Annelyse Gelman

Interviewed by Mariah Devcic

Annelyse Gelman is a poet currently based in Berlin. Her collection of poems Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Gelman’s EP (under the name Shoulderblades) is available on Bandcamp and is proof that she is truly a maker of all kinds. Further proof can be found with her poems in the New Yorker, the Indiana Review, and Poetry is Dead, as well as her collaboration with artist Stephen Whisler, and many other places/media.

I emailed Gelman after reading her book countless times and keeping up with her other work through a monthly newsletter. I was interested in her inspiration and process because of the momentum of Gelman’s work at large. She let me in on a few of the ways she stays curious, and why she doesn’t always try to force creativity.

How have your inspirations and influences changed from before the book to now? How has publication changed your process?

The way my work and its influences changes over time feels pretty fluid to me – evolving along a path that’s revealed as I proceed, shaped by many different forces. There’s not really a meaningful demarcation between “before the book” and “after the book”; in many ways, the timing of publishing in the first place was fairly arbitrary. There’s a constantly mutating body of work, and at some point you just stop and make a cast of that body’s current shape. A fossil of something still living? These mutation-cast cycles will proceed regardless of when, or whether, I publish.

There’s definitely some pressure now to create something new and different – nobody wants to write the same book twice – but I’d be wary of repeating myself even if I never published Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone. I’m always trying to do something I’ve never done before; I imagine this is true of most artists. I’m probably also more patient – I just want to do the best work I can, as hard as I can, and I’m not too worried about how long that takes. My process was – and still is – to follow my curiosity and confusion and excitement, and see where that takes me. Sometimes that means poems that naturally want to gel together (like the Naked Lunch centos, or this series of site-specific pieces “set” in New Mexico, or when I find myself drawn to certain forms or tones), and more often it results in standalone pieces that haven’t really found a place in a larger project yet.

You work on a lot of art that isn’t the written word – how does that inform your poetry? Do you turn to it when you’re stuck, or is it simply a natural part of your artistic life?

These things don’t feel separate to me at all. They’re all part of the same process and stem from the same desire to kind of have a dialogue with the materials I’m working with – sound, language, image, etc. When you’re obsessed with something (and the goal is always to be obsessed), I think it comes out in everything you do – the art you make, the conversations you have, the spaces you occupy, the things you notice. You kind of can’t help it. This is especially true now – I’ve been really lucky to be able to spend this year in Berlin, where I’m working on synthesizing these different disciplines that interest me, and figuring out how to make that feel unified and coherent. When I toured in 2014 there was a lot of, like, reading a poem and then picking up a guitar and then putting down the guitar, and a lot of fidelity to the idea of being present with the audience in an extremely personal way – of being myself onstage. I want to be faithful to that vulnerability, but I also want to create something where the whole is larger than the parts.

And there are lots of people already doing this! I was really inspired seeing Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog a few months ago at KuFF in Tallinn, and have finally been making my way through Chris Marker’s films. I just saw Rima Najdi and NON Collective at CTM Festival, and they’re also combining sound/text/image in these powerful, seamless performances. I guess I feel that, to an extent, naming things – “writing,” “music,” “film” – becomes less and less useful as you get further away from the kind of prototypical center of those activities (a book, a record, a DVD).

There’s that saying, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – and I think it’s meant to claim a kind of pointlessness, an absurdity or impossibility. But this is exactly what we should be doing! Like, what dance isn’t in some sense “about” architecture – designed space, emptiness, the possible boundaries of movement, distance, light and shadow? What writing isn’t “about” music?

You wrote some poems in response to images by Stephen Whisler. Where is your starting point when making poems from other forms of art?

I’m always just trying to respond to what’s there, or what I perceive to be there – with Stephen’s stuff I was focused a lot on color (they’re all monotone) and texture (fingerprints, smears) and of course subject matter, these tools of war and surveillance and violence. There’s always something that will resonate, or leap out at you. Then it’s just a matter of starting to put words down. I think it’s also important not to force those words too much – sometimes attempting to honor the origins of a poem can end up sabotaging the poem. There’s a leash there, that you’re holding, and you can feel it, and it’s so tempting to lead the poem in the direction you want to go. But that leash only exists so the poem can follow interesting scents and drag you along so you, the writer, don’t get lost. I feel like this is true even when a poem starts with something really concrete and cite-able like a painting, or a news article, or a personal story.

What do you do when you’re absolutely stuck with poetry?

