(Note: This introduction and interview with poet and publisher Janet Kaplan are by Adrienne Brock)
Kaplan’s poems lend themselves to performance, and visual and performing artists have seen her work as inherently able to cross genres. The 2011 poem “Matar as Saudades” was presented as part of the YIVO Center installation Writers on View, featuring the art of Sabastian Mendes. A long poem of hers, “Ascending, Descending” was commissioned for a vocal performance piece by classical composer Martin Hennessey.
Her work negotiates the limitations of poetic form on the page while drawing caricatures of people and ideas that almost grate the nerves with their insight into the comedy of everyday activities, conversations, beliefs, and losses.
She is currently at work on a fourth collection while publishing new and established writers under the imprint of Red Glass Books, a limited-edition fine art chapbook series, which celebrated its second anniversary last month. Red Glass Books has published poets like Jean Valentine (her Red Glass Books chapbook was featured here on Gwarlingo), Cornelius Eady, Elisabeth Frost, and others.
Kaplan spoke with Gwarlingo about promiscuity, surrealism in texting, and a hungry poet’s choice of day jobs.
I’ve known great happiness. “Pound” abbreviated “lb,’ the word “salary” drawn from “salt.” I’ve unearthed a wealth of examples like these, shy examples that don’t want to be discussed. Some people are happy lying low. They’re happy as Cambrian-era RNA. Others shake their fists. Their eyes well with tears. Shall I crawl beneath my mother’s feet because cabbages no longer grow on Broadway? It’s Sri Lanka now but the tea’s still called Ceylon. Some elements come together to form compounds; then you can’t get back to the elements to save your life. Not without the proper, very expensive tools.
The Examined Life
In the dream, God so loves the world the people are turned to fish. Jellyfish, suitable for inlets. The birds naturally remain birds. Suitable for trees, which remain trees. Bird language, tree language: did anyone ever learn enough to pass for native? Likewise our understanding of machines. Mercy—who wants to be part of any century that will have him? The fourteenth could’ve used someone who knew what a germ was. To save a gazillion lives by boiling the water and telling them to wash their innocent little hands.
Dreamlife of a Philanthropist
Your neighbors are stuck in time, the night of the blackout, to be exact, telling it again, how they were bathing the dog, everything goes dark, Shirley screams, Buster full of shampoo runs howling through the house, and goodbye rugs. Unearth the radios, each at the same frequency, the same newscaster casting to a million heads. People in emergencies are jovial and giddy: Lynn, stranded in stilettos on the bridge’s steel mesh—someone stops traffic to give her a lift. There’s hope. God’s labile mind to cling to. Shepherd the children past filthy corridors and out to the street. On the corner’s a candle and a picture book: Next time I won’t let them near me I am so lonely. It’s the story of the magician, withered and hunched. Do you remember when your hair ran through her fingers? How torchlight came so close it singed your skin?
In 1881, “Le Avventure di Pinocchio: la storia di un burattino,” by
C. Collodi, appears in the Giornale Per i Bambini.
“In Brooklyn. On the afternoon of the Sabbath, the rabbi is
discoursing about the blessing of the New Moon. He cites a
law: ‘The blind are required to bless the moon!…’ I think to
myself: This is exactly the predicament of the mourner. He
must bless what is wonderful even though he cannot see it.”
—Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish
The language spoken by the Namaqua of Namaqualand and
“I feel like I have drunk the milk of a strange woman…. I
feel like this because I do not speak my mother’s language.”
—Hendrik Stuurman, regarding the Khoi
In 1923, an edition of “Le Avventure di Pinocchio” with illustrations.
Pinocchio is adolescent rather than boyish, sinister instead of innocent.
“I decided long ago not to understand. If I understand anything.
I shall instantly be untrue to the facts, and I have decided
to remain with the facts.”
—Ivan (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)
“There is nothing more mysterious than a well-defined fact.”
—Jeanne Moutoussary-Ashe, photographer
In 1936, Pinocchio is depicted chained like a dog to a doghouse.
In 1939, a suave-looking Pinocchio with a fiancée.
