I have a love/hate relationship with poetry. Only a couple of times a year do I truly get excited about a book of poetry. Jennifer L. Knox's Gringo Like Me (Soft Skull Press) is one of these rare gems. While reading it I kept thinking, I can't believe this is poetry. Her work is hilarious, unpredictable, and sometimes abrasive. They sometimes read like fake commercials or demented monologues. She has toured the country, run her own reading series with the poet Ada Limón, and has had poems published in venues both traditional and odd. Her poem, "The Laws of Probability in Levittown," was just picked for Best American Poetry 2006. It'll be her third appearance in that series. She lives in Brooklyn and is working on a second collection which she is calling Drunk by Noon.
Kevin Sampsell: Your poems perform on the page really well, sometimes like a good but uncomfortable joke. Did you shape some of these poems through performing?
Jennifer L. Knox: Definitely. Since I work mostly in dramatic monologues, the element of performance, address, or delivery ??? whatever you want to call it ??? is fundamental. There's no monologue if there's no ear listening to it. Although I do have poems where the voices are just talking to themselves, the listener is still there ??? the speaker just can't see him. Some of the poems were written only to be read-you can probably figure out which ones those are. Sometimes I underestimate a listener ??? I'll think, "That one's too complicated to read," but I'm totally wrong. I suppose when I do that I'm underestimating myself ??? which I do ??? as well as overestimating myself ??? about 1,000 times a day.
KS: What do you think about swearing in poetry?
Knox: I'm all f--king for it, of course. But like all things, sometimes I do it a lot better than others. Like salt, I've been trying to use it less, and more effectively when I do.
KS: What sort of things did you write when you were a kid?
Knox: I didn't write much when I was a kid. I was more verbal, and tactile. My first major was theater, then fine arts (glass blowing, no lie). Many of the poets I hang out with have theater backgrounds ??? they seem to know instinctively how a poem should flow when they're accustomed to delivering lines. That's a theory I'm working on. But when I did start writing ??? when I was about 19 ??? it was the exactly the kind of stuff you'd expect: abstract, morbid, sexually graphic yet physically unfeasible, and totally self-involved.
KS: What are the most exciting magazines or websites for poetry these days?
Knox: Online I love Painted Bride Quarterly, Coconut, Kulture Vulture, No Tell Motel, Octopus, and Shanna Compton's blog (actually, so many blogs: in alphabetical order: Clay Banes, Jim Behrle, Jordan Davis, Shafer Hall, Gabe Gudding, K. Silem Mohammad, Maureen Thorson). On paper, not in alphabetical order, Lit, 88, Verse, The Story of My Scab and lots of others.
Knox: First I'd like to say that I'm a huge fan of Michael Madsen's book, especially the poem about him masturbating to the girls changing in the windows of the dorms at Northwestern. That's what I call letting it all hang out. If Dean Martin was still alive, I'd love to read a book of his pantoums ??? but just pantoums. Ol' Dirty Bastard should have written a book of poems. I guess I can only think of dead people ??? and Michael Madsen.
KS: If you had a band what would you call it?
Knox: Spanish Tantrum, Fat José, Rubber Underwear Bugs, Vicodin Pipe, Cadillac DeSade, Ball Peen Boyfriend (BPBF), Thunderclog, Strappenfortzen... oh, I could go on.
KS: You can make up two rules for poets ??? something they should never do and something they should always do.
Knox: Many, many, many (many, many, many, etc.) people have told me, "You can't do what you're doing." People are afraid of things they haven't seen before, especially if they're invested in the rules. Just like regular people, most artists ??? regardless of the medium ??? are imitative rather than inventive. Marie Ponsot once said that when someone tells you, "This little part of the poem doesn't fit, it's too weird ??? take it out," that that little part is the heart of the poem ??? you should dig it up and plant it. So my rule is to never listen when someone tells you can't say something, or do something ??? it's all about risk. It might not work, but the explosion of a brilliant failure can be pretty cool, too.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir