sections of that poem, but then by the end I also hopefully make clear that if you want to celebrate a moment with yourself, taking a selfie is one of the ways to do it, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless you’re on the side of a volcano or something and you fall in, as sometimes you see on Buzzfeed or whatever, like, “20 Epic Selfie Fails.” But I’m losing the thread of your question. What was the last part of it?
PK: So, near the end of that poem, you have the lines: “I’m writing daffodils again, / Trying to superimpose / Thought’s psychogeography / Into sound, word.” Talking about the pictogram of the selfie, is it, to an extent, a refusal to superimpose thoughts into sound and word?
JA: I wouldn’t say a refusal. When we try and place overt meaning on something, and we try and fix the situation in our own heads, inevitably you’re going to remember it differently, or things are going to change, and I think sometimes when you take a selfie, you remember everything except the selfie. You might remember yourself taking it—you have that picture—but that could also bring up a lot of other memories around the picture. And sometimes those other memories are the ones that end up sticking clearer in your head. That kind of indirectly ties in with the title of the poem, too. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in Someone Living” is the name of an artwork by Damien Hirst, one that essentially consists of a (dead) tiger shark swimming in formaldehyde. Hirst isn’t one of my favorite artists by any means, but I do like that work of his. There are multiple ways someone can take it, but I think the most direct is that, on some level, everyone alive right now doesn’t ever think that they’ll be dead, and it’s easy to forget that; our thousands of humanly associations actually kind of insist that we forget it. While we’re living it our memory of our life seems to have such a greater impact than it does when we’re dead—and death can come in an instant.
PK: I really liked the line earlier in the poem, too, “Every successful [selfie pictogram] reveals / Not its subject but its subject’s / Mood and desires.” It gets at what you’re saying with the selfie as not the photo itself, but the association with the photo.
JA: Right, we’re talking about selfies now, but that happens with a lot of things.
PK: Sort of related to that, in a way, “Be Yer Own Hitman (Deathsounds/Lovesongs)” begins “Can you hear me?,” and “The Physical Impossibility of Death in Someone Living” begins “But I have so much to say,” and it seems like it’s echoing that earlier poem, with that idea of wanting to be heard, and having something to say and needing an audience, yet not necessarily having one. It seems like that might be connected to the internet and technology, and the ways of attempting to be seen and heard, whether it’s through a selfie or through a tweet or watching a TED talk. Does that seem right?
JA: I’ll be honest, I wasn’t fully conscious of that. We have more information in the world and more ways of getting access to that information than at any other time in history, and at the same time I would say we have less actual communication than in any other time in history. This goes outside of the book, but one of the dangers of contemporary society is, there are so many ways of getting ahold of someone, but at the same time it’s really hard to actually speak directly to that someone. Sixty years ago, you could call them on the telephone, but you might have had to go see them in person, face to face. Because that was the most straightforward way and also one of the only ways. Now we have so many different ways of dodging interaction, of misconstruing things, of not being there for other people—but we also have so many ways of getting in touch and getting ahold of other people. I don’t know if that goes to the “Can you hear me,” but poetry isn’t something that’s widely read, yet there’s probably more poets now than ever before in history. So how does a poet simultaneously make clear that, you know, this is an art form that matters a lot to me but doesn’t necessarily matter a lot to everyone, while also having a little fun with that notion? Selective hearing is sometimes a thing of beauty and sometimes a thing to bridle against.
PK: How do you see poetry fitting in with that heavy technological mediation of relationships?