“She sees a bearded young man clutching a book of the history
of humankind, weeping because he has been made into a
godhead; she sees him mourning the deadly fruit of his
—Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers
“The language is like a ‘step-taal,’ like a step-child, not fully
loved or wanted.”
In 1940, a Walt Disney book with illustrations from the 1937
film, “Pinocchio in Africa.” In 1950, in Latin: “Pinoculus.”
KhoiKhoi means “people” (double of Khoi, “person”), called by
the Europeans Hottentots or Bushmen.
A 1971 Pinocchio being cooked in a pan with a fish. A 1986
Pinocchio with his left leg caught in a trap.
“The stars, as though they knew no one would see them now,
began to disport themselves in the dark sky: flashing bright,
disappearing again, shimmering and signaling some glad
mystery to one another.”
—Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace
Dreamy the lights are, fanciful the constellations. Valium, Plutonium, The Luxury Eye. Essential now is this narrow margin of light surrounding you, where your life begins or ends. And yet how better to hide darkness than with more darkness, within which are mistakes, seismographs, parking garages, stars whose omens are like duplicate keys to the house—and you, rising in your netherworld, singing.
Obviously this low mood’s what I have. Nothing else, just a
low mood. It isn’t even an authentic low mood, but I didn’t
acquire it reading about other people’s low moods. I could
say it’s mine, in this body I trust the mood’s having a nice
Dread’s here too. I was told Don’t be alone, it’s bad to be
Also, ‘I’m here.’
I was never alone. Dread came to make me be with people.
Dread wrote Genesis—I believe that. Dread knows about
the void, silence. Low moods turn away; dread rarely
rejects. Find a way out of this one. Dread was first to love
the earth. It’s authentic. It loved the animals, the people. It
loved all their stories about it. It’s possible that anyone who
can love dread already knows God.
Nothing that happens to me / in me is my doing. I can’t
take credit. Go puzzle over phenomena. Better yet, sit and
The Dread Show—or, The Silence Chronicle
The Silence Chronicle
Out there, the planet you wanted, inhabited by aliens who
aren’t showing up.
A story read to you the day you were born: Dread growing
old alone. One day they’ll shut up.
The large child arrives to demand credit. Will it ever get
enough? Never. Nothing can appease it, the universe’s
steady whine, so small in the silence.
Of course the idea’s not original. People have been depicting
real things since forever.
Why make them so alike, so consistent?
To think something’s irreplaceable: a selfish impulse.
They’re alike. There seem to be differences, but that’s just
blindness. Eternal patterns, eternal blindness.
Chronic Fatigue Chronicle
How can I pretend I’ve never written? Tried various tricks
like this one.
I’m waiting for the ‘ping’ that means I like something.
I used to like spiritual healers. Each spark is a spark, they
said, and the next spark and the next. Even the wearing
down of sparks: everything’s good; you should like it.
Who likes being told what to do? I’m surprised the sparks
aren’t self-conscious. Aren’t they aware they’re being
I’ve come here alone to see what I like, sad or thinking or
elated, not to be seen. Something foul-smelling, unkempt
and tired, tolerating your close examination.
An Interview with Publisher & Writer Janet Kaplan
by Adrienne Brock
Adrienne Brock: Dreamlife of a Philanthropist is made up of prose poems and sonnets—kind of a juxtaposition. Do you see form and choice of form as a way the poetry of this period challenges contemporary readers?
Janet Kaplan: I wasn’t conscious of wanting to challenge my readers while I was writing the poems for Dreamlife, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought that there’d be any challenges associated with form. Voice and velocity, perhaps, but not form. Most contemporary readers of poetry are at home with prose and hybrid prose/poetry forms, although we may have different ideas about what a prose poem ought to look like or what a poetic form ought to contain–and how tightly!
