by Jeff Von Ward
A History of Broken Love Things(Punk Hostage Press), by SB Stokes is the author’s debut collection of poetry, an expansive and regenerative look at identity through the tumbled stones of broken relationships. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the poet following a string of successful Bay Area events and readings. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Q: When I told my high school guidance counselor I wanted to be a poet, he tried to talk me out of it. Do you have any cool stories about peoples’ responses, good, bad or unexpected, when you declared your entry in the field?
SB STOKES: Michael McClure refused to read any of my poetry while I was his student at the California College of the Arts (CCA, then known as CCAC, The California College of Arts & Crafts), and when I pressed him, he quoted Alfred Jarry to me, saying: “You know, Mister Stokes, ‘the armature of the absolute is the absurd’.” And then he smirked, winked at me, and walked away. He also refused to teach any poetry classes at the time, he was touring the world doing spoken word with Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors.
Q: That must have been in the early nineties? I remember seeing flyers for what would become Love Lion all over Santa Cruz, where I lived at that time.
SB STOKES: That sounds right. Then, when I was forced to drop out of art school (but still required to be enrolled full-time at some college-level school to continue living rent-free at my parents’ house), I went to Diablo Valley Junior College (DVC), where an Advanced Poetry instructor gave the assignment for the rest of the 35 students in the class to write a poem in MY poetic style. I was shocked, horrified, embarrassed, and humiliated. I sincerely didn’t know how to take that. Was he mocking me, trying to teach me a lesson? Complimenting my already defined personal style? (Yeah, right.) Was he trying to get me to take a good, hard look at how my poems were becoming formulaic? I sincerely have no idea. I tend to think the first idea was probably the most accurate. Any way you slice it, it sucked big-time.
Q: What is poetry anyway and why does it have such a bad rap?
SB STOKES: This question should be posed in the reverse order: poetry gets a bad rap because it is so very difficult to define generally. It is a myriad of different perspectives and voices and cadences and phrasings and lineations and formats and forms and structures and experiments and expressions and languages and vernaculars and it is constantly growing, expanding, and changing. That’s why!
Q: How do you make poetry relevant to a contemporary audience?
SB STOKES: Speak about contemporary concerns. Use the topical to be universal. Be present and relevant. Be honest about real human experiences.
Q: What are some of your poetic influences? The high and low diction reminded me a little bit of Ashbery, in a good way.
SB STOKES: I’m flattered by the Ashbery comparison! Wow. He is a poet whose work impressed me from the moment I was exposed to it. And now, I apologize in advance for the length of my answer. Well, like most people who first came to poetry as a teenager, in high school, I think my initial influences are pretty common nowadays: Shakespeare, William Blake, e.e. cummings, Charles Bukowski, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And my Mom was always a big Rod McKuen fan, so as a small kid I was exposed to his books too. In college and grad school, the instructors I studied with most closely became truly influential. Daniel J. Langton, Camille Dungy, Truong Tran, Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Donna de la Perriere, Barbara Tomash, Toni Mirosevich, Myung Mi Kim, Aaron Shurin, Michael McClure.
Nowadays, of course, my compatriots in the SF Bay Area literary scene, especially my closest running buddies (dubbed “The Beast Generation” by Zarina Zabrisky), are probably my greatest and most immediate influences. The people I love to read with, would love to read with, or would love to read with again: Cassandra Dallett, William Taylor Jr., Joel Landmine, Jennifer Brown, Zarina Zabrisky and Simon Rogghe, Charlie Getter, Hollie Hardy, Sarah Overton, Jason Schenheit, Brontez Purnell, Alexandra Naughton, Sarah Wisby, Daniel Suarez, Justin Etc., Sandra Wassilie, Evan Karp, Cynthia Atkins, Tim Kahl, Bill Gainer, Justin Etc.,
Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m not the poetic offspring of David Meltzer… Music and lyrics are a huge influence on my poetry as well. I have a lot of poems that talk to or about particular bands or songs. And movies, oh my gawd, movies flashing in my mind constantly.
Q: That’s a dynamite list. Hoping someone reading this will find a new muse for a while. So how does your background in art inform your poetry—or does it?
SB STOKES: My background in art is a lifelong exposure and immersion and participation in the world of art, on various and varied levels. I know, that sounds like a bunch of windy bullshit, but I’ve been drawing and thinking in pictures for as long as I can remember, since I could hold a crayon, since before I knew there was such a thing as “art”.
Q: One of the things I think you do really well is the elliptical… following a stream-of-conscious “line of thought” with a quivering second and third guessing, an almost neurotic compulsion that seems both funny and true, making the speakers of your poems vulnerable and tender, even if they’re afraid sometimes of the repercussions. How much distance exists between you and the speakers?
SB STOKES: It varies widely between poems. It’s like an endless strand of Xmas lights: some of them are nearer the plug than others, and sometimes they get moved around too.
Q: How do you modulate personal pain and make it universal? Is writing poetry actually therapeutic?
SB STOKES: Poetry, for me personally, is beyond therapeutic. Sometimes it is downright cathartic. It is always necessary, even if what comes out seems like pure crap. Necessary is what poetry is for me.
As far as personal pain goes, I guess I just try to represent it as best I can, with a sincere attempt at accuracy and honesty. I try to modulate it in the same ways I try to modulate it in daily life, I guess. I think the few times when I am successful at that, that’s when it strikes a chord with the greater human heart, whether it be in writing or in person.
