As part of my professional development as a Creative Director, despite my title of “Creative Strategist”, I decided to read a book by the Chief Creative and Brand Strategy Officers of Sapient Nitro, a very large brand and content marketing agency. Storyscaping: Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds, written by Gaston Legoburu and Darren McColl could easily have been one of those shamelessly self-promotional type of works, which seeks to show in book form a number of client successes and merely hint at the type of research and creative work that goes into the marketing projects they manage. While they certainly do include a number of their success stories, this is done primarily to illustrate the developmental and publishing process related to “storyscaping”.
To put this new form of marketing action the books begins with a delineation of the power of human narrative going back to the time of man when we sat around fires and told each other stories to distract us from the fear of animals and tribes surrounding them. In reviewing the elements of short narratives I found myself recalling much of college elective course in Storytelling. This is actually a knowledge set that I’ve found myself consistently drawing on in my ideation for Fractl, which I find amusing as after I’d decided to take it a number of people said that this was something that’d I’d never use. Following this the authors provide an overview of the various ways that the internet has changed the development of effective business to consumer marketing communications. They point to a digital/traditional divide that exists in marketing and are even handed about it saying that while the latter still has its place, it’s due to the dominance of virtual worlds for mediating decision-making processes and the more number of contact points with customers that it’s something that companies neglect at huge potential risk to their bottom line.
The application of Joseph Campbell’s ethnographic and literary/mythic concepts related to the hero’s journey was, for me, surprising but also sensible as it’s appropriate for relate the product of a brand to the hero’s quest. It frames desire as, well, heroic self-development rather than personal satiation.
The recent Pepsi television ad that has been receiving much, deserved, flak for its social insensitivity is a great example of this. In the video while a heroic goal is met, the cessation of social strife stemming from systemic economic and racial marginalization and oppression, the cause for it – mutual enjoyment of Pepsi – is, well, stupid.
A more appropriate example of such heroic help is provided in the analysis of campaigns that SapientNitro did for a UK gambling company and a ski resort. For the gambling company they were able to apply UX principals to their app – there’s always a co-constitutive relationship between marketers and producers – such that they were able to provide an improved “excitement” level for bettors. For the ski resort they were able to consultancy that would lead to investment in digital photography equipment and smart chip technology so that guests were able to share their experience and thus encourage the most convincing form of marketing – word of mouth.
By “building worlds” the opportunity is created for people to connect with brands in immersive and cooperative ways. With the emotional responses to these “Experience Spaces” that lead to sharing as the goal, consumer research helps improve the response and helps to build brand identification and loyalty. At this point Legoburu and McColl outline relationship between the steps leading from brand strategy and product positioning to an organizing idea and experience space that leads to the “storyscape”. They’re clear to point out that this is not a linear path but a conceptual totality that adjust to the many variables which exist within consumer insights and their purchasing journey.
Part two of the book switches tracks to focusing on how it is that an organization’s purpose can be clarified, uncovered and applied in the office and in marketing to increase brand value. The purpose is something that Legoburu and McColl say is not found from talking with the president of the company but an internal assessment of their operation due to the fact that their can be an excessive focus on profits on the part of management such that they lose sight of what they are actually delivering. Lest this seem esoteric, let me provide an example given in the book. Whereas Hanna-Barbera’s leadership defined themselves as purveyors of cartoons, Walt Disney conceived of themselves as providing family entertainment. Because of this wider scope of their operations, Disney was able to rapidly diversify their productions into other profitable areas while Hanna-Barbera slowly stagnated.
The chapters Walk the Walk, Insight to Desire and In Their Shoes, all provide an outline for how a creative, marketing department can transform various forms of research and data points in order to better understand the typical consumer narrative. For someone like myself, who is familiar with Marxist and Freudian interpretations of social and commercial activity, the book reads like a bowdlerized Marcuse with aphoristic rather than baroque formulations. Lest there be some confusion on my evaluation of the book here, this is a compliment to the authors. The author’s discussions on marketing mix modeling, adaptive worlds, and their relationship to the epistemology of customers is, I dare say, incredibly insightful for determining how to influence behavior and maximize on opportunities. This is a great book that I marked up significantly and I definitely fore see myself revisiting in the near future.
When I began writing Unraveling, it was a much different story compared to what it has now developed into. My early chapters and the notes for the project focused primarily on Jesse and Aaron. My vision was limited to exploring the dynamics in their lives that they were struggling with – respectively lost status stemming from familial/social causes and hedonistic nihilism that began following undesired repercussions of previous decisions. Put another way, the two main dynamics I wanted to explore were “what do you do when something occurs that’s completely outside of your control that you don’t want” and “what do you do when something happens that you don’t want but that was a result of your actions.” Because of this I conceived most of the other characters that I’d outlined merely as foils to their foibles on the path to achieve their goals – revenge over the person that had caused the loss of status and personal enlightenment.
A primary intention behind my writing, as I first conceived it, was to better understand my own personal development. Aaron and Jesse’s narratives contain a number of auto-biographical elements. As I continued to write out their stories and interactions, however, I came to realize that continuing with these limits not only made me miss out on developing some great characters but also caused me to exclude some of my own areas of expertise and interest. Since you’re supposed to write what you know about, I realized it was worth some time re-conceptualizing the project. Since doing that I’ve radically changed what I’d include in Unraveling.
As I decided to expand and explore the secondary character’s back stories I came to see how this not only made them richer persons in the book, but also added new depths to their interactions with Jesse and Aaron (and now others). Happy, for instance, was previously just a means for helping Jesse and Aaron get things that they needed. He became a business/social model for Jesse as well as a sage figure for Aaron. This transition from drug kingpen to force of benevolence in the community, think Stringer Bell/Damon Pope meets Huey Newton, required me to do more research as unlike Aaron and Jesse’s stories, which I knew well given they’re based on certain times in my life, I wasn’t as familiar with that type of psychological development. Put less delicately, I’m not black so I felt uncomfortable presuming that just through my imagination I’d be able to come up with a robust character for him and those around him.
To better write his character as well as those in his orbit, I decided to do research. Here’s what I came up with.
Thankfully, I’ve now completed the above research I wanted to have done before really getting into Happy’s chapter and am now a few books away from completing the research I’ve already started for Ela. While this was a long delay on the project, I look forward to being able to be able to write Happy’s chapter with greater verisimilitude to similar historical characters!
I began interviewing artists and writers from or based in South Florida about two years ago as I felt that there weren’t enough outlets to showcase and promote creatives and their projects that I felt were worthy of a larger audience. The idea was, in part, that through our conversations those works could take on a clearer relationship to the artists and their views which would, hopefully, engage people intellectually in a way other than the art form of choice and hopefully bring them some patronage.
Since I just self-published a book of poetry, I decided that I would take an hour and interview myself for the same end. In order to do this I’ve decided to name the author of the poetry book Ariel Voyager whereas the interviewer will be Ariel Sheen. This is to allow me the ability to have some humorous back and forth as well as for some somber reasons that will become apparent in the interview. I took an hour to write this, and it should take no more than 10 minutes to read.
So when were you first introduced to poetry?
I guess you could say at birth. My namesake comes from the British poet Percy Shelley. There’s a biography of Shelley by the same name that my father had read while in England studying with L. Ron Hubbard. Shelley signed the bottom of his correspondence Ariel, a character from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest because he so resonated with that character.
Poet from birth then, eh?
Something like that. When I first started to write regularly I was 16. I became involved in the West Palm Beach Poetry Slam community and for several years participated in performance poetry competitions.
I presume you know that your collection of poetry basically has the same title as Pablo Neruda’s most renowned collection. What was the reason for that?
Being coy I’d respond that it’s just a simplistic thematic description of what’s inside… Being candid I’d say the contemporary poetry market is something that’s ultra-niche and that if name recognition is enough to encourage someone to buy my book then so be it. The artists of today are always re-working the content of the past based on the needs of the present, so to me there’s nothing wrong with this.
So over how long a period did you build this collection of poems?
About 15 years. I think it shows too. You can definitely see some growth both emotionally and aesthetically in them.
And were these all “real love poems?”
What you do you mean by “real love poems?”
Well excepting the ones that seem to be more about social issues related to love – like Dowry Street and Hipster Pedagogue – were most of these poems that you wrote for someone, you know, while you were in love with them?
I’d say that most of them were written with someone that I was involved with in mind, but despite the title of the collection whether or not I was in love with them is a different story.
What do you mean?
Well I’d just mentioned emotional growth on my work. The majority of these poems are from my early twenties. Now being in my early thirties I would define this as a period of my life when I was emotionally stunted.
How so? And if that’s the case, then why share them?
I wanted to share them because though the sentiment behind some of them aren’t always “loving” in the sense of adoration and appreciation they’re still compelling as writing.
And how has love changed its meaning to you over time?
Care to go into specifics?
Well. It’s just that that’s a big question. Do I start talking about how as a child, the period of life when most people have that modeled for them, by saying that I had no standard presented to me as to what romantic love was?
Do I start during my pre-to-late teens, when the relationships both my parents were in weren’t based on what I would call a robust feeling of love but resignation to responsibility and desire for security? Or do I begin in my early twenties, when I set my mind on being a writer and then devoured the works of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Milan Kundera, and Friedrich Nietzsche? Do I detail how I felt intoxicated by the ideas and narratives they presented and how it had deleterious effects on my romantic relationships, my perceptions of what love is, what it could be and its relationship those seeking to pursue a life centered around the Belles Lettres?
Do I open in my late twenties, when the accumulated pain from that world view was pushing me to read psychology and counselling books so I could have a new view of love? That doesn’t seem appropriate either as it took a while for that to really seep in. Perhaps I should commence from more or less the past year, when those vacillations between the adolescent and mature world views finally stopped because I can say that I have a mature understanding of the term based upon reading and experience? I don’t know…
Well, that certainly gives me an idea of how your views have changed. I’d asked as I noticed drastically divergent perspectives on love in poems like A Simple Request and the Ode poem compared with ones like Those Skeletons and Silk.
Yes, well, those were all for different people at different times in my life. The latter two from when I was a teenager and was obsessed with the British Romantics. The former I wrote when in my early twenties and believed that selfish, amoral behavior was the manner in which to embody love for oneself (thanks Nietzsche!) and also up the quality of adventures that would be grist for future creative works.
So then Menagerie, which is clearly about your ex-wife… Was that one of your mature poems about love?
Heh, not really. I wrote Menagerie two plus years after our divorce while single. Towards the end of our relationship I’d been reading a lot of books on communication skills for couples, how to overcome fear of vulnerability, how to forgive, how to develop emotional intelligence. You know, the things that schools don’t always do because parents are supposed to but don’t always do. With this in mind I decided to write what I wanted the relationship to be like since the actuality of our life together was so divergent from what’s expressed therein.
That’s, well, kind of sad.
What happened, yes. But it was my fault for marrying someone that didn’t genuinely love me in a mature sense, let alone herself. To be fair I don’t think that she was alone in that. I certainly was dealing with some issues then that deserved correction. After all, we were engaged after two months of dating and two months later moved to Barcelona on a whim.
As for the poem, a couple of my friends expressed similar sentiments so I get it. But I think at this point in my life that it’s important to really understand the workings behind such an attraction and unraveling as it helps people to process the experience and guard from it’s recurrence. I’ve known far too many people that have found themselves suddenly single and broken mentally and emotionally and seem unable to move on. It was just a coping mechanism.
Interesting. So you writing as an exercise in catharsis.
Not just me, but scientists as well. Writing and other forms of creative outlets have a purgative effect of the negative energies we feel.
True. Which is a good transition for the next poems I want to ask you about slash check if my periodization of your poems is correct. That means your last two poems Un/Binding and The Ascent of Icarus…
Are the only genuinely recent poems in the collection. They are in part about my refutation of the character/caricature I’d adopted by identifying with such literary masters.
I knew it! So you still think of them as masters?
Absolutely. I can appreciate their craft while being critical of their content. They informed my world view at a deep level for a long time in a way that I can’t deny.
Can you tell me a little bit more about those poems? They’re the only ones that seem to exist as a pair, they speak with the greatest urgency, they seem to display the maturity you’ve been talking about and they’re the only poems that have an element of time in them – excepting what’s clearly an addendum on Notes.
Well, I re-connected with a former lover from my early twenties about two months ago. My muse from that period of my life. More than that, really, as I’ve not had another one since and despite several “serious” relationships. She was the only one that I felt truly understood me on a spiritual level – which speaks rather poorly to my choices for romantic companions as they were chosen more for presentation rather than personality.
Anyway, we’d first met when I’d started to fall under the spell of those writers that I talked about before. Yet despite this she elicited in me a willingness to be vulnerable – a quality I’ve struggled to embody as it makes me feel uncomfortable – and we shared what I felt to be a profound intimacy. I’m normally very intense and high energy, but when I was with her she calmed me down and I felt at ease. It wasn’t just that we had some similar issues in our upbringing, but where all of my other lovers have sought to make me their project – a lawyer, a professor, a therapist, a politician – but she just accepted me as an aspiring artist on a journey.
Which is ironic as after graduating from FAU and I sought adventures like those I’d read about in On The Road, Off The Map, The Thief’s Journal, Journey to the End of the Night, You Can’t Win, Tropic of Cancer, Sexus and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I traveled abroad in Europe for a long while and in the mean time she moved several hours by car to pursue a new career.
So that’s the story behind the line “I proffered naught but hope a decade plus ago/That when we next see each other again it’d be like it was”
Yeah. I’ve since looked at my journals from the time so know for sure that I rationalized my breaking off contact with her as a combination of “I’m doing her/us a favor as the distance between Jacksonville to Fort Lauderdale makes this unsustainable” and as I was hurt I was no longer able to see her. I thought I was being mature at the time and moreover realize now that then I started to shut off those parts of myself down that I’d later see as necessary for a healthy relationship to work. For a long while self-sabotage, unfortunately, was a bad habit of mine when dealing with emotions I didn’t know how to properly process.
Through some form of Facebook magic (Thanks Zuckerberg!) she popped up on my “People You May Know” feed. I liked one of her photos and we started talking again that evening, making plans to see each other two days later.
In the lead up to seeing her I was more nervous than a drug mule at a pat-down check point at the border. Over and after lunch all was great between us and the day after next, as I did not do so in person, I confessed my shame over my behavior on the phone and told her that she’d grew into the woman that I always thought she would – which was true.
She said something to me that cut me to the core. She said that the way I treated her years ago made her believe that she was “just another girl” to me. I told her there and then she was wrong, but didn’t go into the details about it that I have here. Instead I wrote those two poems with hopes of getting to know her again.
It sounds like you still love her.
I mean, yeah. I do. Shortly after the new year I even found myself going through old notes to find a passage I’d copied from a book I’d read not too long ago that touched on what I was feeling:
“Romantic love offers not just the excitement of the moment but the possibility for dramatic change in the self. It is in fact an agent of change… Romantic love takes on meaning and provides a subjective sense of liberation only insofar as it creates a flexibility in personality that allows a break-through of internal psychological barriers and taboos… It creates a flux in personality, the possibility for change, and the impetus to begin new phases of life and undertake new endeavors. As such, it can be seen as a paradigm for any significant realignment of personality and values.”
But I’m also aware enough of my thoughts now to recognize that an element of this attraction is my idealizing of our past, wanting to make amends and, most importantly, that her interpretation of what we shared has a very different emotional inflection than my own.
So what do you think will come of it?
Oh I’m doubtful anything will other than a gradual falling off. Were any of my former lovers to contact to me with such a story as the one I’ve told above I couldn’t honestly see myself giving them the opportunity to demonstrate they’ve changed. Now there’s major, major differences between them and her and of course, and the phrase “Sometimes second chances work out better than the first because you’ve learned from your mistakes” certainly comes to my mind, but I can’t downplay the truth of how hard it is for someone to shake away a negative view that’s been accepted as true for so many years. That’s brain chemistry. Years of specific neuropathic associations. I may be forgiven, as she’s told me that I am, but those make my desire to test the waters have to work extra hard against that well worn track. Plus, our physical distance makes an easy re-acquaintance impossible. I may be willing to make the effort to see and be with her, but whereas ten some years ago that was what was wanted I feel that now it just comes off as, well, weird despite my having no real desire to stay in South Florida and have because of the uniqueness of my job the ability to move wherever I’d like. Ironic when you think about it…
Finding irony amusing instead of fighting for what you want? That doesn’t sound like you. It sounds like you’ve given up! Isn’t love worth fighting for?
I think love conquers all, yes. But that’s not what we have now. Maybe there’s some mutual fondness over long past memories and pleasure in conversation, but beyond that I’m can’t honestly say there’s more to it. I’m a romantic, for sure! But I’m also a realist that can see that while something more would make for a great story, it is, however, unlikely.
How does that make you feel?
There was a time when I would have fixated on it and felt pain for not getting what I want. But I know that this would lead to another round of depression and self-medication and I’m so over that cycle so I’ll take a longer view and take comfort in the memories and the unforgettable reminder not to lower my standards as to the qualities that I should be seeking in a partner that fits my particularities.
Ok. Interesting. Look at you Mr. Mature. Let’s move on to some other poems. I was wondering about the poem The Hipster Professor, The Leftist Demagogue and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That poem, which has many of the qualities of a short story, seems so be referring to real people rather than placeholders for common academic stereotypes. Am I right?
Yes, those are real people! The Leftist Professor was Simon Critchley and the Hipster Demagogue was Micah White, who would later be one of the two co-founders of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I met them both at an academic conference at SUNY Binghamton several years ago.
Besides being critical of them, you seem to be somewhat critical of yourself there.
Yes, well, that’s because I was. I’d wrote a draft for that poem years ago and when coming back to it was of a very different mindset. That said I still think their politics are shit.
How do you think that love ought to operate on a social level?
That’s a bigger question than one I’m ready to answer now. For now I’ll say that I think love relates not just to the people you choose and who choose you as a romantic partner but is evident in social values as well. In Heaven’s Mansions I try to show how selfish it is to build beautiful spaces meant to be enjoyed and wall them off. In Dowry Street I try and point out the absurdity of a society that keeps so many people close to poverty that they’re willing to turn a sacred ceremony into a means of supporting themselves. These are aspects of love, at a larger scale than exists between two people, that I think are worthy of recognition and discussion. I write about this in more detail in some of my more explicitly political poems.
Do you have any other creative projects in the works right now?
No, because after all of the above came to your awareness in a manner that you couldn’t avoid, you killed me.
True. Though you have to admit it was a long time coming…
True. So at the end of this interview let me then ask you, do you have any other creative projects in the works right now?
In deed I do! I’m taking a break from the serial novel project I’ve been spending the past year or so doing character and historical research on to work on a comedic screenplay in hopes of it being adapted to film one day. Golden age of film and all.
A comedy? Wow. That’s quite a divergence from your rather serial novel project.
Yeah, well, I need a change from working on what I hope will be as impactful as Atlas Shrugged and I’ve had enough people tell me I’m funny that I think I might be able to get paid real money should I get it in the right hands.
Well, I wish you, and thus me, the best of luck in your endeavor.
We are not the same, but I thank you nonetheless! Bye Felica!
That desire felt by imperialist Europeans when
First discovering a resource rich region
With a population still primarily organized along tribal lines
And no modern military apparatus
Is nothing next what I felt when I first laid eyes upon you.
My heart burns hotter for you
Than the napalm dropped
On civilian non-combatants and crops
Of Vietnamese and Cambodians
So that the U.S. could maintain
Military and economic influence
Near the regional centers
between with the world’s largest populaces.
Oh so unlike the hundreds of bodies
Of indigenous Guatemalan villagers
Tortured, killed and dumped in mass graves
By soldiers trained
At the School of the Americas
In order to protect U.S. investments
And overthrow yet another democratically elected
Avowedly socialist government,
I’ve never tried to hide my feelings for you.
Such as the Wall Street Journal,
Washington Post and New York Times
All publish to serve the interests of the capitalists that
Control the world’s countries through their political cronies –
I have never said a word that could be construed as a lie
So when I say that I love you until the end of my life
You know that this is true.
Whenever I am around you
I feel like I am glowing –
A sensation similarly reported by those children
That have spent time playing on and around
The Russian tanks destroyed by the US’s
Depleted uranium shells in Iraq during
The first Gulf War –
And my life anxieties disappear
Like environmental activists in
South and Central America and Africa trying
To bring attention to the dispossession of indigenous peoples
And the destruction of their means of subsistence
For the benefit of foreign oil and mineral corporations.
Though you’ll never depend on me
In the same way that many
Third world satraps of US interest do –
For I cannot provide you with loans, guns, tanks, bombs
Computers, training, helicopters to throw dissidents out of,
Lists of people to be dealt with and other such spook stuff –
I hope you know that should things ever get rough
I will be the rock on which you can rely upon.
Returned to One
Those Skeletons Made You
Spark (v. 3)
A Simple Request
The Hipster Demagogue, The Leftist Professor and The Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Ode to the Beauties that Have Sheltered Me
The Ascent of Icarus
Unlike any time before in history, people have access to vast amounts of free information and with the right tools and training they can structure data in an aesthetic manner that allows non-specialists in the field to see patterns and trends that would otherwise be invisible or difficult to derive meaning from. The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo presents an epistemological overview of how people read infographics and then demonstrates how to most effectively use statistical data to make charts, maps, and explanation diagrams. Cairo does not merely present us with a list of what he considers his best works but shows the steps taken to create successful infographics and how certain forms of quantitatively measurable changes should typically be associated with certain types of illustrating change – such as box and whisker plots.
By transforming numbers into graphical shapes, readers can come to spot the stories in the data and learn new things from it with greater speed than in text regardless of the type of data you’re working with. Cairo states that most people new to the field jump too soon to the “look and feel” part, without first asking the right questions. Based upon his experience, he believes that people should first ask about what information is most important to display, how consumers of it will want to explore the information – especially if it is interactive – and then at this point start to determine the look and feel of it. Cairo, like myself, views much of the decorative additions typical of infographics, i.e. symbols or icons included that don’t really add anything other than flair, as poor design. Not that it is ALWAYS bad to include these, just it’s become the trend for them to be included at the cost of reducing effective communication.
Exegesis on this issue of approach to graphical forms takes the form of a discussion of “engineers” versus “designers”. On one extreme is Edward Tufte, who espouses a minimalistic approach to visualization. On the other extreme is graphic designer Nigel Holmes, who takes a more emotional, mimetic approach to graphic design. Cairo argues that there are benefits to both approaches and that the project itself should dictate how one processed rather than personal preference.
In the first part of the book, Cairo explicates the three main tenets of good data visualization practice: first, good graphic techniques and strategies (minimal use of pie charts, reducing non-data ink, etc.); second, how to create eye-pleasing graphics (how to choose color, fonts, layout, etc.); and, most importantly, how to use data visualization to tell a story. I think this is where The Functional Art really stands out as a great reference – Cairo shows you how to use data visualization not as a way to just show your data or to create a tool for people to explore your data, but as a way to be a storyteller with data.
One of the model’s Cairo created to help him ideate on how to develop a visualization is called the “Visualization Wheel”. The top part of the wheel indicates increased complexity and depth and the bottom part representing simplicity and lightness. The key takeaway is to provide balance to a visualization with the audience in mind. Certain audiences are likely to gravitate towards one than the other.
The next part of the book explains the eye-brain connection – how humans perceive different shapes, colors, etc. – in relation to designing good infographics. Cairo isn’t a cognitive scientist, but the skill with which he addresses these issues illustrates the depth of study he’s done of the literature and how to use this knowledge to create better graphics. These two first parts of the book are helpful for anyone those in the visualization and the graphics Cairo has chosen to include are all inspirational and make this not only a good overview of the field but also a good reference book.
