A conversation with Mark Leidner

Mark, deep in the shallow end

Mark Leidner is a poet, cartoonist, and tweeter. (You can read his unbelievable twitter here, and see his work, including some in video form, on his Livejournal.) He was the first poet in THERMOS’s first issue, so we’re delighted to present this conversation with him. The interview was conducted by Jay.

TH: Where are you this summer? Have you been to any new places recently?

ML: I’m living in Northampton, MA. I go to the same places every day and haven’t been to any new places since last year when I moved here. But to me this is still a new place. My favorite joke is having someone you love go on vacation “for you,” then when they come back and you kiss, you get this rapid-fire montage of flashbacks of all the sites they visited.

TH: What is a personal limit you’ve hit recently, that you dream of overcoming? Does this affect your poetry in some way? Or does your poetry affect your relationship to this personal limit?

ML: I would love to overcome drinking, but this is a personal limit I’ve hit repeatedly for several years. I feel like I would be so much more honest and interesting and wealthy if I could discover a different way to induce socializing. I lose control, make poor decisions, and the hangovers last a week; like anchors on your ankles, trying to wade back out of the ocean.

Maybe it’s good for poetry though. There’s a part in The Mezzanine where the narrator talks about the horror of finding out from his mother that alcohol kills brain cells, and being so worried about losing a single one, until one day he realizes that it’s good to kill some brain cells. If you kill all the brain cells that contain useless data, those unintegrated facts attaching to your subconscious throughout the day like mental lint, that don’t mean anything, like parking spot #’s, the flight-paths of flies, the deaths of those neural pathways toughen and harden the pathways of the most important cells of your brain, the ones storing the narrative you draw through your life, the ideas you most firmly believe, memories, ambitions. It’s like your brain gets a shave and sees a truer form of itself.

This is like poetry because confronting a fully realized form, for me, throws the form of my own life into relief. But it comes with a punishing cost.

TH: Who do you consider your writing community?

ML: I have a couple friends I share things with and whose conversation stimulates my imagination. We bounce ideas and books off each other, argue, etc. That’s the most intimate community I can think of. Although another is a handful of dead or living writers I don’t know personally, but whose work I love, so when I write something I’m sort of conversing with them, the voices living in their books. Another writing community I consider myself a part of is with God, or god, or its absence. I feel like if god exists, he or she is a very talented poet, whose work is so beautiful and horrifying, complex and simple, there and not there; that I want to talk to it. And you can’t not read it.

Moving out from those most intimate spheres of community, I live in Northampton, which is in the middle of Western Massachusetts and where there are many poets and artists all seeking their own forms of poetic and artistic fulfillment. Poetry fills this quiet, green river valley like an ever-present, invisible tornado, touching everything, stirring things ups, changing people, and of course, not changing them. But that level of contact with art is hard to find elsewhere, probably.

Moving out from that, and also moving in, too, is the internet. A long time ago I wandered into a poetry rating community on Livejournal and through that had a kind of dirty poetic baptism. Blogging, tweeting, making movies, making comics, submitting to magazines, Facebook status updates, they’re all like little tributaries of that original river of interaction. I guess this simultaneously mega- and non-community has shaped many of my thoughts about lines, rhythm, time, syntax, attention, intention, narrative, image, and all the other stuff that I assume previous generations were more likely to find in tree-based texts. It’s interesting to me to think about literature as an internet that exists outside time, whereas the common everyday thing we refer to as the internet feels decidedly fleeting, ephemeral, etc. But in many ways they are the same thing. A giant tent under which old language congregates with new.

Mark Leidner, “Pearls Before Swine”:

It’s always been fascinating to me how fast intimacy develops when you are reading someone else’s poetry. I love how poetry slices through the thousand layers of civil dishonesty and polite bullshit like a flame-lit chainsaw, and gives you a piece of a person, the best piece. The piece they want to be so badly but cannot. It’s incredibly humbling. I guess the saving grace about being normal (not a poet) is that you’re probably never even aware of the depth of the intimacy you’re missing. Unless you’re somehow born unlucky enough to be aware of it, but too ashamed of that awareness to ever step into the sea (of poetry). What a horrifying existence. One I used to have very much. Constantly fear that I still have.