Q: Can you speak about the order of the poems in a history of broken love things? The poems seem to start small before moving on to encompass larger and larger spaces, greater complexity, more unsolvable problems. Is the stumblebum making some kind of moral progress or merely marking time?
SB STOKES: Honestly, A. Razor had some influence, as my editor (in addition to being half of my publisher duo, with Iris Berry), on the order of poems in my book, but mainly I was trying to create thematic clusters that seemed to relate to one another in either subject matter, voice, or overall perspective. I wish I could say that I had the forethought on this, my first book, to be so organized as to follow the progression you suggest!
Q: What is your revision process? How do you know when a piece is finished?
SB STOKES: Uhhhh. I’m not sure how to answer this one. I revise until the music and rhythm are as clean and tight as they can be? Some—very, very few—poems are done when I write them, but for the most part, it’s a matter of hours to weeks to months of reading them out loud to myself and subtracting (or adding) words to lines to balance (or knock out of balance) the meter of each line. I feel like I’m just stating the obvious right now.
Q: Tell me about your book launch in SF? That was one of the coolest readings I’ve been to this year.
SB STOKES: I was out walking the lake (Lake Merritt in Oakland) with my friend and fellow poet Cassandra Dallett and I was complaining about how a book release reading just felt like too much of giant ego trip: “Hey, everybody! Look at me! And come listen to me! Reading stuff I wrote! And celebrate MY book with ME!” So, I started thinking about how I could possibly use my book release party/reading as a means of drawing attention to other talented poet friends of mine, while necessarily highlighting and hyping my recently published book. The best idea I could come up with was to have a dozen of my female poet friends come up and read their favorite poem from the book. This idea was based on the fact that several different people, writers and non-writers, had commented to me that in some of my poems, the narrator’s voice seemed female, or of an indeterminate gender. I thought, “Just how different will these poems sound in a female voice, read by someone who has real skill at reading and/or performing poetry?” And then I thought about how many bad-ass female poets I know and it became a no-brainer. I had a truly successful book release. I sold something like forty copies of my book that night, over one hundred people attended, and the readings were stellar! I was stunned and grateful.
Q: Why did you decide to publish your debut book with Punk Hostage Press?
SB STOKES: In all honesty, because they asked me! And when I met and talked with A. Razor at Beast Crawl a few years ago, I thought, “This is a man I can relate to. Someone who will understand what I’m trying to do with this poetry thing.” I felt like we had a pretty clear kinship with one another. And I really respected Punk Hostage Press and Words As Works’ nonprofit mission to spread good, truthful, well-written, and well-produced poetry and prose books to folks who are incarcerated, homeless, or otherwise disenfranchised. It was really one of those moments of recognizing family when you first meet someone. So I said yes, and Razor and I busted out my book.
Q: You’ve maintained a blog, Mass Communications, for quite a while now. How does this fuel your poetry writing process? Is there any writing you began there that ultimately became a part of your collection?
SB STOKES: Mass Communications started out as an experiment, back when I first got on the web and really started considering another attempt at being a serious writer, at trying to become a real published poet. I wasn’t writing much at all at that time, but I had a backlog of one-off poems and short-short prose pieces I had written, off and on, during the ten year hiatus I took from actively writing, reading, and submitting poetry.
Q: You’re very active in the Bay Area literary “scene.” You read frequently at events and also help curate Beat Crawl and guest curated one of my favorite Quiet Lightning shows. What have been the advantages or disadvantages of having such a public presence?
SB STOKES: I do more than “help curate” Beast Crawl. I am one of the people who originally created and produced Beast Crawl, and I’m still one of the folks responsible for the event’s annual production, with a handful of very smart, hardworking, and dedicated folks. We do the whole event annually for zero dollars—it’s all free and that’s the way we are trying to keep it. I’m very proud to be a part of Beast Crawl. Additionally, I curate an annual reading at the event, called SKINLESS: New & Raw Writing, which drew a bigger crowd at Beast Crawl this year than ever before. We actually had to turn folks away at the door for lack of space, with an audience of over 70 people, it was hard to believe. Truthfully, I’d like to be out reading and performing and producing more, but I work between five and six nights a week most weeks, so the numbers of readings I can attend as either a reader or audience member are actually quite few. I don’t really feel like I have that much of a public presence. Like, I never worry about over saturating the local audiences, because, like I said, I’m actually out listening and performing far less than I’d like to be, and far less than most of my poetry compatriots. And as far as producing readings or events go, I do that even less frequently.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?
SB STOKES: If you feel like you must write poetry, like you might die if you don’t get it out of you, like it is an undeniable compulsion, like your head might explode, or your might drive your car into a tree on purpose if you cannot write out your poetic ideas and phrases and lines frequently, then you cannot rest until you have edited, hacked at it, sanded it down, refined it to its purest essences (with or without food, or sleep, or whatever else), then by all means—by any and all means—keep writing. If you’re not sure, or it’s something you’re only vaguely interested in, or you’re not all that excited about poetry, then please just stop. There are enough talented poets out here starving already.
Q: Good advice. What are you working on now?
SB STOKES: I am currently writing and editing like a madman, as usual. My output varies widely, but lately, since the publication of my book in January 2014, I have about 140 unpublished poems that are either finished, or damn close. My hope is to have another book length manuscript ready for publication in early 2015.