Poet Of The Week

Marie Buck

     August 22–28, 2016

Marie Buck is the author of Life & Style (Patrick Lovelace Editions, 2009), Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015) and Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (Roof, forthcoming 2017). She grew up in South Carolina, lived in western Massachusetts and Detroit, and has been in Brooklyn for two years. She works as the managing editor of the journal Social Text, where she is also literary editor for Social Text Online. You can find some more of her recent work at Theme Can, the Recluse and Prelude.

Pain Funnel

Welfare mom with kids
Recent high school graduate
College freshman dropout
Pregnant ladies
Recent divorce
Military—active and retired
Low self-esteem
Low-income jobs
Vocational rehabilitation
Experienced a recent death
Experienced a recent birth
Empty nest syndrome
Recent marriage
Career change
Upgrade skills
Physically/mentally abused
Recent incarceration
Drug rehabilitation
Dead-end jobs—no future
College credits—2+ years
Living with multitude of families
Living with parents
Living with significant other
Fired/lay off
Self-employed with no benefits

Tell me more about that.
Can you be more specific?
What have you tried to do about that?
Have you tried to fix it?
What has it cost you?
How do you feel about that?

Does the prospect have enough pain to qualify for the next step?

Whose life will this impact, besides you?
Who will be the most proud at your graduation?
Reality check! So why haven’t you taken these steps yet?

–From Portrait of Doom, Krupskaya, 2015.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem is lifted entirely from two training manuals for recruiters to for-profit colleges. I was reading an article on recruitment techniques that for-profits use—I think it was this one—and was pretty struck by the ways these different circumstances listed in the materials and in the poem are all listed as vulnerabilities here—are all sort of conflated because these for-profit universities think they make someone a good mark, essentially: “pregnant ladies,” “military—active and retired,” “recent incarceration,” etc. That is, you wouldn’t normally think about these statuses together—military discharge, pregnancy, incarceration—but this document from Vatterrott College tells us that a lot of people who are recently out of prison or the military, or who are pregnant, maybe under particularly stressful circumstances, feel like they need large-scale life changes, feel vulnerable, are in pain. And then this is what our society has to offer people—a recruiter trying to scam them; debt; a useless degree.

This poem is also sort of odd in that these documents came to light via a federal investigation into for-profit recruitment by Congress. So these documents are the extreme example that Congress is able to point to as exploitative. But of course the federal government is responsible for a lot more debt and suffering via education than Vatterrott College is. As the government and private companies profit off of student debt, college is still presented by virtually all mainstream politicians as the way to get a good job—solve the jobs crisis for millennials by sending them all through more and more higher education, or, alternatively, and in a different narrative, by encouraging them all to be entrepreneurs and innovators who become “successful” through sheer brilliance and grit. Both of these solutions are just ways for individuals to get ahead—they do nothing to address structural, systemic problems. Whereas something like Fight for Fifteen, the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, actually does—I think we need to be focused on creating better working conditions and raising the standard of living across all kinds of work, not trying to propel individuals from one sector of work into another.

But anyway: I think the pain funnel documents are really fucking dark and get at a lot about the world, really. And so I made a poem from them. Also, in the book this poem appears in, Portrait of Doom, I’m often writing in a fantasy-based and vaguely science fiction-y register. I wanted this poem there to be a sort of grounding document, something that fastens those more fantastical elements in the contemporary world. In the book, I knew I wanted to move in between quotidian forms of suffering and resistance and the fantastical versions of suffering and resistance as portrayed in other places (often children’s TV shows). Storytelling and narrative and television are sort of funny in that they let there be an endpoint. Something happens; people fight back; there is tragedy or resolution; there is some sort of climax, etc. And I think we often need to tell ourselves stories in order to, say, do activist work, or just keep on with life. There has to be a possible ending point, a resolution. But there isn’t in real life—often awful things happen, and they keep happening; people suffer quietly; they eventually die. There isn’t a narrative arc. And in Portrait of Doom I wanted to overlay these grandiose narratives about good and evil with the quotidian, drudgerous, shitty ways we most often experience evil in real life. And “Pain Funnel” feels important for that. Everyone’s going along, doing their thing, trying to improve theirs and others’ lives, being preyed upon, and then the recruiters at the for-profit colleges—they’re also working a shitty job, experiencing pain, etc. Also, the pain funnel works by getting the person to talk about their feelings—and in Portrait of Doom, I am interested in thinking about the ways that people’s individual feelings are produced by these larger systemic issues, and the problem of forging solidarity, of making feelings less individual.

What are you working on right now?

I have a few things going. I’m in the midst of edits for a book of poems that Roof is putting out this coming spring, Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul. I’m also finishing a dissertation for my PhD program. I’m writing about an anthology of poems for Malcolm X from Broadside Press, this early Black Arts Movement press that was based in Detroit; a number of Women’s Liberation texts and pamphlets, including Our Bodies, Ourselves; and the newspaper of the Black Panther Party. And collectivity, affect, horror, self-referentiality. I could go on about this for, like, a while. But I’ll stop!

Oh, and I also recently started editing a literature section of Social Text Online. Social Text is the journal that I work for, as managing editor. And we’re relaunching our website soon, with this new literature section that I’m working on. Super stoked to be editing poetry again.

What’s a good day for you?

