Interview with Russell Jaffe
Author of This Super Doom I Aver (Poets Democracy, 2013)
Interview by Matthe Guenette
For those yet to read This Super Doom I Aver, discuss the choices you made regarding language, and of some of the possible purpose(s) for what might be called a “mad-lib” form.
Leaving gaps in the text is like leaving little portals to other potential realities, as far as I’m concerned, through which readers can do really trippy things with the universe of the actual book. It’s especially fun for readings. That’s the movement I personally have the most fun with—it’s so much fun at readings to get people involved in the poems and see what happens, how it changes the tone, how people react; I mostly do readings, at least now, or through my “poetry career” so far, for people who are “poetry people,” meaning they go to decent amounts of readings and are familiar with contemporary journals and stuff like that. It’s extra fun when I do readings for people who aren’t poetry people, readings for friends’ students or at bookstores or events centers where the audience enjoys art and culture and events that promote those things but don’t read a lot of poetry, and seeing how they participate and what it means to them is the most fun. They see so much possibility and it makes the experience a lot of fun, and I like having fun at readings. Movement in these poems can rocket ahead or be jammed and frozen by the mad libs, which I think is a lot like time itself: something we perceive, but might not really exist as we conventionally know it.
This Super Doom I Aver is a gathering of options and controls. In a book where both narrative and lyric elements are determined by audience, how would you describe the relationship between these two poetic modes?
The illusion of control is something I was and am fixated on, and how it functions in this book, I think, is super fun. It’s sort of like the cascade effect of looking in a mirror with another mirror behind you, creating infinite images within images—when you do this book, it seems like you have control, but you don’t, because I have laid out the suggestions! But wait, isn’t that what control IS? So you DO have control. Or are the unanswerable/suggested mad libs just ways of not actually giving control, but suggesting the reader sort of take a seat? See what I mean?!
This book, for me, has a lot of autobiographical stuff, and I think that, like real life, people mean so much to us, and not just how they interact with us, but how we think of them or remember them. So there are two versions of reality about the book itself, not just the text: the experience it creates being read aloud, and the experience of intimacy the reader takes with it. Will they fill it out? Will they leave it blank? Will they think of me, the author, or themselves? They become the book. And this is not unique to my book. I think it’s a way of manifesting how one reads a book in general—not just the book, but the where, the how, the occasion.
These poems are informed by a sense of morbid autobiographical glee and “boyesque” vulnerability. Could you talk more about this “boyesque” personality?
The “boyesque,” I thought a lot about that after reading from the Gurlesque anthology Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg edited. The “boyesque” is not so much about being aloof or wild or some kind of gender thing as much as it is how I see boyishness, something that, for me, at least, is about whimsy and play and also not having feelings or trying to bury or mask feelings under pop culture. Just like gurlesque focuses on the femme and the grotesque, layers of things that produce emotions like radiation from them, the boyesque in the book is fun and funny and also macabre and trying to replace feelings of intimacy and loss with objects and memories of pop culture. So I see these poems as poems that love damnation in every way, shape, and form. Every ridiculous life decision or moment spent at shrines of objects is polished up so it can shine.
The danger for a collection like this—regardless of its variety and energy—is that might be mistaken for a purely formal exercise. How do you hope readers react to This Super Doom I Aver?
The brain is a muscle that needs exercise like all muscles do, and I agree with your agreement that a formal exercise would be a mistake, but only if that exercise is a chore. Poets I've admired have said that your first book should be really good, and I think we all hope for that, but I want my book to be fun above all else. I'd like readers to read the book and experience something in poetry they've never seen before, and whatever they react to--the form, or the energy, or the abstract narratives or the strings of ideas like fruit loop necklaces--I hope they feel they had a wild time.