By Rodrigo Toscano
Rodrigo Toscano: Something I find fascinating about your practice of street poetics is its implicit reception to accident. Four essential parameters that make for a poetic act collide all at once: the problematic of “target audience”; the time, place, and occasion of the act; the actual material means to producing the act; the distributive trajectories of The Poem. That’s like having to go Ninja on four assailants—a couple times an hour—for several hours. I’ve read the transpositions of these poetic acts in text, namely in your book, Currency. To me the poems read as well, or often more “poetic” as any multi-staged, planned poem. This amazes me. And one of the ways I’ve tried to understand it is through some notion of poetic fitness. Could it be, I think, that contemporary poets are just generally weaker at spontaneity than the itinerant bards and griots of old?
Benjamin Aleshire: There’s likely a different answer depending on which culture you’re looking at, and when. I’ve been researching the troubadours, and the vocation of ‘poet’ (at the time, they were usually called chantaires—singers) had a rare and specialized place in Occitan society, which depended directly on one’s level of creative spontaneity, and which I imagine was similar to other pre-printing press cultures as well. The Arabic muwashah and zajjalin singers, or Tang dynasty poets, come to mind. Griots, on the other hand, were usually a separate endogamous caste you had to be born into, no? Meaning one’s level of “spontaneity” in determining poet-ness is moot.
Either way, being a poet wasn’t seen as the sort of thing anyone might do. The poet occupied a more eccentric and mystical position, outside the typical framework of peasant/merchant/clergy/nobility, and the apprentice/master guild system. Some troubadours, (e.g., Bernart de Ventadorn) came from the lowest classes, meaning their work led to an astonishingly meteoric leap in social status. Women, too, became troubadours (trobairitz), like Comtessa de Dia—something unthinkable for other trades at the time. If you could invent and sing well, i.e., if you possessed a spontaneous creative drive and harnessed it in the service of poetry, that was enough to succeed. The concept of imitation and competition was radically different.
Today, poetry has been fully integrated into the machinery of the late-capitalist economy. Anyone can choose to become a poet, in the same way they might choose to become an airline pilot or a marine biologist. You simply imitate those who came before you and follow the prescribed steps (major in English, go to grad school, publish in journals, etc.), and ascend the hierarchical ladder as high as you can. In the pre-printing press era, this system simply did not exist. You could be a lowly firewood gatherer for bakers’ ovens, like Bernart de Ventadorn, and lean against the castle wall at night and sing, and if you were good, you’d end up at the Plantagenet court. My work with typewriter poetry for strangers in the street relies directly on spontaneity as well, and in a sense, I think of myself as a contemporary troubadour, albeit one who’s something of a lumpenproletarian leech on the haunches of Capitalism, rather than Feudalism.
However, the group of poets who I believe are most closely associated with the lineage of “spontaneity” in poetry are hip-hop MCs. Hip-hop’s enormous popularity, like troubadour poetry, depends on endlessly reinventing itself while harnessing the cultural zeitgeist. Class, education, obscure mythological references—none of that matters. What matters is skill, spontaneous creativity, and it happens at lightning speed, sometimes even improvised.
Toscano: Needless to say, your “street poet” practice is a very knowledgeable one wide open to a variety of traditions from different historical eras. Many of your street poet colleagues (knockoffs, imitators) in the French Quarter or Marigny care a great deal less about those multiple streams of aesthetic influence. It manifests in their poems (I sample a few now and again). But also, your practice is a very dynamic one. For one, there’s a time constraint; there’s also a premium put on fast turnaround for the poems, which means you have to be ready at a moment’s notice. I wonder how you view the idea of poetic readiness as preceding the poetic act.
Aleshire: I love that you pick up on the economics of speed, which is perhaps the biggest difference between my work in the street and that of the recent tide of imitators. There are some typewriter poets whose work I adore, like Tania Panés in Spain, GennaRose Nethercott (who won the National Poetry Series) and Robert McKay, the one who showed me how to do it. What I see in New Orleans, though, (and elsewhere now) is a “Typewriter Row” where a phalanx of three, seven, or even fifteen poets sit together. This creates intense competition, a puppy-in-the-window phenomena, so they write as many poems as fast as possible, which cater to the lowest possible denominator, i.e., touristy amuse-bouche poetry about beignets, jazz, cats, etc. Insultingly bad poems are churned out in ninety or so seconds, a form of mass-production.
