By Daniel Nester, Word Contributing Editor
I am looking at a stack of poetry five books on my desk, each with similar artwork, trim size, typefaces. Each has the same author’s name on the spine: Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.
These five books cover a 10-year span of a still-young poet’s career. The first three appeared as self-published chapbooks, starting when Aptowicz, still an undergrad at NYU, founded the NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam series. There’s 2000’s Dear Future Boyfriend, with odes to boys and family foibles; 2001’s Hot Teen Slut, which chronicles the poet’s real-life experience writing and editing porn; and then there’s Working Class Represent and its odes to rejections of all kind with poems addressed to a computer guy and “whoever is sending pictures to my phone.”
The remaining two titles, Oh Terrible Youth and Everything is Everything, are more “mature works,” as we say in the poetry reviewing business, tour de force-y sets that span poetic forms and subject matters, but retain Aptowicz’s sassy-irreverent-personal voice intact.
Those last sentences aren’t reviews. I’m friends with Cristin. I started out as a fan, both of slam and of Aptowicz’s positive outlook and work ethic. I then had the pleasure of working with her on Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, a mammoth undertaking that involved Cristin’s interviewing tens of poets and shaping a narrative history of the diverse scene that was performance poetry in the latter part of the 20th Century in the city that brought it to the world. Cristin has also visited the college where I teach. She has been in my car. I have farted in her company. She has slept in my house.
Still, with all these biases in check,I’m hard-pressed to come up with the name of another poet, living or dead, who has had his or her first five books of poetry not only republished simultaneously, but with linking artwork and covers, complete with bonus materials for each. C.K. Williams’s books at Knopf all had similar artwork as they came out, sure. Charles Bukowski’s Black Sparrow titles all seemed of a piece (but then again, all Black Sparrows were glorious, thick-covered matte affairs).
We would have to go to the world of records, where recording artist reissues and boxed sets are more common, with demos, alternate takes, non-album B-sides. I know I’m fetishizing these books as objects, but I’m a collector of sorts. That’s what I do.
Make no mistake: this is Cristin’s time. Last year, she became the first active slam poet to win a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for writing, and only the third ever (Hal Sirowitz and Patricia Smith, both powerhouses, round out that trio). That, and the occasion of all five of these books being reissued, again, first by Wordsmith Press and now by Write Bloody Books, is reason enough for me to want to get inside Cristin’s head via instant messaging, me from my house in upstate New York, and she from her temporary home in Austin, Texas. I got a chance to respond in a way I might not have done in person, since we’d be too busy making Chewbacca noises or eating cheesecake.
stated: Why don’t you tell me why you went ahead and re-re-issued your books of poems? Was it a matter of revising the poems themselves, a change of publisher, getting another crack at putting the collections together?
CRISTIN: Well, the original publisher of my first four books of poetry was The Wordsmith Press, which was an Ann Arbor-based micro-press—a true basement press. And by “basement press,” I mean the publisher, a poet named Steve Marsh, literally handmade each book in his basement.
And I really owe so much to Steve for making my work so accessible at such a (relatively) young age, and for publishing even my most risqué work—like Hot Teen Slut, a poetry collection about my year spent writing for porn. I was—and am—very proud of those editions.
But Wordsmith Press was something Steve did on the side from his day job, and it soon became clear that my demand—especially with the amount of touring I do—was exceeding his (extraordinarily generous) output.
stated: And that’s where Write Bloody comes in?
CRISTIN: Yep. At the same time, I was performing a lot of Derrick Brown, who is a very popular and internationally touring performance poet. When I began joining Derrick on his “poetry revival tours,” he was still a few years into developing his own press, Write Bloody Publishing. Since I had some experience with independent presses—thanks to my work with Soft Skull Press—we’d talk a lot about Write Bloody. I was deeply impressed with his vision for the press, his passion for the poetry he loved, and how inventive he was in engaging—and growing—new audiences for poetry.
After a year or so, Derrick asked me if I would be willing to put out a book on Write Bloody. I was, of course, flattered, but was a bit shy about leaving my original press, which was home to my four first books.
It was then that he offered to publish my entire back catalogue, in addition to whatever new book, which was—of course—a staggeringly generous offer. I remember asking him if he was sure, and he said, yes. And I asked him if he needed to check in with anyone else at Write Bloody before making this offer, and he was like, “Um, I am everybody else at Write Bloody!”
stated: Ah, the world of indie publishing.
CRISTIN: Right. So after discussing it with Steve and getting his support, I decided to make the leap. And it was absolutely the right decision. In moving from my original publisher to Write Bloody, the production schedule of my books could keep apace with my touring and book sales, and, thanks to Write Bloody’s much more advanced distribution deals, my books would be available to more bookstores, including university bookstores as well as independents.
I also join a much larger stable of poets from my community (poetry slam and performance poetry) who are doing work I admire, and whom I love supporting.
And of course, the reissues themselves are just gorgeous. Each one benefited hugely from Write Bloody’s sharp design aesthetic and nimble editorial teams. I’m so grateful.
stated: Have you have ever thought about doing a Selected Poems or a New and Selected?
CRISTIN: You know, when Derrick first approached me about moving to Write Bloody, he talked to me about simply doing a “best of” book instead of four separate reissues, but I resisted for two reasons:
One, I was newly thirty when he first approached me, and I felt that it would look extraordinarily and unforgivably silly for someone barely in their thirties to have a “Best of” book.
Two, I have learned that some of my books have their own audiences that are absolutely independent of me as an author, and combining the books might serve to alienate those audiences entirely.
stated: You’re talking about the people, mostly dudes, who buy Hot Teen Slut, aren’t you?
CRISTIN: Well, for example, Dear Future Boyfriend is my first collection of poetry, and I wrote it while I was still in college. It has a strong following among high school and college age writers, especially women writers. The book’s main theme is “unrequited love,” so that might have something to do with it. In any case, there are scores of readers for whom Dear Future Boyfriend is their first and only book of mine.
And in contrast, there is the audience for the follow-up, Hot Teen Slut, which is about the year I spent working as a writer and editor for porn. Clearly, obviously, this is not a book intended for a teenage audience. And on the other side of that coin, the audience for Hot Teen Slut has proven not to be all that interested in hearing my earnest love poems about distant but woefully handsome science majors.
stated: Still, I think it would have been interesting to see what a Selected or Selected and New Poems by you would look like. And the idea of having what you say are the distinct audiences of the books mixing it up in one volume would be interesting, no?
CRISTIN: Well, maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about that. All of my poetry is autobiographical, so I think you’d need to have a more exciting 20’s than I did to pull that off.
I mean, I realize that it comes off as a weird thing to say—like, ‘I think my life is interesting enough for five books, but not for one big book’—but the thing is I feel like the journeys those books take are pretty self-contained, the lessons I learned are pretty specific to what I was going through during those times.
To mix them up would be like … well, like saying there was a larger over-arching lesson I learned that one can only see if you linked all the books together. And that’s definitely not true. If anything, my later books express even more uncertainty [about] what in the world I’m doing with my life!
stated: That darned negative capability again. But it does open up cans of worms of how one really goes about putting together a Greatest Hits Album. You’re basically a New York slam griot, someone who has interviewed and met and told the story of the New York slam poetry movement. You’re also one of the slam poets, no matter what generation, who still actively slams, as opposed to performing at colleges or series. What is it about slam that keeps you interested?
CRISTIN: maybe, to look at what first got me really fired up about poetry, and that was the poet Jim Daniels.
I was first introduced to Daniels in high school, when he came and spoke to a writing class I was in. Daniel was (and is) a professor at Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon, and his early books spoke to his working class upbringing. His family—and eventually Daniels himself—worked in an auto factory, and the people, places, sounds, and smells which populated his poems were so deeply and profoundly similar to the life I knew as the kid of two government workers growing up in working class Philadelphia.
For the first time in my life, I saw my neighborhood, my family and, really, my life reflected honestly in a work of art, both good and bad. And that made me fall in love with poetry.
stated: Phillip Levine did that for me with his book What Work Is. Totally drove home that I could write about my working class family.
CRISTIN: Poetry, to me, allows you complete access to another person’s life. Without the constraints of needing to necessarily “tell a story,” a poet can focus on just an event, or just a person, or just an object, or even an emotion, and that focus allows the poet to unlock an insight into what life was really like for them.
With Daniels, his poetry further unlocked in me a real appreciation of my own world. It allowed me to see the struggles of my parents and of our neighborhood in ways that teenage me never considered, but also allowed me to see beauty and joy in a place I never knew it existed. It was like I was on drugs, and I was absolutely hooked.
And what has kept me as an active part of the poetry slam community for the last decade and a half is you have people from vastly different walks of life, and vastly different life experiences, getting on a single stage with the same goal: to share their story with their community.
I have been witness to so many incredible moments of honesty, joy, rage, and flat-out humanity because of the poetry slam. And so many of those stories I absolutely would have never heard if not for slam.
And the longer you slam, the more you appreciate the journeys we all are on, as writers and as people. It’s addictive, and really affirming, to be able have a front row seat as people transform their lives through poetry right in front of you.