JA: One of the things is, every five years people write essays like, “Poetry’s dead, blah blah blah.” I think that it’s going to be something in the way that it has been for quite a while: It’s going to be a niche art form to a degree, but inside that niche there’s going to be thousands of people who really, really care about poetry. There are so many different types of poetries now, there’s not just one—I think that’s an amazing thing. There are so many different venues and outlets for it. One of the things I really value, and I value this more as I’ve gotten older, is that there’s no real money in poetry. I have friends who are novelists, who are trying to sell their latest books, trying to get agents, because there’s money in it, and with money comes commerciality and expectation and the chance for financial security and the like. And if your first novel sells and your second one doesn’t, or it’s more “experimental” than your first, your big press drops you and you’re back to square one or two. You can’t be a poet and make a living, at least not from book sales directly. You have to do something else. And though I would love to make a living off it, I also like the fact that poetry doesn’t exist on an is-this-poem-going-to-sell? framework—it doesn’t have that life. As a poet you can kind of do whatever you want because it’s not like you’re necessarily going to be able to live off your art. That’s challenging but also freeing; what you write is completely yours. There’s a certain comfort in that.
PK: Transitioning a little bit, while you were working on these poems, you were also working on your book of essays, The Man on High: Essays on Skateboarding, Hip-hop, Poetry, and The Notorious B.I.G. Did working on those essays and writing about Biggie Smalls impact your poetry?
JA: I write in prose more often now. I started out really set on being a poet, and writing in lines, and initially I really only wanted to write one type of poem, a weird vaguely surrealist thing. And I think as you get older, at least for me, I realized that that wasn’t going to confine my interests. I’m really interested in science, I’m really interested theoretical math, sociology, I’m interested in all these other things. Nowadays I’m less concerned with writing a poem—and this is going to be kind of cliché—about a flower, or burning a flower, or writing a poem about a failed relationship, or the vagaries of romantic love. Writing about Biggie and skateboarding and poetry, and writing about it in prose, it certainly impacted the writing of this book, because a lot of the poems in Fur Not Light are in prose. At this point in my writing, I’m not as interested in a taut line break as I am in trying to find some startling mixture of words. Sometimes the line break doesn’t matter as much to me. Some of the poems in the book are of course lineated, too. But you change as you grow older, and I’m as much interested in prose now as I am in straight-up lineated poetry.
PK: How does music generally factor into your writing process? In the acknowledgements to Fur Not Light, you mention The Misfits, Kamaiyah, and Biggie Smalls. How do they find their way in?
JA: I almost always listen to music while I write. It’s normally ambient or wordless music. I can’t write while listening to something that has direct lyrics or something that I could take specific meaning away from, because then it impacts what I’m trying to work on. Music for me, though, is probably as important as my own writing. It finds its way in because I’m constantly soundtracking in my head, no matter what I’m doing, writing or getting frustrated at the grocery store. I also like wide varieties of music, so I’m not really stuck just listening to one genre and getting into a rut that way. I also think that if you are listening to The Misfits one day, and SZA another day, and then Glenn Gould, and then Mac Dre, and then The Cranberries, it’s all going to find its way into your work in some weird fashion. And also, in terms of my own writing, I often use found language, I often use lyrics by other musicians or artists. So the impact can be direct for me, but it’s more often indirect; it’s just there. I don’t necessarily consider myself a really musical writer, but I think in Fur Not Light there is a certain skewed lyricism. You know, if you’re listening to something that’s kind of jagged and discordant, like Swans or something, that’s melodic in only its own idiosyncratic way, and I guess I appreciate thinking beyond just traditional ways of lyricism and traditional ways of melody. Everything has a rhythm, you just have to identify it, and then once you identify it you can choose to like it or not. But I do think there is a kind of harmony (or disharmony) to every type of writing and music.
PK: What music would you choose to pair with the poems in Fur Not Light?
JA: Do you know ‘no wave’ music? Brian Eno did this famous album called No New York—it basically came after post-punk. So it was these bands—DNA, The Contortions, Mars, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, which was fronted by Lydia Lunch. And the music on the album and no wave in general, it’s normally very loud, there seems to be no real rhythm or melody, and it can be hard to listen to. But at the same time, I think if you listen to it more than once or twice, it does have all those things, they’re just kind of hidden. Part of the joy for me is finding the operatic harmony in the noise—and it’s there if you listen. In Fur Not Light there’s a similar type of thing going on, I think. Every poem in the book is answering a question, but what that question actually is might change from moment to moment, or person to person.