I take about ten minutes for a poem, which I’ve found is the sweet spot: any longer than that, and people won’t want to hang around to pick it up; they’ll intend to swing back after lunch, and by then they’ve gotten drunk, or a parade is coming through, or it’s started raining. Fewer than ten minutes makes it difficult to write something where all four of those essential parameters you mentioned can intersect. Once in a while, I’ll be able to “hear” the poem in my head all at once, Rilke-on-the-ramparts-of-Duino-style; usually when someone gives me a particularly fascinating topic and form, like “Write me a poem that’s a telegram to a suicidal friend.” Well, voilà.
I see Poetic Readiness as an 80/20 ratio of impulse to imitation—impulse being the spontaneity you mentioned, the trains of images and words flickering through your head, before and during the poetic act. Imitation is a different tendency altogether: the gravity pulling artists to repeat what they’ve already seen. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s a necessary part of creating. It’s the reason why your poem is flushed left, or divided into line breaks, or uses a speaker in second-person instead of first or third. Much of this is unconscious—the basic architecture and elements of writing. Everyone learns by imitation.
Imitation is also the reason why people write “pulsing in the space between us,” which uses a phrase from a Dave Matthews Band song, and has already been used to death by innumerable poets, including me, albeit sardonically. “Cartography of desire”—google it, and you’ll see what I mean. Hmm, how about, “Topography of desire” or “Choreography of desire”—or, “Hagiography of grief”? This is the imitative tendency at work, and the poetry establishment rewards it for its affirming familiarity, in a landscape where everything is subjective, and very little is at stake. The journals these poems are published in have a modest readership, and what seems to mainly matter is merely ascending another rung on a hierarchical ladder, not the spontaneous impulse to express something new. Impulse relies on imitation for its basic toolbox and structure, but when imitation is the driving force, you end up with copies of copies of copies.
Every poet’s unique well of experience plays a role too, and the mystical concept of duende, but that’s a whole other matter entirely.
Toscano: So “readiness” for you, in part, involves toggling between impulse and imitation. That already points to a method. And I don’t mean a declared method, but you might say an acquired (as through vast experience) technique. And it’s that technique encountering kairos (the most providential “time” to do something) that adds a pronounced richness to your poetry. There are many internal references to that encounter in your poems. There’s an inbuilt reflexivity to much of your work that gives it a very solid structure (alongside the sheer speed of its production). Is this readiness something that can be worked on, tweaked, or overhauled entirely?
Aleshire: Readiness is accomplished through focused efforts rather than spontaneously found. I didn’t begin on the street. I’d been writing and publishing for about five years before I ever took the typewriter into the street, before I knew such a thing existed. My method was the same holy wisdom passed down from generations of (mostly academic) poets: to write every day, whether or not it’s any good. And from that swirling mass of prolific clay, to refine the better poems through endless drafts. “A work is never finished…but abandoned,” said Valéry.
My shift to a wholly new form of readiness began around 2009, when I met Robert McKay in Burlington. We worked together on a letterpress magazine called The Salon. We shared a love of typewriters. I always used a typewriter for my poems, even before I started busking with one; I didn’t buy a laptop until 2013.
Robert would do this curious thing at parties sometimes, asking for a word and typing it up into a poem. I’m not sure where he got the idea, perhaps from Zach Houston, who started something called Poem Store on the west coast, and claims to have invented the concept in the 2000s (a bald lie; there’s a novel about it from the 80s, and the famous scene in Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise).