In the last section of the book, Cairo profiles and interviews 10 prominent data visualization designers and visual journalists, including The New York Times’ Steve Duenes, The Washington Post’s Hannah Fairfield, Condé Nast Traveler’s John Grimwade, National Geographic Magazine’s Fernando Baptista, Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation, and others.
This section is beneficial as it gives brief insights into how it is that leaders in the field approach different challenges created by their projects and to see how journalists work with the information visualization professionals in their teams in leading newspapers in different ways based upon the workplace.
In closing, The Functional Art touches upon all the important issues related to infographics such as:
Why data visualization should be conceived of as “functional” rather than fine art
A general outline of when to use bar versus circle charts
How to use color, type, shape, contrast, and other components to make infographics more effective
Differentiation between symbols and icons and help versus hurt their readability.
The science of how our brains perceive and remember information
Best practices for creating interactive information graphics
The creative process behind successful information graphics
It’s a great book for those new in the field and the clarity of expression found within was so good that I look forward to reading more of Cairo’s work.
Niina: Okay, so there is this weird place in Brooklyn called Dead Horse Bay, which is down in South Brooklyn kind of near the Verrazano Bridge. The reason for its name was that it used to be surrounded by glue factories, where the carriage horses would go get processed.
Ariel: Oh, wow.
Niina: Yeah, it is kinda grim. Especially after the automobile took over New York City, the carriage horse thing was no longer lucrative, so they made it a dump. Even better, right? And, so, it went from a glue factory to a dump. But then they were like, oh crap, we shouldn’t have a dump this close to the city. So they capped it and sealed it, and then the cap at some point later burst. So, now when you go to Dead Horse Bay, you find horse bone shards and fifties-era garbage, like weird bottles and shoes and things. And so it’s a very weird experience to go there. Like, you can actually take the bus and disembark and go through some hedges and then you’re on the beach filled with garbage. It smells weird, like chemicals. At low tide you find horseshoe crab corpses and it feels very much like, not a part of New York City. While, definitely very much being a part of New York City.
Ariel: Still goth and somewhat obsessed with death after all these years! [laughter] I love it!
Niina: Yeah, I know. I almost like to talk about it, because once I find a place that talks to me, I kind of think of it as mine. You know?
Niina: But of course, thousands of people go there all the time. It’s not a beautiful beach, but if you’re into the decay of cities, it’s a really cool place to visit. And so, and then there’s of course, like the idea of beating a dead horse and how much that kind of sounds like it’s about the body. As you know there’s a lot about the body in the collection, so that title seemed fitting. Plus my editor pointed out that I use a lot of single-syllable, elemental words, and the title is just like that. You know, the thing down to its essence, basically.
Ariel: So, Carl Phillips has said that poetry is more of a transformation of experience, rather than a transcription of it. What do you think about that?
Niina: I think all good literature is a transformation of experience. Poetry can perhaps be more obviously that because people expect poetry to take certain cognitive leaps. It’s not as specifically straightforward as an art form. As the sort of the weird cousin of prose, it doesn’t always make sense. So, in that way it allows you to be very transformative. You can hop from one thing to another, subject matter-wise, a lot faster and with greater ease that you could in prose. With prose you’re almost forced to explain your thought process and connections more. I think readers of poetry allow themselves to make connections more intuitively. In poetry, readers don’t necessarily expect you to do that, so that’s the great part.
At the same time, though, I’ve gotten a lot of comments about being very clear and straightforward in my own poetics, in terms of like what I write. People are always coming up to me and saying “Oh I’m not usually a poetry person, but…” and then they go on to say that they enjoyed it, or got something out of it, or bought my book. I think that is really cool too. But although I try to keep my language clear and essential, I still expect my readers to get weird with me.
Ariel: Speaking of clarity, I wanted to ask you how important accessibility of meaning is to poetry? Put another way, should one have to work hard to solve a poem?
Niina: Of course it’s wonderful if a poem talks to a lot of people. And when I edit, I really want things to be clear. But a poem takes its own life once it’s out in the world. It gathers its own momentum and it doesn’t always do what you meant for it to do. I think if your poem’s meaning is accessible to people, that’s amazing. But if you’re trying to intentionally obscure or hide your meaning, or make yourself seem smarter by being needlessly complicated, I think that’s where poetry really gets a bad rep. I can’t stand overly academic writing, period. That goes for poetry and prose and everything in between. I just think that you should know what you’re saying. Have enough control over your language to guide the reader, but leave some room for them to be surprised.
Ariel: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. I can’t stand obtuse poetry. When I took poetry workshops with Susan Mitchell at FAU she had us read a lot of language poets, because that’s what she was into and I just couldn’t stand it. And then there’s what’s published in, say, the New Yorker, which for me is sometimes hit, mostly miss.
