Goby’s Journal: Interview with Toby Altman from 2011


In 2011, I wrote a chapbook, self-published (if you can call Kinkos generated pages, “published”); I called it, Overriding Genesis– from the Hebrew text of the 1st creation story in the book of Genesis.

In transcribing pages from the journal, I found a reference to this interview–which I’d totally forgotten, from Damask Press, on the occasion of their publishing pages from a longer poem, Chronos Chronic Kairos, as a chapbook. Damask Interviews: Jacob RussellThis was published on September 16, 2011… the day before the first day of Occupy Wall Street.

The text of the interview following the break

Lately, I’ve kept Jacob Russell’s Overriding Genesis by my bedside. It’s a slim book: just twenty pages of sparse, quick verse. But in that small space, Russell manages to link the Market-Frankford Line (in Philadelphia) to the creation of the world. In his pocket-sized metaphysical epic, the El is the EL, the singular, rattling force that shaped everything in its own image. (Though Russell’s El is sly and profane; “So fucking good” El says, surveying his work).

Russell’s poetry often starts with plain, bored, workaday Philadelphia, and proceeds to unearth the mysterious in it. He writes with unquenchable wonder, wonder which he carries into his daily life, as a shaman of the Broad Street Line. Damask sat down with him to talk about the collection, which recently sold out.

Damask Press (DP): Talk about the relationship between this chapbook and the rest of your work. Most of the poems that you publish and read are part of a long, largely autobiographical piece called Poem to the End of My Days. Is this chapbook a slice of the Poem to the End of My Days or is it something separate?

Jacob Russell (JR): Poem to the End of My Days is something new for me. I wrote some 275 poems in the last two years. I’ve never been so productive. Partly telling myself, let them come, let them be, don’t waste time trying to fix the bad ones—enough to recognize what’s wrong and get on with writing the next one. This worked pretty well. Got so I could count on coming up with three or four a month that clicked for me.  But a lot of those orphans—they had something, felt like they were part of something larger. Maybe their failure was in not being able to stand on their own. I was getting poems published, but (not unusual) they weren’t often the ones I thought were my best, while many of the pieces I thought represented the very heart of what I wanted to do were rejected, again and again. So what’s going on?

Something was being missed, something that I could see but wasn’t there for the reader. Maybe, I thought—they share the same problem as those orphans… they don’t work because they aren’t, and never were, stand-alone one-of-a-kind poems. I looked at how I’d been writing—where one poem became the chrysalis of the next and the next in a continuous stream where the generative connection had come to be more important than closure. It occurred to me—and I  wrote as I was thinking this through, the first lines of Poem to the End of My Days, that every poet worthy of the title writes but a single poem in a lifetime—and that was the beginning. Hardly an original insight, but if this is true, I asked—then why not structure the rest of what I do to reflect that?  My intention now is that everything I write become a part of this single continuous work… the end of which, I imagine like the end of Bach’s Art of the Fugue.

Overriding Genesis, along with my urban pilgrimage poem and three other long ‘observation poems” stand as harbingers for me of where I was heading.

DP: Part of what motivates my question is the substantial stylistic differences between this chapbook and some of your other poems. The lines are very short; the arc of the poem is relatively contained. Whereas lots (though not all) of Poem to the End of My Days is written in blocks of prose; and the scope of the poem is enormous. Talk about those differences in style; what motivates your stylistic choices in different parts of your work?

JR: At this point, I have three volumes of Poem to the End of My Days. The style you’re thinking of is characteristic of much of the first set or ‘rondo’ of Book One, somewhat less of the second set, and not much at all of the last two. In the last set of Book One, Talking to Trees, I introduced blocks of critical commentary, and this has become an important part of this work. The third set of book three, “Lost Occasions” is made up entirely of two & three line fragments.

I should give a quick description of the structure of the books in Poem to the End of My Days. Each book has 4 to 5 sets, or ‘rondos.’ A rondo being a musical form of at least three major themes (often in different keys and tempi) interspersed with related but subordinate themes & motifs. By taking up threads from earlier themes and weaving them into a developing semi-narrative, I seek to emphasize the idea (my single ‘constraint’) of this as a single, organic work, using ‘organic’ with a rather precise connotation: as an organism which resists entropy by re-generation, incorporating environmental elements and internal changes into an evolving autopoietic recapitulation of its always hidden (or withdrawn) essential being. ( I draw here on the exciting new philosophical ontological project—I think best exemplified by Levi Bryant of the blog, Larval Subjects <http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/&gt;).

