Author Janet Kaplan. Photo by Silvia Sanza.
Author Janet Kaplan. Photo by Silvia Sanza.

Gemini Ink will host New York City poet Janet Kaplan as one of four visiting authors at its inaugural Writers Conference July 21-24 at El Tropicano River Walk Hotel in downtown San Antonio.

A lifelong New Yorker born in the Bronx, Kaplan is the author of three award-winning poetry collections, including Dreamlife of a Philanthropist, and a winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize from the University of Notre Dame Press. A poet with an expansive repertoire of styles in her work, she is equally capable of writing compact poems with a dystopian mischievous glint as she is more sprawling pieces whose lines detonate unpredictably across the page.

Kaplan’s topics can range from her Eastern European heritage to depicting the internet as “a mental hospital” with “zeros in one wing, /ones in another.” She is also editor-in-chief of AMP, an online literary journal published by Hofstra University, where she teaches poetry to graduate and undergraduate students.

As a part of the Gemini Ink Writers Conference, Kaplan will teach a poetry workshop on Friday, July 22 from 9 a.m.-noon, titled: “Serious Play for Poets & Other Grown-Ups,” which will explore a variety of methods for nurturing a sense of deep fun in one’s creative life.

To find out more about the rich array of programming that will be available at the conference, call Gemini Ink at 210-734-9673 or click here.

As an introduction to the kaleidoscopic, urban world of Kaplan’s poems, I recently talked with the poet about grappling with the dark comedy of life, being from the city that never sleeps, and balancing paying bills with writing poems.

Alexandra van de Kamp: Your poetry shows a full trajectory over the past 20 years as evidenced in its shifting style and subject matter. You go from the personal lyric and writing about your relationship with your mother, who struggled with depression in The Groundnote (Alice James Books, 1998), to surreal, fable-like prose poems that veer away from personal narrative in your third collection, Dreamlife of a Philanthropist (2011).

For someone new to your work, could you offer us a glimpse into your evolution as an artist?

Janet Kaplan: It occurs to me that even someone who isn’t new to my work might wonder at its trajectory. I suppose that, like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, I had the need to create new voices — perhaps in response to new influences but mostly in response to new and internal artistic imperatives. The first was an artistic exorcism: take the anguish and chaos of my childhood and young adult experiences and expel them onto the page, in forms that might contain them — or, as mid-twentieth-century sonneteer Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines / And keep him there; and let him thence escape if he be lucky….”

My second book continued the exploration of personal experiences but tried to place them in a more global, historic context of racism, conquest and victimization. I moved backwards in time from the horrific anti-Semitic pogroms of 19th Century Eastern Europe and the displacement of my family’s language and culture and compared them to Native American and African American genocides and displacements in the U.S. as well as to experiences in the Middle East, in which Palestinians lost their lands and livelihoods through the forces of Israeli occupation.

My most recent book is certainly a departure, into the realm of the imagination. But even the poems in Dreamlife partake of foreboding and disaster, I see now. (Of course, while I was writing those poems, I was having great fun.) In any event, all my books share a love of form, of discovering the best form for each voice and experience.

AV: You’re a New York City poet, born and bred in the Bronx. Do you feel the multicultural, 24/7 buzz of the city has fed you as an artist in any unique ways?

JK: Sometimes I think that I AM the multicultural 24/7 buzz of the city — and, like many of my sister and brother NYC buzzers, I’m by turns fed by the cultural hum and starved to the death by the cost of living in it. At the risk of sounding old, I can tell you that it wasn’t always like this. Yes, there were dangers in the New York City of the 1970s and early ’80s, but a poet could afford to live here. I somehow managed to get my (low) rent paid and do my creative work.

Now, like many others, I find myself working ‘round the clock to pay the bills. As a result, I have very little time or energy to make new work or to partake of the city’s cultural goings-on. It’s as if the cultural food of this city — its music halls, museums, literary venues — are now meant only for those with enough money to afford the time and the tickets, while many of us who make the art — do the cooking, to extend the “food” metaphor – hover in the back margins (the back kitchens?), give up or leave hungry.

