Michael Berger

Interview with Claudia Keelan, Editor of Interim

When I first discovered Interim magazine, especially its bountiful back catalogue, which stretches back to 1944, I found in the journal a sustained attention not just to contemporary poetry but to the many and various contexts in which that poetry, and the poetics supporting it, operates. Current editor Claudia Keelan has generously maintained and expanded founding editor Wilbur Stevens’s vision for the journal as a forum, one that is democratic in nature and is built around the idea of poetry as intimate, challenging dialogue. This editorial commitment ensures that poetry continues to have a place to voice its amplitude at a moment when poetry publishing is at a crossroads, overflowing with possibility on one hand, consigned to the margins by many mainstream publishers and online distributors on the other.

When I interviewed Claudia about this phenomenon, and about the many ways one can approach poetry in our age of new media, when notions of genre and medium are routinely being complicated, she emphasized the ethical demands poetry places on both writer and reader. Such ethical urgency, she observed, is rooted in the dialogic process. This recalls poetry’s origins in song and incantation while also directing us to poetry’s embodiment in breath and the physical act of speech, whether it takes the form of political debate, religious sermon, metaphysical speculation or other speech modes. To many this connection to speech and conversation goes unnoticed and poetry remains as thoroughly impractical as ever. On the contrary, though, it is precisely this excess and impracticality that argues for poetry’s relevance.

Living, writing, and working in publishing in Las Vegas, where Interim is based, is an experience, oddly enough, in subtle contrasts. Endlessly identical strip malls beset you on all sides, but often, and unexpectedly, they contain the city’s most dynamic cultural spaces: art galleries, used bookstores, theaters, world-class restaurants. The Strip, the city’s great “known unknown,” is far glitzier and labyrinthine than imagination should allow. The airport is a bright white field in the center of town, the obsidian gleam of the Luxor pyramid just across from the terminals, and all of this only minutes from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus. What makes Las Vegas so strange, though, is that surrounding and punctuating this spectacular architectural spill are equally spectacular desert dunes, sandstone canyon lands, mountains, and arroyos: the “other Vegas” as it’s fondly known to the city’s two million local residents. Because of the particularly energetic ways in which these territories compete for attention and for space, what at first seems like a baffling and unwelcome place to write and to publish poetry proves to be one of the best possible places for it. Interim, then, is both reflective and projective in its mission and its advocacy. It is a journal of place, and of places, a forum, in print and online, that was founded on and that supports poetic vision and envisioning.

MB: Interim’s history dates back to 1944, when poet Wilber Stevens founded the journal while studying English literature in Seattle. Stevens called the journal Interim because he wanted to emphasize a sense of life unresolved and unfinished. How can poets writing today forcefully engage the sense of uninterrupted hiatus Stevens envisioned? Moreover, what are the duties of poets writing during progressively uncertain times?

CK: Stevens didn’t engage an uninterrupted hiatus, which is a suspension of activity. He engaged something that is true in time, the interim, which is the place we all live, like it or not. The meantime and the meanwhile, a place at each edge of a moment. In 1944, World War II had been going on for six years, and was just about to expand the fight to the Pacific. The life of countries changes dramatically when they are at war, because people become more aware of the conditional nature of time, and of the thin and unknowable line between life and death. Everyone had to go to that war, so it follows that everyone was involved, directly or indirectly, and the sense of life unresolved and unfinished was tangible: in the casualty lists, in the absence of family and friends serving.

So this was the zeitgeist in which Interim came to be.

The uncertainties of our time are different, aren’t they? We still seem to be in a civil war, one that wasn’t resolved in the 19th century, and the public sphere is increasingly dominated by minority forces, i.e., the 1% who benefit from the economic woes of everyone else, the minority faction in the Republican party that has in the past few years held the country hostage by effectively closing the government over its political and economic agenda. There’s no overriding the notion of us in the United States in our present interim.

This is probably as positive as it is negative, because the idea of union that drove our ideas of ourselves is part of the reason so many of us have been taken advantage of. Every generation of poets has to look at the ideas that formed them, and take what is good, and abandon, replace, or revise what is bad. The Objectivists, the Black Mountain, New York School, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets—they all actively engaged this dynamics in their own ways, in their own interim.

All of us who have come after are more comfortable with indeterminacy because of the work those poets did. There are countless younger poets who are working through the possibilities of the poem in the present, having absorbed the fact, as Creeley said, that “[h]ere / is where / There is.” Time is real. Whatever is solid from the past can only be understood in the present, which is constant.

MB: As a journal based in Las Vegas, a city not known for its burgeoning literary scene, what role does place play in Interim’s mission and in its approach to poetry and poetics? Is place even a consideration for literary journals in our age of new media and daily online dislocations?

CK: Las Vegas is important in the sense that it is a simulacrum of every other place and this is where Interim is put together, by me and a constantly changing cast of younger poets from all over this country and others: India, Ireland, etc. This makes it a perfect medium for the dislocation of which you speak. If you believe in location, you might as well be a realtor!

The sense of the magazine’s mission is constantly changing, based on the experiences and interests of the people at hand at a given time. We’ve had a lot of guest editors over time too. There’s also the fact that Las Vegas is a desert, and will remain a desert, which is alive underground, long after humans will be able to live here (or perhaps it will be beachfront property after California falls into the ocean...).

I’ve never been able to fool myself that I understand Las Vegas, which is how most other places build identities, through people’s sense of a We imposed upon a place, which really has more to do with the people than the place: the anthropomorphizing of a physical space.

MB: One of the largest issues of Interim to date was devoted to eco-poetics. There is a well-documented connection between poets and ecologists in the 20th century. We can look to poets such as Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, and Julianna Spahr as examples. For you as a poet and as an editor, is there a necessary interconnection between poetry and ecology? How might publishers promote this connection and better foster it?

CK: There’s probably never been a more important time for poetry to interface with ecology. The physical life of our planet is under threat, by machines people made for the progress of people. The sky has been renamed air space, oceans are dying, bees are disappearing.

Because the 20th century was made in part by the 19th, you have to add Whitman, as a negative example unfortunately, in his “Song of the Redwood Tree,” and Thoreau as a positive force for nature. Also William Carlos Williams, especially in “Spring and All.” Robinson Jeffers, Adrienne Rich, Alice Notley, Brenda Hillman, Eleni Sikelianos, and others, including me, who began writing near the end of the 20th century and came into maturity in the 21st, which was so very strange.

Talk about dislocation! We couldn’t even call any century “ours.” This recognition of the precariousness of states of being, and of place, informs all of my poetry, and pushes me toward writers who feel it, too, and who write as a form of action.

MB: Many past issues of Interim have been themed. One notable example is Volume 23, which is devoted to the poetry and poetics of Alice Notley. It seems rare that a contemporary literary journal would devote an entire issue of criticism, essays and ephemera to a living poet. How did this project come about, and what do you see as its larger resonances for the journal’s readership and the writers for which the journal regularly provides a forum? Might this be a model for broader connections between journals in general and their readers and contributors?

CK: I know that New American Writing has devoted issues to groups of poets, as in the most recent issue devoted to Mexican poets. The Denver Quarterly did a special issue on James Schuyler right before he died. I devoted the issue to Alice Notley because I think she is one of the most important poets writing today.

I wrote to her without ever having met her, and we had a three-year conversation by email. That’s how the issue started. And then I went to the Mandeville library at the University of California, San Diego to see her papers and artwork, and I used a painting of hers for the cover of the issue. It was a fortuitous thing that other writers, mostly young women, were doing work on Notley’s oeuvre at just this time, so I was able to get a chapter of Maggie Nelson’s book on the women of the New York school before it came out, and also Susan McCabe’s wonderful essay on Descent of Alette.

At the Mandeville, I also had access to Notley’s letters and collaborations, with Joe Brainard for one, Ginsberg for another.

I think one of the most important aspects of the issue was to see to what extent Notley’s work took place in context of larger schools and time periods of poetry. Her early work engaged Williams, her middle work the New York school, and her ongoing project continues to chart women’s history. That cross-pollination is beautiful, and, I believe, essential to the art, and to the relevance of any literary magazine.

MB: Another distinguishing feature of Interim is that it publishes hybrid forms and belles lettres. How do you gauge the significance of unclassified forms as an editor? What poetics are arising in the space(s) of these forms? Are these cross-genre works (re)shaping the publishing landscape? If so, how and in what ways?

CK: I always say anything I like to read is poetry. So that’s how I gauge the significance of unclassified forms, i.e., Is it poetry? Does it have the heart of the matter at stake? The poetics that arise from the space of these forms are the space(s) of particular histories. One piece in particular speaks to this, a condensation of poems by Lorine Niedecker by the Indian poet Mani Rao, whose own poems chart a spiritual quest, which drove her to quit her job as a vice-president of a cable company in Hong Kong to come to Las Vegas and study poetry. The collision of East and West resides in her reshaping of Niedecker’s work.

The publishing landscape is being shaped more by the absence of the book, in favor of the e-reader, the tablet, etc. How we receive our reading has changed forever. Reading itself is now a cross-genre activity.

Michael Berger lives in Las Vegas. He is one of the founders of The Iron Garters art collective. Some of his other work can be found at The Rumpus, Pank, Word Riot, Dogwood, The Bolt, and Whiskey Island.  A collection of his essays, Ravish the Republic, was published by Punctum Books in 2015.