T: This question is related to your video-poems. In an interview on BOMBLOG, you say that you began feeding your poems through a text reader because “One of the things I strive for is a conversational seamlessness for most of my poems… [Text-to-voice software] helps me hear [the poem] in a monotone, an uninterested party, articulating those words, so that I can more effectively hear when I’m trying to, you know, be so clever or be too lyrical or too something that disrupts the dream of the poem. I’ll often try to revise in order to make a poem as smart as possible, and in trying to make it smarter and better and deeper, it loses its believability as a convincing human articulation.” This is a cool idea and I find myself interested in its opposite. Are there any poets whose riotous excess sounds unbelievable but still delights you? Do you ever fear sculpting your poetry into something believably human but “common” or weak?

ML: This part of me that is driven to push for greater cleverness, wisdom, entertainment, beauty, etc—is something I’ve tried hard and failed consistently to expel from my consciousness. Like a sword buried in my chest cavity that I’d have to kill myself to get rid of. Extremely uncomfortable, and I’d be a lot better off—happier, nicer, zenner, maybe a much better poet and reader—without it. But I’m not. So then all my poems come erupting forth, dripping with vanity and writhing with everything else that’s not supposed to be in a poem; “common.” So I want to make them better, wiser, faster, stronger, so they can handle all that sludge. But that makes me say things that destroy the flow. So I needed those robots to hear myself, so I could develop this rule of thumb for myself: first of all, serve the flow. The whole can fail to matter no matter how great the parts are, if they can’t join. You don’t get to be clever unless you can do it to serve the greater good of the primary form, the poem. No subordinate part can fuck with an ordinate part. Otherwise the fact that you’re a dickhead, and not a true poet, is exposed. Of course, it’s never not exposed.

You have to learn every way to be before you can choose your own, original way and have it be wisdom-infused. Then once you have gleaned everything from all those failures of trying on all those other styles, you just be yourself “in the cruel, disgusting language that was carved into you.” This is how I have come to a reckoning with the “conversational” style I feel compelled to write and think in. Because when I was little all the poetry I consumed was the unacknowledged kind that filtered through Catholicism, and novels by Michael Crichton. I suppose the poetry of TV shows, if you can call it that, also got in there, like a pleasurable virus. Then in adolescence the poetry of the internet glued up with that. So these are all relatively conversational idioms that were hammered into my imagination when I was in the agony of unattractive youth. It wasn’t until later—now—that I began to seek out other, I suppose, more traditionally poetic sources of knowledge. But even when I do that, it’s still with great trepidation and alienation.

Sometimes I feel like a bitter clinger, afraid to see the greater awesomeness that is whatever the opposite of my preferred modal rut is, but then I think no. Even in the most simple, common sentences, nothing is stable. Everything just seems like it is. I actually love that, that rift. That rift between the posture of stability and the chaos it references. I’m like a drunk mage chugging liquid from the river flowing through that rift, addicted.

T: What do you think about THERMOS? Anything you wish we’d try?

ML: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. Each issue seems pretty loaded with various forms. That’s the main thing I like when I read nowadays. Especially in collections. You get to see so much more of a “mind at work” when that mind is taking on a variety of problems, instead of the same problem over and over, solving it in the same way. And especially since the favorite content of our time seems to be the composition of the poem itself, or the poet’s act of writing the poem, or what the language or the poem means to the speaker—all fine and noble things to contemplate, it’s just that when so many of us are writing about this, novel or even forbidden forms seem like a wonderful way to outwit tedium.

T: What are your projects for the rest of the year?

ML: I will try to finish the full-length poetry manuscript that I have been working on for a few years, which is difficult because what I want to say and how it wants to be said keeps changing faster than I can find a poetic form to contain it, but that’s okay. I also enjoy writing stories, which is even more fun because I know even less about storytelling than the joke-making, monologueing, image-cooking, and rhetorical dancing that usually gets folded into my poetry. Again it’s that idea that the farther away I am from meeting a form satisfactorily the more exciting things are.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by The Masked Aphorist on July 25, 2014 at 6:03 am

    If I have nothing to say, I can say it best in an aphorism in the Twittersphere.


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