Hopefully this isn’t a terrible answer, but I’m honestly not too hung up on being stuck? For the most part, at least right now in Berlin, if I don’t feel like writing, I don’t write. I know there’s something to be said for discipline, for a “creative practice,” and I definitely go through periods of forcing myself to sit down and work regardless of whether I feel like I have anything to say – writing a poem a day, or whatever – but I think it’s also really valuable sometimes just to follow your instincts and be patient with yourself. Pretty much any time I finish a poem I think, “Oh god, I have no idea how that happened,” or if I’ll ever do it again. You just have to trust yourself. If you don’t feel like writing, if you’re stuck, sometimes that means you’re being dishonest – you’re scared of something, avoiding it, and it’s important to confront that and push through it. But sometimes it just means you’re more interested in observing, gestating, tilling the soil, filling your well. And that’s important, too. As long as you’re keeping yourself sharp – so you can write when the words are there, so you don’t get out of practice – I don’t think there should be any rush to “produce.” Poems aren’t a commodity, they’re a way of thinking. And, of course, having another medium to switch to is nice, especially one where you’re totally naïve and maybe don’t even have the means to judge whether you’re “succeeding.” How freeing to dance, knowing you don’t know how!

How would you compare writing alone/for yourself to an environment where it is somewhat expected of you (school, residencies, etc)?

I think I write more and faster when there’s some expectation, but I don’t think I write differently, necessarily? I find it really helpful to have some structure of accountability – I guess to add a counterbalancing pressure to the kind of infinite patience I just talked about. If you’re too patient there’s the danger of just not making anything. I’ve been working with this amazing writer Kathleen Heil in Berlin – a dancer, translator, poet – and that’s been invaluable to me. But to me these structures – school, residencies, fellowships, workshops, even informal agreements to exchange work with a friend – are more about building relationships and learning from others, learning to listen and read thoughtfully, than they are about any pressure to churn out any particular kind of work of my own. I want to go to school to study poetry, but it’s because I want to be immersed in a community of people who’re all interested in this same, weird, intractable, pretty obscure pursuit, who are all really passionate about it – not because I need someone saying, “Hey, you owe me a poem, you need to turn something in.” We’re always only accountable to ourselves, and our creative struggles are always our own, whether we’ve set up these systems of expectation or not.

I feel like poetry can be a bit disheartening sometimes because there isn’t exactly much general excitement around it. How do you stay excited about poetry?

To me it can be helpful to conceptualize this as a kind of liberation, though: if society doesn’t really value poetry, if nobody cares, and if your income isn’t yoked to it (which, for poets, whose is?), then you’re free to do anything you want with it. “Nobody cares!” It’s this playground. You can take these spectacular risks, because in a sense, there’s nothing at stake – though of course that means there’s everything at stake, which is why we do this, right?

If what you want is to make people excited, you can definitely find ways to do that. I’m remembering seeing these letters painted on I think an underpass when I was in Portland a few years ago – I was on a bus, and just glimpsed them as we went by. USE PINK SKY TO IRON WATER. They were stenciled in this kind of industrial, city-infrastructure font. I was like, what the fuck? Did I just read what I think I just read? What does that mean? It really struck me. Later I found out it was a public art project for the TriMet MAX, the orange line. I always feel a little skeptical about these types of things, but it made this huge impact on me, clearly – it was mysterious, it felt like magic, it worked.

And like, look at this antifascist spellbook from Yerbamala that just came out – taking on this pathological whiteness. “A QUEER / FUTURE / WHERE / EVERYONE IS A / WITCH & A / SCIENTIST & A / POET.” Hell yes. If “nobody cares,” how come I’ve reread Jane Wong’s Overpour like five times? How come I’ll be on a bus or in a lecture and suddenly find William Stafford in my head?

If you’re not finding anything exciting, keep looking.

If there was a poem that summed up exactly what you get from/love about/think is important about poems, which would it be?

That’s really hard! There’s so much out there, poetry can do so much. I’ve gotten really attached to Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations – I won’t lend it out, I’m selfish with it. And I would definitely recommend Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song – I’ve loved it for a long time and it’s found its way into a new track I’m working on with my friend Jason Grier. We did one take of it and it was perfect, like a spell, which never happens. “Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song / Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.” Who wouldn’t want that? To die of sweetness?

Mariah Devcic is a poet/student/human currently residing in Vancouver, BC. She was the recipient of the Write on the Lake poetry prize in 2016.

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