For the prose sonnets in the collection, my inspiration was a Petrarchan sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay that begins, “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines / And keep him there; and let him thence escape / If he be lucky….” It seemed to me that millennial poets ought to give Chaos more than fourteen lines, if we thought we ought to contain it at all; I decided to write a prose poem with fourteen sections. My prose sonnet “Fourteen Lines” (first published in the anthology An Introduction to the Prose Poem, Firewheel Editions, 2009) is my response to
JK: For me, Dreamlife represented an existential challenge: Does one confront chaos, both personal and global, with despair or with absurdity? In other words, am I a depressed poet or a sacred clown? Of course, this question posits a false and silly “or,” when our modernists and postmodernists—and all those Taoists and Zen Buddhists—have already told me that I’m both and neither. Dreamlife represents my being both; I don’t know about the neither. I think it represents a step in the right—the absurd—direction from my earlier collections! I’m still navigating my relationship with chaos. Recent poems are more sober but still address the challenge:
AB: In your piece, aptly titled “The List,” a catalog of crimes is left as a communiqué between criminal and detective—just one example in your work of unconventional communication between disconnected parties. Is this a conscientious nod to terse forms of communication connected with modern technology, or is this a more personal stylistic gesture?
JK: “Communication between disconnected parties”—I like that! It makes me want to get personal and psychoanalytical rather than theoretical. But theory and my gut tell me that most communications are between disconnected parties. The poet and her reader? My Facebook page and my friends? Which of those nouns ought to be in quotes? Certainly, our communiqués—our tweets and texts and two-sentence Facebook life-story-announcements—share more, stylistically, with Raymond Chandler than with Edna St. Vincent Millay or most any other traditional lyric poet. When you think of it, we’re a society of world-weary, world-poor detectives: did u c him? yes. when? last nite. what was he wearing? omg and a : ) thrown in for an idiot criminal’s good measure. I wrote “The List” before I ever texted anyone; but I think I knew what it felt like to be disconnected.
No one in my family had ever considered being a writer. It was difficult enough, I suppose, for them to get by in spoken English, and you tend to speak tersely when you don’t know a language too well or when you don’t feel very powerful in the dominant culture that speaks it—except for my mother, and she stopped writing to have a series of mental breakdowns back in the 1950s. Obviously, some writers use terseness in response to grief sometimes; some writers use it in response to technologistics. Maybe grief and technology are one and the same—or maybe they’re becoming one and the same.
AB: Many of the pieces you write with family members of places from childhood echo the struggles of other urban American families. Your poem, “Pelham Bay,” about the gritty beach of your youth echoes Philip Levine’s “Belle Isle, 1949” and his poems that come out of work experiences in Detroit. In spite of the title of your recent collection, do you see a relationship between your work and the industrial or working-class centers of the country?
JK: I wasn’t reading Philip Levine yet when I wrote “Pelham Bay” (from my first book, The Groundnote). I might have been reading Amy Clampitt, though, who used her abundantly elegant vocabulary (Mona Van Duyn famously described Clampitt as a marriage between Henry James and Marianne Moore) to heighten some very citified places, like the subway in her poem “Tunnel Music.” Clampitt recognized these places as being in nature; cities were natural phenomenon because the people who built them and lived in them were. I wanted to remind myself about that natural world while offering my Bronx environs Clampitt’s kind of linguistic grace–and, I suppose, offering some to my stained Bronx self, too.
AB: Where does the philanthropist of the new collection come in?
JK: I think the title of my most recent collection probably speaks volumes about my relationship to money and its absence! I’m fortunate to have an incredibly generous family, which enabled me to get my MFA and not be crippled by the student loans. But there’s a history to that generosity, and plenty of social policy, too. My civil-servant father had a guaranteed health insurance policy through his job and the great good luck to be raising his small family when affordable housing was abundant in New York City through a law called rent control. Quite frankly, my working-class folks were able to save money so that their daughter could one day study her craft because they weren’t spending every dime on health care and rent. So, you see, I’m quite the pink-diaper-feminist baby! I think it’s high time we took back the color red. Perhaps, in part, that’s the impetus for the name of my press, Red Glass Books. That, and my maternal grandfather was a glazier.
AB: In addition to the title poem, it seems to me that quite a few of the poems in Dreamlife have to do with people — and that includes children, too — who are swallowed up by those in charge. I’m thinking of “The Tooth Ministry,” “Newscast” and “Revolutions,” but there are probably other examples in Dreamlife as well. And all the while, the philanthropist of the title poem is dreaming that there aren’t any more people.