And that’s what slam offers me. Not every night, not every show, but enough times and enough shows to make it more than worth it.
And you know, to be able to get on that stage and share my own story? To be a part of that national story? That makes it all the sweeter.
stated: So you don’t buy into the notion of some poets “growing out of” slam?
CRISTIN: Well, I suppose there’s two definitions of “growing out of slam”—what people in the slam community mean by it, and what people outside of it mean by it.
I think when you talk about “growing out of slam,” you may mean “being through with slam as an influence,” in the way that all writers became obsessed with a certain writer or writers, or even a certain book, and then suddenly, are just through with it, maybe even a bit embarrassed by it. In that sense, no. The Poetry Slam movement is just too big and wily. Every time you think you’ve seen it all, something else is thrown into the center ring that just marvels or devastates or both.
But in the slam community, we tend to think of “growing out of slam” meaning being done with the competitive element of it, done with actually slamming, and that I do believe it. I think the competitive aspect of slam scratches a very definite itch in some writers, challenges them in the same way that writing a crown of sonnets might challenge a poet – Can I do this? Can I put all these elements together and really make it work?
But once you’ve figured it out, once that challenge is gone, and you are just repeating what you already know works, I think it’s absolutely time to stop slamming, meaning stopping competing in the same way the young cats are. It’s time to find new challenges.
I still attend slams, and I still slam on occasion, but it’s all to support the community that exists, and not to displace any up-and-comer who rightfully deserves to make it into a final round, or earn their spot on a team, you know?
stated: Right, and there’s more on your plate now anyway. You’ve also made your way into what might be called the academic poetry circuit. You’ve taught at colleges, gotten residencies, received grants. Do you see doing these things—reading at a bar one night, applying for grants and art colony residencies the next morning—as of a piece? Or do you think to yourself, “I’m going to put on my Rock the Stage Hat on now” or “And now, I am My Own Grant Writer”?
CRISTIN: Ha! Well, your question reminds me of Shappy Seasholtz, my partner of 11 years, who is a very funny writer, and can perform just as easily on comedy club stages as he could poetry slam stages. One time, someone asked him if it was weird existing in both worlds, and he said, “Well, at the poetry clubs, I’m known as the comedian, and at the comedy clubs I’m known as the poet!”
You know, the idea being: it’s not a secret! So it’s not like I’m double agent.
stated: I like the way you put it. It all sounds very dangerous.
CRISTIN: The poets in the Poetry Slam are aware of the work I do in applying for grants and submitting to literary journals—in fact, I’ve written a lot of poems about it! And the poets and departments who I have worked with on the academic side know that I come from a poetry slam background.
And I don’t think that’s harmed me much at all. No matter who you are, I feel like, in some ways, you get defined by what you are bringing to the table that’s different. I like being a conduit for both sides.
When I attend National Poetry Slams events, I frequently give workshops on how to apply for grants and how to submit your poetry to literary journals.
And when I am brought in as a “Visiting Poet” to colleges or prep schools, I’m often asked to host slams, or give lectures on the history of the poetry slam movement, or even just give performance tips to nervous readers.
I don’t mind it at all. I would love to help bring both sides closer together, to make both communities feel more comfortable with each other and learn from one another.
But, you know, that isn’t to say it’s not strange wearing so many hats.
stated: And now you’re going to the clusteriest of all the clusterfucks, AWP, the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference, which is kind of like the Comic-Con for poets and fiction writers. Slammers are going to AWP more and more each year.
CRISTIN: At AWP last year, I was approached by a woman in the book fair who asked me my name and asked how she might know me.
Since it was AWP, I said, “Well, I’m writer-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania?” That wasn’t it. “Well,” I said sheepishly, “I recently won an NEA, perhaps that’s it?” No. I listed some literary journals I had recently published in. Nope.
Finally, after a moment of thought, she said, “Did you orgasm on stage last night at the Four Provinces?”
And it was true. At a reading sponsored by PANK magazine, I had performed a series of poems I wrote called “Orgasm Haikus,” which—just as it sounds—are found poems from my porn editing days where I collected the utterances of men in porn movies who happened to orgasm in exactly seventeen syllables.
But of course, the year I won my NEA, that wasn’t the response I was expecting to get, “Didn’t you orgasm on stage last night?” Needless to say, it was humbling moment to have on the floor of the AWP Book Fair!
stated: Well, orgasms are humbling that way.
