The Art of Preservation:
Justin Petropoulos & Emma Trelles

Justin Petropoulos is the author of the poetry collection Eminent Domain, selected by Anne Waldman for the 2010 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, Gulf Coast, Mandorla, Portland Review, and most recently in Spinning Jenny. Justin co-curated Triptych Readings from 2010 to 2011 and was a guest blogger for Bryant Park's summer poetry reading series, Word for Word. He holds an MFA from the Indiana University. Justin currently is the site director of an after-school program for elementary age children and is an adjunct faculty member at New Jersey City University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his partner in crime, digital artist Carla Gannis. Visit him Twitter at @redactioneer or at Marsh Hawk Press.
Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), winner of the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and a finalist for ForeWord Reviews' poetry Book of the Year, and the chapbook Little Spells (GOSS183, 2008). She has been a featured reader in the The Poet and the Poem series at the Library of Congress, Busboys & Poets in Washington D.C., the O, Miami Poetry Festival, the Miami Book Fair International, and the Palabra Pura series at the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago. Her work has appeared in, Poets & Artists, Best of the Net, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, the Miami Herald, and others. A contributor to the Letras Latinas weblog and to the Best American Poetry blog, she is also a 2013 recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. She lives with her husband in South Florida, where she is an editor and writing instructor.

Justin Petropoulos: I'm always interested in the structures poets use to explore the world and language. You and I both examine the conflicts, magic, and perhaps the consequences of language/image production on people; the way it shapes and is shaped by their lives. One consequence of that examination is the multiple, malleable realities all at work at once in poems. We get to experience some of the benefits of simultaneous multi-dimensional existence without that pesky inter-dimensional commute.

One structure in your work that caught my attention is litany. There seems to be a drive in Tropicalia to catalogue landscapes, emotions, histories, and so my question is why is litany so important to you as a poet? Among the themes active in the book, religion seems to be one that you confront often, even if just to dismiss it, and I was also wondering if litany was in some way representative of that struggle?
Emma Trelles: For the last couple of years, I've been mulling over "the God beyond God"—as theologian Karen Armstrong so aptly puts it—but your comments made me realize that I've been thinking about it for much longer. So, yes, the practice of faith in its many guises, or its absence, is very much present in Tropicalia, although it's not anything I was consciously inserting. I've often thought of poetry not only as art but also as a form of prayer, a way of pleading, of expressing gratitude, rage, or consequence, a document of personal and external histories, and, ultimately, a method of recording them. Was that just another litany? I think you're on to something.

Here's what I'm initially curious about in regards to your own work: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that many of the poems in Eminent Domain were pieced together with redacted text. What is it about this approach to writing that appeals to you? Would you call yourself a hoarder of words? And if so, could you tell me how and where you stash them?
JP: I think my initial attraction to redaction and collage was based on insecurity about my voice or voicing in poems. I didn't like my own voice. I still don't. I couldn't get the ideas (theory) I wanted into the poems, and didn't trust my own authority to speak to things like politics or economics, so I started using other people's voices.

As I learned more about the history of collage in various media, and as the project in Eminent Domain became more clear, I decided that I could use the (dis)location achieved by the collision of various lexical systems to mimic—in reading—the (dis)location of people in the world, which language often masks. I was thinking, for example, of refugees, people displaced by eminent domain, human trafficking, immigration or those in search of asylum.

Just to be clear, what is at stake in textual (dis)location (collage) and actual human (dis)location are in no way equivalent. Collage is just an expressive tool, a mimetic device, one that highlights language's equivocal nature, and in this case hopefully reveals how some of those equivocations produce environments where people are not represented, are not equi-vocal. Most displaced people are relegated to silence. I chose to take issue with lexicons (military, economic, scientific, etc.) that I felt produced that silence, masked or glossed displaced people, and the issues they face.

So, yes, I am a hoarder of words, mostly because I feel like I know so few of them that I have to mine other people's vocabularies. My stash of words is in a box under my bed—seriously, in a box, under the bed. I'm hoping they seep into my brain through some osmotic action.
ET: I find it interesting that although our books are utterly disparate in tone, there is still a fundamental unity present that involves the document—a thing that serves to record, preserve, or, in some cases, give voice to communities which, as you put so precisely, are "relegated to silence" by the very language that is used to mask their existence. This idea of language as a form of preservation is also of great interest to me, although my own book's approach is rooted more in the truths and artifices of the image, how it is subject to manipulation through a desire to document.

And I don't consider the word "manipulation" in a negative context, but rather in the way we, as poets and writers, subjectively select what we include in our work, consciously or unconsciously, from a notebook, our memories, or from a box stashed beneath our beds. I love that your own selection has such physicality to it. Staring out the window in reverie is certainly needed to write poems, but it's also just as important to lay our hands on the actual—a scissors and a newspaper, the day's mail, a toilet brush, a steering wheel. The mundane keeps us present. In grad school, I used to keep lists of words I found sonically hypnotic, or plain, or just cool, and whether I used them in my work or not, I so enjoyed writing them, in pen, on paper. I just started doing that again. I think I might be pining for the tactile part of writing, wanting more action and less ether, so to speak. Keeping those lists reminds me to be present, to witness.
JP: You mentioned, that while you're interested in language as a preservative method, your focus in Tropicalia was "…rooted more in the truths and artifices of the image, how it is subject to manipulation through a desire to document." I'm always in awe of the ways realities and the memories of those realities grid/grind against each other, but can be, for lack of a better term, beautifully (dis)organized.