JK: Growing up in a place that was more than a little chaotic, where even the beaches and parks were an extension of the grime and grit (all the apartment buildings had incinerators when I was growing up), has probably kept my writing a bit, shall I say, distressed. Its underwear is probably showing. Its asthma, too.
AB: You begin Dreamlife with epigraphs by Gabriel García Márquez and Clarice Lispector. In what ways do you see your work affiliated with these South American poets or with Magic Realism?
JK: I guess I see my life as Magic Realism. I had a mother who, in a dream when I was five, poured medicine from an alabaster jar into a spoon and as she fed me intoned, “sometimes it’s real and sometimes it isn’t.” Mystery, dread, drama? That was what life held, everyday waking life and dreaming life. García Márquez and Lispector are two of my favorite writers, but I didn’t seek the epigraphs until I’d read the Dreamlife manuscript for the umpteenth time and really felt that the work had a touch of Magic Realism in it. In the poem “One Hundred Years of Fabric Softener” I’m obviously making a pun — but the poem isn’t laughing at García Márquez or Magic Realism; it’s bemoaning the North American insistence on logic. Surrealism, Magic Realism: these are lifesaving literary devices. They’ve allowed me to write honestly–realistically, if you will–about what I’ve witnessed at home and in my American world, the deeper truth about relationships between those who are powerless and those in power.
AB: I like what you mention about your work characterizing those “swallowed up” by those in charge. In “The Tooth Ministry,” this seems to lead almost to caricature of both those in charge and those oppressed. The character of The Lord, in this poem, seems to be as laughable as Soot, the child, Stop, or any of the other characters who are less powerful. Does humor take away or minimize the power of the oppressors in your work?
JK: Certainly, humor can minimize the power of the oppressor. I think that all the characters in “The Tooth Ministry” are laughable because they’re all helpless — or, better, hapless. Especially the Lord. This poem was based on an actual tooth ministry service I found out about and attended out of curiosity one evening in the mid 90’s at a church in Manhattan. There was — for all I know, there still is — a “Tooth Ministry,” whose minister was famous for his laying-on-of-teeth. He claimed that God worked through him to give true believers healthy, straight teeth. But you had to be a true believer; otherwise, God wouldn’t do a thing. It really got to me. There’s something about teeth, I mean. I’ve dreamt about losing mine — I think it has to do with the fear of losing power or the fear of losing one’s voice. I think it’s a common dream. But here were folks who took their teeth to God — God the Dentist! The character of Soot in “The Tooth Ministry” represents pure, unexamined faith. She doesn’t question anything and she’s got a sinner’s bad teeth: the perfect combo for salvation. But what do I know about miracles? Unlike Soot, I thought the tooth ministry sermon was the most bizarre thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps as a result of my cynicism, I had to go to an orthodontist to get my teeth fixed! But there was a part of me that wanted a miracle desperately. A sign. Suddenly perfect teeth? Well, that would have been something. Hallelujah!
AB: Does the creation of fable-like characters in other poems (with names like Turtledove or Mrs. Kitten) also imply a set of people, places, and things that are contained or held back?
JK: About fables. I found them haunting as a child, all those animals in the service of good behavior versus bad behavior. Fables were among the first stories I read. My mother took me to the library often; almost all the books available for preschool readers back then were illustrated fables, Aesop et al. Sad, grumpy, loser animals against smarmy, grinning, victorious animals. Comedy and tragedy. One or the other. You kind of had to choose — and if you already knew you were a loser, then you were bad. Simple as that. In Dreamlife, the fable-like characters aren’t there to tell morality tales; they’re the remnants of the unspoken and thwarted — as you say, the contained or held back — fears and rages of childhood.
AB: You mentioned “Revolutions.” There seems to be not only a monetary conflict in that poem, but also tension regarding the best financial position to be in to create art. The laundress and her lover disagree as to whether a secure or insecure position is necessary. I was wondering if you might weigh in on that. What’s absolutely necessary to create art? Are today’s best poets academics? Firefighters? Personal assistants? Independently wealthy?