Niina: Yeah, language poetry is not necessarily for me either. I need to have something tangible in the world. I need to be grounded in reality, at least part of the way. Even when some of your content is impossible or implausible or surreal, there needs to be something that keeps you oriented or grounded within the framework of the poem. In that book, for me, the tangible thing was often a sense of place.
Ariel: Oh, yeah, I agree and I think Dead Horse does exactly that. I even said in my review there was only one part that I found myself, like unsure of, and the rest I was like, yeah I get this. This is, this is comprehensible and that was great.
Niina: When you’re reading something and you understand the location or the premise or you understand something fundamental about it, it allows you to get at the subtleties of it and that that allows the complicated stuff to sneak up on you. Then you’re not flailing to understand the mechanics of it.
Ariel: Yeah, once you get the, have the general focus, you can start looking at the little pieces and maybe like, play around with them.
Niina: Oh yeah. So, I found myself listening to Born To Die and thinking a lot about it and not quite being able to grasp why I liked it so much. Some of the lyrics are kind of basic and it’s not that’s it’s musically that complicated. The album wasn’t even that well produced in some parts. But something about the persona that she adopted – the absolute certainty with which she talks about her devotion to the darkness of love, made it rattle around in my brain. And so, I slowly wrote the poems while listening to particular songs, like on repeat, until I got some lines down. There is something about her that I can’t get over, but that project helped me a lot with my obsession around that album. It helped me put the album away a little bit.
Ariel: I know how you feel. She’s easily one of my most listened to artists in the past five years. When I saw her play live a few months ago I didn’t even care about the lackluster stage show just because I was so caught up in the lyrics music. Anyway. Shift of topic. I know you attend a lot of poetry readings and even host your own, Popsickle. I’m curious how has the Internet informed and contributed to the well-being of poetry in your mind?
Niina: Quite a lot. It makes sense to poets. I think poetry benefits from the immediacy of Internet because it reduces the turnaround time on publishing in journals, or in any form of print really, and I feel that poetry works best when it’s reactive to the zeitgeist. When there’s a faster cycle between writing and publishing it, it’s good for the medium. It’s also easier to reach more people than a print subscription to a journal would. Not that print is not valuable, of course it is, but it’s just like more, it’s got a wider reach and more tentacles, you know.
Ariel: Cool. What books in print are you reading right now?
Niina: Right now I’m reading Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair, and Green Girl by Kate Zambreno.
Niina: Actually that sounds extremely interesting. I’m working on a little bit of prose which takes place in Florida. So I was just reading about Everglades draining, which is another smart idea Florida had.
Ariel: Yeah, Florida’s land developers haven’t always been bright, but they’ve always known how to sell the idea of a potential that on closer observation is detrimental to everything that made it in the first place. I took a Florida History class at FAU and the professor had said about how it’s this underserved niche in the field.
Niina: I think Florida’s a really interesting state because of it’s heterogeneity in population and it’s proximity to different areas of the Americas and of the world. And because, it’s the place sketchy people go to disappear for many reasons.
Niina: There’s also its various environmental issues. There’s just so much to say about it, and it should be taken seriously, but like, Florida’s sort of the crazy bitch of America, right? Everyone’s like, “Oh Florida, there it goes again!”
Ariel: “Florida man does something unusual and awful again.”
Niina: Exactly. I wanted to start a Twitter account for like heroic Florida Man stories that were like “Good job Florida man!”, or something. That stuff happens too it just doesn’t get as much circulation.
Ariel: Yeah. We’re not all dying from eating too many roaches.
Ariel: Haha! And of course that happens in my hometown of Jupiter, way to go Florida Man!
Niina: I know! That made me laugh so much when I read it.
Ariel: Yeah, all my friends were sharing that too. Almost as a counterweight to that kind of notion I’ve been reading a lot of works by Florida authors lately. I just finished a collection of short stories by Jennine Capó Crucet about like Cuban life in Hialeah. Then there’s Paul Kwiatkowski, who wrote Every Day Was Overcast. Weird coincidence, but after I interviewed him a couple of months ago, I’ve since found out that I have three mutual friends with him.
Niina: That’s awesome. Karen Russell and Kent Russell both write about Florida too. And Sarah Gerard is publishing a collection of essays about Florida next year with Harper Perennial.
Ariel: Karen Russell wrote Swamplandia!, right? My eleventh grade students are reading that in their English class right now.
Niina: That’s awesome. Yeah, I love her. Her short story collection is really good.
Ariel: Yeah I want to read Swamplandia! too, but, like, I need to stop buying books for a little bit and finish reading all of what I have, so I don’t.
So now that we’re talking about all these books, I wonder how did your MFA influence your creative process?