I feel compelled to riff this story further, to say that it’s at so-called academic get-togethers like AWP that writers feel free to let loose and be free as writers, free to act like the vikings and warriors they are, than when they are in the classroom, which has its own sets of social conventions. I would say that this person might have known about other things about you, but it would be mentioning the orgasm haiku that make for better book fair repartee. But that might be too inside baseball, no?
CRISTIN: It’s funny that you say that. One of the links that went viral in the poetry slam community last year was the AWP Bingo Card published on the lit blog, We Who Are About To Die.
stated: Wait a minute. I wrote that!
CRISTIN: Yes! It was essentially a snarky commentary on what to expect at AWP using the format of a bingo card. Boxes to check off included things like, and I’m clearly paraphrasing here, “White Man in Full Native American Regalia (non-ironic)”and “Meet Internet Only Friends with Awkward Hugs” and “Panel Audience Member Talks About Self for Five Minutes in the Form of a Question” and so on. I think it really floored people in the slam that an event considered so fancy and academic from our perspective could contain so many of the same stereotypes and stereotypical situations.
So coming from my background, I had no doubt that she knew me only as the Orgasm Haiku Lady, but I’m charmed at the idea that she thought mentioning that would make our conversation last longer. As opposed to me making me want to say, “And exit stage right!” before disappearing into a cloud of dust.
stated: OK, a little off-topic here, and forgive me for asking you to speak for the Entire Slam Community. I just want your take.
One thing that is interesting to me about slam/performance poets is, when asked who their favorite poets are, besides other performers, the poets-with-books they mention are invariably mainstream-friendly poets. I’m talking about Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine. These are poets who do great work, but the general consensus would be these are not experimental poets who might translate to, say, slam stages. Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you think it’s about slam and general readership poetry both having its aim at being “poetry for the common person”?
CRISTIN: One of the longstanding tenets of the poets and poetry from the poetry slam movement is that you must create—and perform—work that engages the audience.
The audience must feel like they understand you—maybe not on a literal level, because we have certainly had very successful poets who work with surreal and experimental imagery and compositions. But definitely on an emotional level.
In fact, when a poet does a great job on stage, other poets will often tell the poet, “Yo, I really felt that,” as a compliment.
And to step outside of the realm of purely oral poetry, where you can look a poet in the face and see if they are sincere, can be a big leap for poets whose only experience with poetry has been the slam.
So it can be a relief to discover “page poets” like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, whose work is so inviting to readers, or another example is poets like Bob Hicok or Kevin Young, whose long-form narratives and unexpected humor feel very familiar to slam poets.
I don’t think slam poets read poetry and think, “Would this work on a slam stage? If not, I don’t like it!” Rather, I think they find comfort reading poets for whom they feel welcome—as audience member or you know readers—even if they don’t have a background in lit theory or a strong (or even weak) understanding of poetic technique.
That being said, as more and more poets with a slam background are getting MFAs and even PhDs, the “page poets” to which our community is being exposed is growing more diverse every year.
stated: I see. So the common ground is accessibility, as opposed to even subject matter, where slammers might have more in common with more experimental (and often young) poets. I am curious regarding how you regard the poetic line—everything from line breaks, initial-capping at the beginning of lines, line length, and consistency. I feel as if I have tried everything, and can’t seem to settle on one, or maybe the thrill of writing poetry will be gone once I do settle on one. Anyway, I heard you once begin to talk about lines and line breaks, but we ended up talking about how I fart so much instead. So, can you address how your line has evolved?
CRISTIN: I think the evolution of how my work looks on the page is a very common one in the poetry slam community. Namely, that all my early poems had line breaks where I took a breath when performing. And stanza breaks when I took a pause. And I would CAP or bold or BOTH when I shouted something on stage.
stated: Whoa. That would never pass muster in a conventional workshop, I think.
CRISTIN: Some poets took this a few steps further and enlarged the size of the font when shouting, and shrinking the font when whispering. Some changed the font entirely if a different character was speaking, or if they were thinking an opposing thought, or I don’t know, just because they could.
stated: I see. I think in the past many page-y poets dismissed that as dated, but now there seems to be a renewed interest in visual poetry, sound poetry.
CRISTIN: Right. The idea was that this type of formatting essentially helped “score” (musically speaking) the poem for the reader, so that they “heard” it in their head almost precisely as you perform it.
Now there are some poets who can really make this format work—Edwin Torres, who was a slammer in the early years, being one of them—but they are rare. For the most part, it can make the poetry rather unreadable, the poetic equivalent of a music teacher correcting you at every bar, going, No, no, no! Wrong tempo! Let’s start again!