Anyway, I assumed it was a novelty. But a fun, eye-catching novelty that would promote the magazine. I asked Robert to set up during the booze-and-schmooze before and after the launch parties for The Salon, assuming he was writing cute postcard-type poems for people. Then I read one. He had somehow tapped into a vessel of sorts, through which he expressed all the rich images and political ideas and sumptuous vocabulary from his poetry—and compressed them into a vignette, an artifact, in a handful of minutes, in a loud crowded room full of people yammering and interrupting and pestering him.
Something clicked for me then, because I had a whole other store of experience that Robert didn’t: I’d been touring with bands for years, and busking in the street is what made it financially viable. I felt gears whirring in my head. The first thing I did was apply for a booth at the Farmers’ Market, to sell the magazine, but also to hock poems for passersby. No one there in Burlington had seen that before, and it was a bit of a sensation—there were clouds of people around us, elbowing each other to buy books and poems. The newspaper did a feature article; I started bringing the typewriter to literary festivals. Within a year I had a whole book of poems, the first slim edition of Currency, fifty poems culled from thousands.
I still write other poems, not in the street, using my former process—but I now have a much less narrow view of the possibilities of process, experimentation, chance, constraints, and thus, of readiness itself. If someone as stubborn as I am can completely overhaul the illusion of their “poetic readiness,” then anyone can.
Toscano: Ben, a good portion of your poems have a political twist to them. You achieve this in really surprising ways. It could be a poem about something seemingly mundane, and then, boom, you take it to a political level, and then somehow manage to maintain the poem recipient’s “theme” with real integrity. This strikes me as a form of political-poetic readiness. As a global roustabout observer of people’s cultures and political climates, it seems you’re somehow very aware when you’re writing poems for American people. There’s an interventionist spirit to your work that also sets you apart from many a street poet. You even get to the point of calling bullshit on the very act of what you’re doing. Can you tell us something about your political evolution, how it syncs with your growth as a poet?
Aleshire: My earliest poems were political—I’m 32, so I came of age during 9/11 and the atrocities of the Forever Wars, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the “exquisite philosophical poetry” used to justify them: “And then there are unknown-unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know.”
But like so many Americans, I grew up bereft of political education. I was something of a vague anarchist, without even a fundamental understanding of say, the labor movement. Those parts of history were hidden from me. My public school taught me that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War; my parents were working-class, but deeply cynical.
Then, one morning I found a three-volume set of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, The Prophet Armed, in a milk crate on a lawn, almost as if some occult hand had placed it there for me to find. Trotsky’s story affected me enormously—I’d leafed through Marx’s Capital and some Chomsky, Zinn, whatever my lefty friends had on the shelves of the apartments where I’d crash in my early twenties, but that was about it. Studying the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution in depth—and then the horror of Stalin’s perversion of it—is what transformed me into something of an armchair Marxist.
By then, I’d begun writing poems in the street, and to realize my status as a lumpenprole—a member of the underclass who hustles a living outside of the wage economy, along with gamblers, sex workers, criminals, etc. My customers often see me as a sort of prophet or fortuneteller, and in those cases the poems become a chance to radicalize them. I think of my poems for strangers as cakes into which I bake knives, files, or hairpins, depending on the situation.
For example—this summer in Paris a guy asked for a poem about how that very morning at the Louvre, a thief had grabbed four hundred euros from a lady’s purse. My customer, struck by a sudden sense of Good Samaritan duty, seized the pickpocket by the arm. But, looking him in the eyes, he couldn’t bring himself to shout for the police, and the thief ran away with the money.
To be clear, he was asking me for a poem to process his feelings of guilt, for not being the hero he’d always imagined himself to be—that is, for failing to cage a fellow human for daring to avoid starvation by taking four pieces of paper from someone so rich they walk around with a month’s rent as pocket change.
Instead, I wrote about how the feeling of paralysis he experienced was in fact proof of his intrinsic human empathy, and that he was a hero, after all. We talked about it for a long time. Poetry is so urgent because it’s the only way our conversation could ever happen. This is what I mean about being a lumpenprole, a Marxist hustler: Con + verse = conversion.
My work isn’t always political, but like all hustlers, when I smell an opportunity, I take it.