AV: Your second book, The Glazier’s Country (University of Fordham Press, 2003) explores the personal history of your Lithuanian grandfather, who was an immigrant to New York in the 1920’s and came from a family of glass makers. Do you feel one of your compulsions as a poet is to grapple with the various histories and forces that can irrevocably make a stamp on our lives?

JK: At that time, when I was working on the poems for The Glazier’s Country, yes, I grappled with these personal and historic forces the way a poet grapples: using language and what’s often called an exploded line to express the unsaid and the forever unsayable — forever unsayable because not only are the speakers dead but the language, Yiddish, is gone as well. I’ve gone on, in Dreamlife and after, to summon what’s still alive: the bittersweet humor and absurdity that are also part of my Eastern European heritage. I’m thinking of Kafka, in particular.

AV: You have been quoted as saying that in the face of today’s “chaos, both personal and global,” as a poet you have had to choose between despair and absurdity, between being “a depressed poet or a sacred clown” (Read more: Interview with Adrienne Brock for Gwarlingo).

How does the tension between these two opposing inclinations surface in your work?

JK: In terms of mood or emotion, I really do wish it were a matter of choice. Then, between despair and absurdity, I’d always choose absurdity. Humor — even if it’s of the gallows — has been a life-saver. Just think of Shakespeare’s fools, speaking truth and upending our somber expectations.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always a matter of choice but a struggle to wrest humor from sorrow. This is probably why both — despair and the absurd — have surfaced in my work. I imagine that the tension between them is indeed visible on the page; it’s certainly visible within the poet.

AV: I have always admired your stylistic adventurousness as a poet. The unabashed use of the white space of the page, titles placed beneath poems, or your invention of the “prose sonnet,” which unpacks the strict 14-line sonnet into 14 prose sections sprawled down the page.

What draws you as a poet to experimenting with the graphic presence of poems?

JK: I love form — and I love your phrase for it: “graphic presence.” How wonderful! I’m probably a thwarted visual artist; but the great thing about being a grown-up with a love of a medium I have absolutely no training in, is that I can play with the visual without egomania. I taught myself how to use the video-maker on my computer this winter; so far, I’ve made two video poems.

I’m probably drawn to the “graphic presence” of the poem (the thrum of thoughts and ideas) and the white space (resting space; peace) because language is our dark medium. It arises as thought, in the brain, requiring no light. We can speak in the dark — thank heavens — and, if we have hearers, be understood. Perhaps thought is language still taking place before creation — in the depths of chaos. Language is still that close to our own and the universe’s darkness. But a brooder like me requires the external movement of light and spirit: the breath of life stirring the deep waters until they glisten; the play of text and space on a page — margins, stanza breaks, line breaks, space between words and syllables.

AV: In this day of Twitter, Facebook, and the continuous digital blur of information, what do you see as the role of the poet? Does poetry combat, feed into, or rejoice in this information-dense world?

JK: I’m very grateful for the information density when I want it. When I don’t, but it’s a question of fulfilling a job-related task or using information research to distract myself from writing (to numb myself to writing’s obligations and importance), I’m ready to throw it all — computers, phones — out the window.

On the other hand, now that poets are being published on the internet, and AMP, the literary magazine I edit for Hofstra University, is published on the internet, I see the digital medium as a creative tool. It’s canvas, notebook, museum and book all at once.

AV: And just for fun, let’s close with a few off-the-cuff questions from the Proust Questionnaire, known for its more chatty questions:

If you died and came back as a person or thing, what would it be?

JK: A bodhisattva, a desert monk, a kabbalist and whirling Dervish, a Mother Teresa: fearless and filled with love.

AV: What is it you most dislike?

JK: Fear and injustice. Injustice and fear. Which one comes first? Which will come last?

AV: What talent would you most like to have?

JK: Egolessness, if that’s a talent.

Top image: Author Janet Kaplan.  Photo by Silvia Sanza.

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Alexandra van de Kamp

Alexandra van de Kamp is the Creative Writing Classes Program Director for Gemini Ink. She is the author of two collections of poems: The Park of Upside-Down Chairs (CW Books 2010) and Kiss/Hierarchy (2016)...