So I started looking at poets in the slam whose writing and writing careers I admired—Jeffrey McDaniel and Patricia Smith—and looked how they oriented their work on the page and copied their formats. The more I did, the easier I found it was to have said poems accepted at literary journals, and so the cycle continues.
stated: That might speak more to print journals’ conservatism than any slam poet’s lack of craft, I must say. What are you interested in now?
CRISTIN: I’m really obsessed with Bob Hicok’s formatting, which sometimes is just one long unbroken stanza. I’ve copied that format for more than one poem. I like the effortless relentlessness of it.
But honestly, I’ve seen so many different types of formatting work, that I don’t think there is a right or wrong way. When I workshop with poets with a poetry slam background and talk about publication, I certainly mention how the popular chapbook formats (mentioned above) can be unreadable to people who are not already familiar with the poet’s voice, and those [who] find navigating all those caps and bolds rocky, but ultimately, if that’s what works for them, use it. Just be conscious of what is potentially working and what is potentially not working with any formatting.
When I taught this past spring, I likened it to having a wall of light switches. As long as you know that you are turning on and off certain light switches with your choices, I’m fine with it. But I’ve got to know it’s a conscious choice, or else it can be distracting.
stated: To what extent did you revise your poems when you re-released them? I mean, we’re talking about books that are a number of years old. Did you give into temptation to get in under the hood, particularly in your earlier poems?
Anyway, Sarah Kay was the perfect choice because she’s an Ivy League-educated writer who also spent her teen years writing and performing at the Bowery Poetry Club, so she is really able to see both sides of [what] these books needed to be: sincere and authentic to the time periods in which they were written, while also readable to poets from both sides of the slam/academia divide.
So there was some tinkering of poems, structurally, to support that new ideal, we didn’t try to rewrite history. The poems from my earliest book, Dear Future Boyfriend—written when I was still an undergrad at NYU—read very much like a poet who is still an undergrad, and not like a poet in their 30’s looking back. It made sending the book out for review a little harrowing—Would people mistakenly believe this is my new and/or current style?—but I think people got it, and the response has been really wonderful.
stated: You include “bonus poems” in each of the earlier books as well. Was this something you wanted to do from the start? Weren’t these chapbooks in incarnations even before the Wordsmith editions?
CRISTIN: The bonus poems come from a number of different places: old chapbooks, old journals, old computer files. When you are looking at a book as a time capsule of sorts, I think it opens you up to what could go into it, and that certainly was the case with these books.
But one of the editorial decisions made for these editions was the re-shuffling and reimagining of Oh, Terrible Youth and Working Class Represent. Both of these books were originally self-published in support of tours I was going on—when you are a performance poet, maybe books are created simply so that you might have new product when you hit the road—but both were created at relatively the same time period, the eight years when I worked a desk job at the Artists Rights Society.
In the original Wordsmith Press editions, Oh, Terrible Youth was mostly about my childhood growing up in working class Philadelphia, and Working Class Represent was mostly about balancing office life with being a performance poet, but there was so overlap in themes in both books.
Sarah asked if I would be open to reshuffling the collections so that the poems would stay more strictly on their stated theme, and I was. So childhood poems which originally appeared in WCR now appear in OTY, and poems about office life which appeared in OTY now appear in WCR, and I think it has served to make both collections stronger editorially.
stated: That’s a major revision decision, actually.
CRISTIN: I was also able to include some much more recent poems about office life into Working Class Represent as well, since they fit the theme perfectly, and I believe helped strike a balance between my earlier office poems—which find real charm and joy in having a day job, that wonderful sense that you as an artist are gaming the system by writing and touring during evenings and vacations and still pulling down your bi-weekly paycheck and health insurance via being a cubicle jockey—and my later poems, which sort of grapple with the sobering reality that you might have reached your limit, that you might never cross over into anything more than the life you’ve been living, that this was it.
stated: Tell me about your sobering poems. I mean, there’s a happy ending to all this, right?
CRISTIN: Those later ones were written mostly in the year when I received nothing but rejections for the numerous grants and residencies I had been applying to, and they were all written from a very real and grim place.
But after that year of rejections, I finally got an acceptance—the 2010-2011 ArtsEdge Writer-in-Residence position at the University of Pennsylvania—and that meant leaving the office life for at least a year, if not more. And it’s proven to be more, thanks entirely to the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship I was gob-smackedly awarded in 2011.
stated: It’s your year, Cristin!
CRISTIN: Well, it felt right to place those poems in the context of my book about office life, instead of mixing them up with the new manuscript I’m working on, which speaks to being sort of unmoored.
stated: And what a way to be unmoored.