The fascinating thing is that capitalists also enjoy Marxist screeds, and pay dearly for them—but only in the small, bite-size shape of a poem. In these cases, I think of myself as more of a poetry dominatrix than anything else; my poems won’t magically make capitalists read Noam Chomsky, but the morbidly rich will certainly pay me to tell them to their face how fucking damaging they are to the human project.
Recently, the success of the Democratic Socialists of America has breathed a new life into my political consciousness, and I find myself lifting out of my armchair and recruiting others to do the same, as a rank and file member of both the New Orleans DSA chapter, and the national organization.
Toscano: I really appreciate your candor here, Ben. It’s very interesting (and I’d say rather accurate) how you locate yourself as a lumpen poet of sorts. And true to form, you name one of your books, Currency. That’s hilariously material! There’s been a good number of lumpen poets in history. In fact, there’s been quite a range of class positions throughout the ages: from full on Royals (Edmund Spencer) to straight up Bourgeois types (Wallace Stevens) to proletariats (nearly every single contemporary poet friend we can think of, actually). Rimbaud is perhaps the most renowned lumpen poet of all time, as well as a total rambler, though I don’t foresee you running an armaments business in Africa in your later years.
Alright, so obviously “so much depends upon” whatever political and economic conditions we’ll be facing in the next few years, but we can still ask, what aspects of your practice have seen their day, and what inklings do you have of newly emerging interests you want to stoke? In this fog of The Now, what are you actually feeling about the residual and emergent aspects of your art—at the very moment you lift your hands to type?
Aleshire: On one hand, I experience a constant sense of renewal whenever I unfold my little TV table in the street—the spectrum of humanity I encounter there is so vast that their stories are limitless.
On the other hand, the copycat phenomenon I mentioned earlier is spreading so fast it’s becoming difficult to work here in New Orleans. There are now so many charlatans setting up next to one another that they’re physically fighting with one another, precisely like the well-publicized story of the multiplicity of Elmos in Times Square. How fascinating (and sad) that a form of poetry that hasn’t even been accepted yet by the literary establishment (not to mention mainstream culture) has already reached its decadent decline, corrupted by posers and copycats.
Despite this, I feel a new urgency to bridge the gap between the populist poetics of the street and the academic hierarchy of the poetry world. One way of doing this is by writing a novel, an autobiographical picaresque called Poet for Hire: Kismet of a 21st Century Troubadour—Andrei Codrescu recently chose it as runner-up for the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize. If I can manage to publish it with a big press, it would establish a basic narrative of what this form of art is, and how it’s evolving. It might also lift me out of poverty, even if only temporarily, which would be nice too.
Another way I’m dealing with streets clogged with copycats is by doing more private events—a strategy which limits the “vast spectrum of humanity” I mentioned, but often pays quite well, and interests me for various reasons. For example, this year I did gigs at a sex-party at the House of Yes in Brooklyn, at the inauguration of Princeton University’s new art building, and at the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas, for some sort of corporate conference. Corporate events can be morally ambiguous, but I find they dovetail nicely with the pícaro/lumpenprole aspect of my novel, and anyway, I don’t have much of a choice.
But I like how you home in on the “very moment” of lifting my hands to type—it reminds of Cartier-Bresson’s photographic theory of the Decisive Moment. And I have a simple answer—these days, my responses to strangers’ commissions are turning more and more apocalyptic. How humanity responds to the existential threats of climate change, climate genocide, climate apocalypse—I think this is what poets need to be reckoning with. We are the canaries in the coal mine, after all.
For me, poetically anyway, the situation has gone beyond the political, and toward a reckoning with our reckoning. And I don’t mean that in a shoulder-shrugging, apathetic kind of way, but a literal, revolutionary sense.
Rodrigo Toscano is the author of ten books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Charm and the Dread. His previous books include In Range, Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater, To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over twenty anthologies, including Diasporic Avant Gardes and Best American Poetry. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, Communication Workers of America, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and Northwest tribes (Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakima, Nez Perce) working on educational/training projects that involve environmental and labor justice, and health and safety culture transformation. Toscano lives in New Orleans.