Tuesday, July 9, 2013

An Interview with Jim Coppoc

Blast Furnace is pleased to present an interview with prolific creative powerhouse, Jim Coppoc. Our first encounter with Jim occurred during a 2007 in-person "recitation" of some of his original works at a Pittsburgh-based university.  

If you ask him, Jim—and his current biowill tell you that he makes his way in the world "through some murky but evolving balance of poetry, nonfiction, pedagogy, playwriting, music and performance." He has multiple books in print, and he has received several Pushcart Prize nominations.

Currently, Jim teaches English and American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, and poetry and spoken word elsewhere. If you ever want to know about the history of spoken word and Slam poetry, he's your man: a walking, talking encyclopedia of its history.

In addition to serving as music coordinator for a church in Ames, he also performs as bassist in the Gatehouse Saints with his wife, Jen McClung, and relishes being a father. He and Jen have two sons.

When we caught up with him recently to ask about his poetry, publications and projects, he provided these generous and thoughtful responses.

You are an authoritya key historianon Slam poetry, and served as editor for an Anthology of SlamFusion Poetry. Talk a bit about its early history.
photo credit: Jen McClung Coppoc
This is going to sound like a flippant answer, but I swear I'm trying to tell the whole truth here... 
The early history of Slam is in cavemen chanting their lives around campfires.
Poetry is the Ur genre. It rose from our need to sing the things that matter, to share them with other humans. Poetry is now and always has been an oral medium.
For a while there in the 20th century, with the rise of the MFA and the advent of hyper-literary academic culture, it seems America forgot that. "Poetry" as a genre began to move farther and farther away from the popular audience and from its oral/aural roots. There were plenty of other backlash movements along the way—one of my favorites is Beat culture—but in the 1980's, when Marc Smith decided to rejuvenate his open mic by building in a game show format and making it fun—something ignited. We aren't even 30 years in, and Slam is a growing worldwide phenomenon, reaching an audience and touching a demographic that otherwise might not ever come into contact with contemporary poetry.
In some arenas youre viewed as a Slam poet, in others as afusion poet. What characteristics set each of these genres apart, or are they the same? Do you think its fair to classify you as such, when, in fact, you write in many genres?
Slam is a game show. When I play it, I'm a slammer. To be clear, all poetry is welcome there, just so long as it meets the time limit and a couple other simple rules.
"Fusion," on the other hand, is one of those buffet terms. Everybody seems to take from it what they want. For me, Fusion is poetry that can make make itself welcome at any party—poetry that fits page and stage equally well. Ultimately, that's where I want to be working as a poet. Sometimes I get close, and I feel pretty good about that.
Since you explore many writing genrespoetry, creative non-fiction, playwritingas well as songwriting and performing music, in addition to being a university writing program lecturer. How do you balance being prolific in all of these creative and academic pursuits? What draws you to each of them? And, is there a pattern to what dictates when achange in creative focus occurs for you?
Sometimes, it feels like I have career [Attention Deficit Disorder]. Currently, I'm not even teaching writing. I'm working full-time in American Indian Studies.
But I think that can be a good thing. Every time I write a play, I learn something about how to bring better tension into my poetry. Every time I compose a new song, I learn something about prosody. Non-fiction teaches me voice, character and narrative. And working on my poetry makes me better at all these other things.
Even when I seem to depart completely, I'm still learning. My current work in American Indian Studies has got thinking about anthropology, which brings me deeper in contact with thinkers like Levi-Strauss, who teaches me the crucial role of the oral tradition in human culture, which brings me straight back to Slam and to making my poetry stronger.
Have you always been performance-driven? What is your earliest memory of being in front of an audience, and even after years of experience with audiences, does performing still challenge you? If so, how?
Performing is always a challenge. In some way or another—music or theater or whatever—I've been doing it my whole life, but the bar keeps rising. What impressed Slam audiences a dozen years ago just won't do in the age of Def Poetry Jam. What I felt good about doing yesterday, I'd like to think I'll be able to move beyond tomorrow.
Although it's sometimes hard to admit, I'm terrified just about every time I take the stage. These aren't other people's words I'm delivering—this is me. This is my life. When I'm about to bear myself that completely, and make myself that vulnerable... Well, the old cliche is that if you're not scared, you're not taking it seriously enough.
Talk about Manhattan Beatitude, 1997: the play, and the illustrated 2010 publication, by One Small Bird Press.
New York will always mean something to me. I came of age there, and a lot of who I am is rooted in those experiences. The "Manhattan Beatitude" project is my way of honoring that. It began as an independent study for my MFA, and became a centerpiece of my thesis. I had help early on from some pretty amazing poets (Jim Moore and Deborah Keenan). Along the way, I've done it as a long spoken word piece, a book-length illustrated poem, and a one act play. There's a good chance that in the future it will emerge in other forms as well.
What I do know about all these iterations of the poem is that they all come in beatitude form, and they are all meant to honor the people and places I was exposed to in those days. That's a story I'm likely to be telling for a very long time.
Going back to your first book of poetry, Blood, Sex and Prayer (Fractal Edge Press, 2005), describe the process of composingPrayer.” Reading it is, at once, uncomfortable and liberating, and one can imagine its creator sweating profusely while composing it, nothing being held back, the internal editors mouth duct-taped and closeted as the floodgates opened up.
All of the poems I've written that have succeeded, I have written just about the same way. I built up a head of steam over a period of several days obsessing over the conversation at the core of that poem, and dreaming up all the possible responses to the question I was asked ("How often do you pray?"). Then one day I found myself alone at home for an afternoon, I put on some very loud, aggressive music, started pacing and dancing and screaming out lines, and when I thought I had something good, I scribbled it on some paper I'd laid out on a counter.
My neighbors probably hate me for having to listen to this process, but finding this ecstatic state is honestly the only way I can beat that internal censor you mentioned. Every poet has to find his or her own path, but this one works for me.
From the same poetry collection, “Ars Poetica”: “just opened up his wrists and started writing his poems on the walls in blood.” Is that what writingparticularly poetryis, or still is for you? An emptying out?
Yes. The short answer is yes.  Sometimes poetry for me is like medieval medicine. I just need a good bloodletting.
On the other hand, that poem comes from a true story, so there's that.
One more question from BS&P: Describe the experience of the first time you publicly recited these poems. And the response you hope to receive from a live audience, as well as from the isolated reader. Would still write if there were no audience? Why or why not?
These poems developed over a period of time, slamming them in Des Moines, Omaha, Minneapolis, Iowa City, and Ames, IA. They would never have been any good without the patience of these audiences, and the gentle-but-real feedback of my friends in these scenes.
I don't believe there is writing without an audience. Either you're writing to please yourself (intellectual masturbation), or you're writing to connect to someone else (the real thing).
And that's what I'm looking for. Connection. Without it, for me, there's no point.
Another collection of your poetry, Reliquary, was published in 2010 (also a Fractal Edge publication), following the chapbook, Bearing the Pall (also a One Small Bird publication), which could be considered a shorter version of the former. While BS&P has a mixture of serious and humorous works, Reliquary is more solemn. TakeThe Air We Breathe,” for example. What inspired the Bearing the Pall/Reliquary collections?