Spanning weekday and weekend things: I’m generally partial to the gym, the beach, iced Americanos, super long runs through Central Park, movies at Metrograph and Spectacle, outdoor drinks, walking around, getting a seat on the train so I can read and drink my iced Americano at the same time. I’m probably pretty content if one or more of those things come into play.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved here from Detroit almost exactly two years ago. So I’m definitely a newcomer. I moved in part because I was sort of psychologically burnt out on the Rust Belt. Also, I did not want to finish up my PhD program and look for an alt-ac job from Detroit—the entire regional economy of that area is super depressed, much more so than here, I think. So—like many people, I moved to New York because there’s more work and better living conditions, generally. (Though I say that knowing that all sorts of fucked-up stuff is happening in Brooklyn and the NY area more largely all the time.) I chose Brooklyn because I had friends here and didn’t know a lot of people in any of the other boroughs, to be frank.

When I moved here, people kept hearing I was from Detroit and telling me I was going the wrong way. There is a whole phenomenon of people from New York moving to Detroit, and the New York Times and Patti Smith and a whole lot of other people telling people in New York to move to Detroit. It’s super weird. I love the hell out of Detroit, and am super attached to it, really—but it is a hard place to live. There aren’t a lot of jobs; the infrastructure is crumbling; a third of the city is abandoned; it’s intensely segregated; you have to have a car to get around and you pay the highest insurance rates in the country; there are super-high poverty levels; the schools are severely underfunded. The mainstream media narrative is that these things can be fixed by sending a bunch of young white people with a little bit of money there—which of course is good for property developers and does mean that there are more stores and things in a specific part of the city, but doesn’t change anything as far as the living conditions for most people. (Which could be improved by, say, a federal jobs program, a higher minimum wage, restoring and increasing protections for unions, creating trade laws that prevent companies from moving overseas in order to hire cheaper labor.)

So: I used to be extremely unsympathetic to anyone buying into the move-to-Detroit narrative. It seemed really naïve—sure, it’s true that rent is super cheap there, compared to here. But also that’s because people are paid a lot less. However: I’ve recently had to deal with the Brooklyn housing market, and, holy shit, of course people are lured by cheap rent. And by the promise of having some more flexibility in one’s life; the fact that space itself is easier to come by in order to make projects of whatever sort; more room to maneuver, generally. But I also think people go looking for the NYC of the early ’80s, say, or some other version of a city that people want. And that doesn’t exist, in Detroit or anywhere else, mostly because standards of living have generally dropped since the ’70s. Like, the world is just a harder place to be, generally, in New York or in Detroit or in Philly or wherever. And people are looking for a geographical solution to that, when there simply isn’t one.

But basically, in light of all that—I lived in Detroit for a really long time, and Brooklyn feels like the best place for me to be right now.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived in Crown Heights for just four months and like it a lot, though of course I am somewhat uneasy with being part of gentrification here. When I first moved here I lived in Kensington and got to avoid the problem. I was in a desperate search for a place and Crown Heights is where I was able to find one. Such is the housing crisis. But yes: I like being close to Eastern Parkway and the park for running, being in a more bustling neighborhood than Kensington, general good vibes.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

Hmm. I was at a coffee shop the other day and overheard people I’d never seen before talking about poetry stuff and poets I knew and all that. And I was reminded that the poetry and arts scenes here are super big, and that that is great since there are always more people to know and things to see and hear. I really like that about Brooklyn.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I was really fortunate to be able to move here and reconnect with a lot of poetry friends from my MFA program (at UMass–Amherst a bunch of years ago). And then to make a lot of new friends, too. It’s great. It makes me super happy.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

So this is fiction, but I’ve been incredibly psyched about Aaron Winslow’s new book Jobs of the Great Misery. It’s sci-fi, set in a dystopian world that is 100% work and sex, and often as one thing. A lot of the characters have body modifications to help them work, that are also related to fucking: neck sphincters, sub-phalluses, ganglia sacs. Here’s an excerpt. You should read it. It’s the best thing I’ve read in a really long time.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I studied under Carol Ann Davis at the College of Charleston and Peter Gizzi, Dara Wier and Noy Holland at UMass–Amherst. All of these people are really amazing teachers. Rob Fitterman was super encouraging of my work at a formative time, too. And encountering Rob Halpern in Michigan was crucial to me as well.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

This poem by Diana Hamilton might be the best poem. Because it is brutal and also correct.

These are older, but I also went back to Henry Dumas’s short stories recently, and was reminded how amazing they are.

Also, discovered Philip K. Dick last year.

Also if we’re just talking recommendations: everybody should go see the Bruce Conner exhibit that’s at the MoMA right now.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve really wanted to read Moby-Dick for years and I haven’t yet.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I usually have some stuff I’m reading that’s related to Ph.D. stuff, or editing work, or teaching, and those things are one thread. Then I have something for pleasure, lately usually fiction. I finish things straight through in the pleasure thread. Also, definitely physical copies.

Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

The train! I occasionally miss my stop because I get so absorbed reading.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Coney Island, Prospect Park, Greenwood Cemetery. Wandering around. Running across the Williamsburg Bridge. The Dinner Party upstairs at the Brooklyn Museum.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the paper and form, I sing to the elongated skull,
And what I see you see too,
For every dream that sours, every stupid thing of ketchup you
     spill, it’s
me as good as you.

Why Brooklyn?

Hmm. Like I said, I don’t think Brooklyn or Detroit or anywhere is particularly livable right now. But regardless, I love Brooklyn for its infinitely large arts scene, its population density, its general bustle.