Niina: If I could go back in time I would do a lot more research about MFA programs. The program I attended maybe wasn’t the one for me, because it was super narrative, and about as literal as poetry can be. But, the main way it influenced me was getting me to New York and, so you know, hooking me up with an initial community of people who were my first readers and all that stuff. And I still stay in touch with like a couple of the people and they’re critical in my process. So, that part, that part mostly, community I guess.
Ariel: I read this article in Jezebel that touches on some of the subject we’ve been talking about – the internet, reactivity and poetry communities – and was wondering if there was any overlaps with your experience.
Niina: I attended one of the schools where this particular “inappropriate literary man” taught, and although my personal experiences were different than the ones this article touches upon, I felt that the program’s atmosphere was very male somehow. Maybe it has to do with some old-school notion of the MFA program, but in retrospect it’s especially confusing to me at that school because the program was mostly non-men. That was ten years ago; it does feel like there’s a change in the air now. Voices that might have stayed silent even as recently as then aren’t staying silent anymore, and that’s a good thing.
Make sure to read my review of Dead Horse and then buy it of course! You can follow Niina’s website by going here. Also, as a special Halloween treat, dear reader, feast your eyes on this collaborative poem that Niina and I wrote when babies for duo-poetry performance: I present to you Degothalizer 2000!
The post-conference party’s second wave had arrived and soon
I notice familiar sly hand gestures, so tag on to the end
Of the exodus from the Christmas light lit living room to
The dilapidated upstate New York porch packed with old couches.
My mouth is soon on the blunt after a friendly inquiry
And we get to talking about the sessions we’d seen,
And what it will mean for the Social Justice Movement in America
To have a Black President as The Man in power for the first time ever.
The mixed race political theorist that the other students
Call Heideggerian-Anarchist behind his back, or so my friend
Tells me, performs a longwinded paean to Possibilities
That I, a historian, counter with a less sanguine assessment.
Having been pulled under the wing of someone that’s
Made a career of saying such things in glossy magazines
He counters my empiricism with arrogant idealism –
I almost respond with blows, but think “decorum”, hit it again then go.
I float past those spastically dancing to the irregular beats
And lyrics with love-lost themes on the uneven living room
Back to the seat that I had just occupied only to find that
It’s now been taken by the event’s keynote speaker.
His scarf brushes again and again against the band
On his ring finger as he gesticulates high to low
In and out to emphasize whatever he’s explaining
To the manic pixie dream girl sitting next to him.
There’s a red string braided into her unkempt bleached
Orange hair, she wears a chain necklace with boho baubles,
Has a glass of five-dollar-a-bottle champagne in her hand
And a neighbor looking up at me with a fuck off stare.
I lie through my teeth and give compliment to his speech
That claimed an understanding of Ancient Greek Tragedy
Should inform how we frame resistance to contemporary policies
And that seizing the state is no way to stop neoliberalism.
Given this gem of status in front of his hopeful conquest
He repeats in his West Herts accent the same jest he opened with
About how glad he was that while the TSA did cause delay,
X-rays can’t yet reveal worldviews and so he was able to make it.
Turning to assess her reception he smiles seeing her do the same,
Unaware that she came from VT to see me and is mine, for now;
His face again frowns as I bend down and say just loud enough for
The three of us: I’ve grown tired of this, let’s go back to the hotel
Let’s forget all the things we think we know and just go
At each other like the animals we are for as long as
Our bodies will last and she says: Yes, let’s.
And this is why I love her, in my own way.
In the tree outside my bedroom window
Overlooking the preserve, not ten feet from me
A dozen black vultures
Jerk and twitch their veiny black necks
As they hop, fight and squawk
Over the body of an opossum
With a black tire mark
Over it’s spine and back legs.
I’m not sure if it’s their beaks pulling at furred flesh
Or a dying breath that had it the words I’m sure
It would wish for,
But its mouth seems to twitch at each touch
Of beak on body.
As I watch them caw and compete for the corpse
Another vulture alights on the outskirts
To see if it too can get in on the action and then
A green gator of maybe seven or eight feet
That must have been sitting,
Watching far longer than I,
Or maybe that just moved so slow
That not a one of the murder of carrion crows noticed it
Leaps from the brackish water
To the side of the embankment with jaws open.
I’m not sure if it mistook their numbers for its safety
Or was simply to hungry to care,
And was thus reckless,
But as the bird is pulled into the water by the neck and wing
It seems jut to accept what is, it doesn’t even scream.
Death stands just outside my window,
In intention and in accident,
With resistance and acceptance –
And as a cloud passes that dims the grim scene
For a moment I see my mirrored reflection in the glass
That reminds me that I too am locked in such a struggle to survive
For I too am matter and energy existing across space and time.
I’m not yet sure what that means to me
Nor that absolute certainty
Is a beneficial currency with which to trade
In the time left until I fill a grave
But looking at this scene I perceive I too am Death,
Speeding down the highway and waiting at the water’s edge
In my own way.