I love your idea of poetry as "preservation". Sometimes writing feels like that, like canning fruit for the coming winter. The idea of preservation is ripe (pun intended) with conflict for me. I tend to shy away from the idea of my own work as preservative as much as possible. I'm scared of it. I'm more critical of myself as a writer when I'm trying to be accurate as opposed impressionistic. I always end up asking myself: how can you preserve something in a medium whose tendency is to drain the original life of an object and reinvest it with the demands of the author and reader? The limits of language depend so much on interpretation, that the original object is so far removed by author and reader, by time, and shifting contexts, that at best we've translated something whose source has vanished.
ET: This morning I was reading a story about combat photographers and what compels them to push their faces so close to destruction. These men and women are also called shooters, an obvious reference to the actual act of photographing, or taking a shot, but I also like to consider the underlying allusions to weaponry—how reporting what has unfolded has a life and death power over lives, protecting the vulnerable and beautiful or revealing injustice and atrocities. If I am writing about eaglets hatching in a tree above a highway, I consider the poem, in part, a weapon, a shot, an act of defense. The birth of the natural is in some small way enshrined, and although I do not know what will happen to these eaglets, inside the frame of that poem or essay, they live. If I'm recounting peaceful protesters beaten by the police, or the murder of an old friend, then I am taking aim at destruction by shining a kind of light upon it. Lately I've been thinking that all creative writers are journalists, of a sort.
JP: Something about the taking of taking a picture is violent to me, beyond any argument about photography's tendency to memorialize, and by some manner of slippery slope, kill its subject. It's the taking that unnerves me. I admire your desire for a kind of weaponized linguistics. It reminds me of a quote from David Bartholomae, in an essay called "Inventing the University," where he states—and I'm paraphrasing—something I feel is generally true: writing is an act of aggression disguised as an act of charity.
ET: I think Frost said something equally warrior-like about poetry, how it was a way of seizing life by the throat.
JP: When I was teaching I used to talk to my students all the time about language as this strange organism that is simultaniously individual and communal, and that writers often use the communal definitions of things as jumping off points for personalizing their experiences. To further that point, I would prompt them to give me another word for definition, asking them: what is it we look for in the texts we read? The word meaning was consistently the answer. Meaning is a great word for how we experience through words. Language is always a mean, an average of definitions, but we know it's an average and have to work from there to make it personal. What's that Elvis Costello quote? "You've got to use your imagination on some of that magazine romance." It's like that. We attempt the individuation of meaning from a public set of signs that are simultaneously fixed and fluid. I mention this because you talked about a shared physicality in our work and for me those ideas, physicality and meaning, are linked in your work. Specifically, in the poem titled "Love," you write:

                       …I don't know how to explain
what I really mean, although do not leave me
is close, and what would the next long jaunt be
without the smell of him tracing the sheets,
without his hands.
What I love is the speaker's sad acknowledgment that words fall short as an accurate conveyance for emotion and that the space of loss is one where the object of desire is expected and not imagined. The speaker's proclivity for touch is reinforce by words like "tracing," whose definitions commute so beautifully between the speaker's senses and the metonymic hands of the speaker's lover. It's really gorgeous. How do you think about loss in relation to physical existence? I mean, you are writing so much about the image itself, which only (re)presents the physical, do you feel loss trying to write images?
ET: Just the opposite. I feel that writing the image—invented, literal, or hybrid creature—is a way of staving off loss because it's an acknowledgment of the image's essentialness, both to the book's collage-like narrative and to my own experience of the visual. There is a great line in Campbell McGrath's Seven Notebooks where he writes, "If I didn't write it down, did it really happen?" It's a common consideration among most writers, how language, or, in this case, image, can serve as a confirmation of existence: "Yes," the image-creature says to the poet upon its arrival, "I came from a place unseen, and now we are both revealed." Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two Headed Boy" just started playing in my brain; all this talk of preservation and weird image-beings reminds me of freakish, beautiful specimens in a jar…

And this talk of image also reminds me—I love the photographs that introduce each section of your book! Men and women seem to fall or dangle in mid-air; they remind me of Robert Longo's "Men in the Cities" series. Could you tell me why you and/or the press decided to include visual art?
JP: The drawings are by a friend, Manny Prieres, a Miami based artist whose work I have admired for a long time. The reason I chose them was because each drawing in the series is of a body falling through a vacuum, a blank canvas, just a body in space, dislocated from any context beyond descent itself. I feel like those bodies represent the political and social (dis)locations effected through language. The only location one cannot be separated from, after all, is the body itself. But that idea did not extend beyond the cover. The idea to have these images open each section, repeat and descend over the course of the book, was all the work of Claudia Carlson, the book's designer. I loved everything she suggested. My publisher, Marsh Hawk Press, also advocates furthering connections between writing and the visual arts, encouraging that exploration wherever possible.
ET: How delightfully coincidental. The cover to my own book is also from a Miami-based artist whose work I've followed and admired—Christiaan Lopez-Miro. My publisher, University of Notre Dame Press, was very receptive to suggestions about art, and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize has sort of a tradition of its poets visually contributing to their books by reaching out to artists. The photograph on the cover of my own book was taken from a series Lopez-Miro did on Cassadaga, a small town in north central Florida with a long history of mysticism. I love how the picture fuses together Florida's ubiquitous green with man-made objects, a central premise of the manuscript, and how the image is literally rooted in a place of mystery and faith. Where all poems come from, I suppose.
JP: I'd like to thank Boxcar Poetry Review for providing a forum that works to keep the conversation about the poetry alive and relevant, and especially to Eduardo C. Corral for orchestrating these interviews; your generous spirit helped to make this a truly amazing experience. And of course, none of this would've been possible without the incomparable Emma Trelles. Thank you for your gorgeous work and your huge heart. This conversation was a real inspiration. I also want to move back to Miami now so we can keep it going.
ET: Yes, we are both very grateful to Boxcar and Eduardo for their interest in poems and in poets everywhere. Justin, I hope to see you soon in the 3-0-5!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761