This project was a sort of recapitulation of the end of my teens. A couple old friends died—for that matter, over the past 20 years, a lot of my old friends have died—and I needed to go back and remember where and who I was at the time these people were part of my life. This collection is dark, and I don't think that is any filter I put on. I spent those years in pursuit of a sort of dark beauty—turns out it was well suited to making poetry.
Is there any plan to record your works and have them available publicly for mp3 purchase and download? Or have you already accomplished this and if so, where can they be found/internet?
I'm working on that. I'm also working on an album of "cover poems" to honor some of the incredible words and works I've run into over the years. I'll post links to jimcoppoc.net as soon as it's all ready.
What projects are currently in the works, or about to be released? Where can readers find your writing and other creative ventures online? Where can they come to see/hear you perform live?
Three-Legged Press is putting out a Collected Works soon, and there are a few other poems and essays in the pipeline at various journals, but right now I'm trying hard to let that field lie fallow until I'm ready for the next big project (I've started doodling in the direction of a suite of poems following Columbus in the New World).
Instead of literary work, though, right now I'm working on more critical bits. My American Indian Studies textbook is going into a second edition, and I'm mid-project putting together a book-length bit of theology around the Gospel of Matthew.
Most of my live performances are musical right now, but I still break out the poetry on occasion. Tell your readers they're all welcome to find me on Facebook, and I'll get word to them when I'm coming to their town.

No comments:

Post a Comment