JK: Oh, God. I was afraid this poem would get me into this kind of trouble! I don’t think I have answers to your questions, not even for myself. I’ve always been in conflict: safety versus freedom. For me, safety has meant having rent money and being in a secure relationship. (I’m a serial monogamist, it seems. Whenever I’ve been without a steady relationship, I’ve turned into a panicked sexaholic — not good for poetry, at least not for mine!) I’m in a relationship now but my partner is out of work and I’ve only got a part-time teaching job. I have a bit more freedom now than I did when I was a full-timer (not much more; even a part-time teaching job requires a ton of time and energy), but monetary stress isn’t good for my poetry, either. I’d say that the conditions that are absolutely necessary to create art are the same that are absolutely necessary to create a decent society, particularly for women: economic safety nets, the freedom to love whomever one chooses, access to safe and legal abortion, and the sense that we are valued and that our work has meaning.
Who are the best poets working today? It’s unanswerable, I think. Whose poems do we actually get to read? Who has access, aside from us academic types, to the resources and the communities that allow good work to flourish and gain recognition? Even in academia, there are poets working in obscurity. There may be a lot of brilliant work out there, but very few poets get the recognition their work deserves. This might be especially true in North America, where very few of us carry poetry books in our pockets and where our dreamy electronic devices, those magic Kindles and Nooks, carry much less than a pocket’s worth of poetry.
AB: Red Glass Books is flying in the face of Kindles and Nooks with an emphasis on texts as crafted objects. Can you tell me a little bit about how that got started? Despite the fact that we’re far from a publishing golden age, small presses seem to be gaining traction…Do you agree? What are the advantages of being affiliated with a boutique press?
JK: I agree about small presses gaining traction. I think we’re actually in a golden age of the small press. There’s a lot of really exciting work being presented digitally, too. But I needed something tactile to do with my hands that wouldn’t get me into trouble…. One of my favorite jobs for Red Glass is wandering the paper stores on West 18th and fingering the goods. I wouldn’t call Red Glass a boutique press, though. A pop up, maybe? Obviously, I’m just enthralled by being broke.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length.)
About Janet KaplanJanet Kaplan is the author of three books and several chapbooks. The poet Molly Peacock ranks her “among the leading poets of the newest generation of American writers.” Of the full-length books, The Groundnote was published by Alice James Books; The Glazier’s Country won the 2003 Poets Out Loud Prize and was published by Fordham University Press; and Dreamlife of a Philanthropist: Prose Poems & Prose Sonnets, selected by Cornelius Eady, Joyelle McSweeney and Orlando Menes for the 2011 Ernest Sandeen Prize, was released in spring 2011 by the University of Notre Dame Press.
“‘One can like form or one can like chaos.’ That is a wonderful sentence, one I’m going to remember for a long time,” writes Ron Silliman on a poem in Dreamlife of a Philanthropist. “…[I]n poems whose wit cannot be told apart from their momentum, we find thinking at work against itself, undoing conclusion, battling intent, in order to recover some lost ground of form’s unconscious foundation,” says poet Dan Beachy-Quick. And Fence critic Karla Kelsey writes, “[T]he voice here charms, leading us into a landscape of Tender Buttons meets Claes Oldenburg or Rene Magritte.”
Kaplan’s poems, prose poems, and prose sonnets have appeared or are forthcoming in American Letters & Commentary, Barrow Street, Crazyhorse, CUE, Denver Quarterly, Hotel Amerika, Ms. magazine, Open City, prose-poems.com, Sentence, The Paris Review, and many others. She is the recipient of a Fellowship in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Godot Grant in poetry from Rattapallax Press, and a grant from the Vogelstein Foundation. Two collections of poetry, Civil Twilight and Technopastoral, are in progress, as is a novel, tentatively titled The Desire of the Line. She teaches poetry and creative writing at Hofstra University and is the publisher and editor of Red Glass Books, a fine-art poetry chapbook series. For more information about Janet Kaplan and her work, please visit her website.
About Adrienne Brock
Adrienne Brock is a fiction writer and former journalist. She works with Epiphany: A Literary Journal as a fiction editor and interviewer and co-curates The Eagle and the Wren Reading Series with poet David McLoghlin.
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All poems © Janet Kaplan. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Dreamlife of a Philanthropist: Prose Poems & Prose Sonnets (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011) and in Chronicles (Press Board Press, 2013) and were reprinted with permission from the author.