Stylistic variations … this is so complicated, something I’m aware of, that I think about every line I write, but not ready to analyze. There is always a play for me between rhythmic enchantment and an even stronger resistance to it. The prose blocks would be the pole most removed from musical enchantment. I wrote a bit about this in my Starlight interviewhttp://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com/2011/08/starlight-philadelphia-interviews-jacob.html.

DP: The El is often a mis-en-scene for your poems. Talk about why–what about the El makes it so rich for poetry? (I slyly suggesting the generative power you assign to El in Overriding Genesis is mimetic of the El’s power for making poetry. You may want to confirm or deny this).

JR: For almost ten years, after I had my ‘conversion’ in April of 1988… that I would spend the rest of my days attempting to write—to leave behind a body of work, I made a sort-of-a-living working through temp agencies. I lived in the Northeast then… and commuted every day by bus and El. I wrote hundreds of pages in my journals on those commutes. I taught myself to observe… to remind myself that every moment, every commute… was never the same, always new. I wrote whole stories riding the El. Add to that—Emily Dickinson’s use of the word, ‘Transport,’ and my own mystical disposition…

DP: Overriding Genesis is a creation epic–or at least, a retelling of the Jewish creation myth. But unlike the source, the world which is created in OG seems already fallen–filthy and urban, filled with commuters, run-down houses and people looking for work. In other words, we end it much the same space as we started; the poem “reshapes waking sense,” but it doesn’t depart from waking sense. That’s an interesting balancing act; you are at once an urban and a pastoral poet, I think. Talk about striking that balance: about bending your source material, which is pastoral and religious, to your setting, which is urban and secular.

JR: Genesis… both the creation stories, are poems, aren’t they—after you filter out the religious obligation to believe in their objective reality? Myth-poems. Writing. So writing a poem about one of the primal creation myths… can’t escape being about writing… poems, can it? I lived in an enchanted world as a child… as every child does, I suppose, if not beaten out of them before they begin. I learned very early to use this—a kind of power. I had no idea how to protect myself from the predatory playground violence that every child…certainly every male child,  has to learn to negotiate. To defend myself, I learned to cultivate friendships—by the power of fantasy. Friendships from those who know how to fight with fists, with the body (always, my clumsy alter-stranger). Which is to say, I was a mystic without knowing what that meant, and emerged from that childhood enchantment with a powerful religious inclination that it took years to understand… and more years to find the means to counter and overcome it. I want only to belong to this world, this world of things… but am never able to completely transform the wish to be …


You’ve touched on something here that drives all of my writing, but I’m not able to talk about outside of that.   Then, poetry begins and ends in the contradictions, doesn’t it? Not LOGICAL contradictions… but of desire, of will.

DP: Is there a difference between the material creation which El performs and the sexual creation described on the first pg of the poem? (At the end of the poem, in an extraordinary gesture, El lies back and lights a cigarette, just like a spent lover; so I can’t help feeling that the two things are dancing around each other, or already wrapped up in one another).

JR: It’s all sexual, isn’t it? And yet, always more and other… the sexual betraying the ‘other,’ the ‘other’ translating the sexual into paths of horror & perversion… or visionary transcendence

DP: ”Apparent     appears the dance / of / Things” you write, toward the end of the poem. Part of the work of the poem is to take what is ordinary, worn-out, regular, and make it strange, fresh, newly made. I tend to think that this is the work of poetry, to dust things off a little bit. But what do you think? Are you restoring the world to its original freshness–or is its original freshness unrecoverable?

JR: The world is in no need of restoration. But we are. And what the world IS, its THUSNESS, is both a horror to our narcissistic fear of death and pain… and our only promise of peace, in  acceptance of the very things we fear. The REAL is both terrible beyond endurance, and our only hope. So we cover it over to survive, to get on with our lives… but the covering over will surely destroy us. Poetry is about truth–retrograde as that may sound… truth, as it may save us, as it may offer us a way to save ourselves… the way Lucretius.. that most extraordinary observer of reality.. understood it. Saved… not from death, but from self-deception, and from global self-destruction. Through pleasure… through accepting what gives us and others, pleasure… and does no harm… in this is the way of life.

Jacob Russell was born in Chicago a long time ago. He arrived in Philly on a Vespa motor scooter in 1964 and never found the exit. He’s been wandering the streets of Philly every since searching for Found Things. Spirit Stick says: “Found Things may be given shelter, but lose all their powers if possessed.” Spirit Stick says: “Found Things can never be lost–were you to discard all Things you claim to own–that they be Found & granted their freedom, we might yet save ourselves from self-destruction.”

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