Some guy named Percy Shelley once said poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” So I’m thinking maybe Percy’s been hanging out in Canton, Ohio with Andrew Rihn, author of the inventive new poetry collection, America Plops and Fizzes from sunnyoutside press.
the best things
Rihn’s no Ivory Tower purist or coffee house boor. Sure, he’s got the English degree from Kent State and six chapbooks to his name but as he told me, “My politics are reflected in my writing. Much of my writing deals with working class issues.” Putting his values into practice, Rihn has run creative writing workshops in a domestic violence shelter and currently volunteers reading manuscripts for a non-profit (Reentry Bridge Network) that connects prisoners with the performing arts. (Reentry Bridge Network publishes four books per year of prisoner’s writing.)
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“The concept of ‘responding’ is a central one in my writing and activism,” explains Rihn and the 50 poems in America Plops and Fizzes, to me, read not only as “response” but also as a provocation to respond. Described as deviating to the “edge of formlessness,” Rihn’s latest collection (and the excellent, complementary artwork by David Munson) seems to build a momentum as you read through it—the poems sneaking up on you, gaining steam, daring you to stop and contemplate…and perhaps even take action?
to the sparring
“Being a writer is such a privilege,” says Rihn, “and the ability to respond is just one of the ways to fulfill the responsibility that comes along with it.”
Our conversation went a little something like this:
Mickey Z.: America Plops and Fizzes kinda reminds of the story about when an art writer declared that Jackson Pollock’s paintings lacked a beginning or an end and Pollock replied, “He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.” Did you embrace of “no form” by design or by natural process?
Andrew Rihn: By both, actually. America Plops and Fizzes was written while I was an undergraduate at Kent State, and one of the important tasks for writing instructors is to expose their students to a diversity of forms. Good students are able to learn these forms, but good writers must also I think experience a sense of un-learning, that is, embracing these forms in different ways. I was very conscious of forms like haiku and haibun, as well as less formal styles like aphorisms and contemporary advertising slogans, but the decision to blur and blend was a very natural one.
Having “no form” implies the existence of form, and vice versa. I find that tension fundamental to language, and it is made especially visible in creative writing. Humans seem to have an innate impulse towards language, but the languages we create are of course human systems, and imperfect. They’re terrific because they make our thoughts visible; at the same time, structuring our thoughts imposes limits on them as well. So there’s a regulatory function to any formal structure.
But as David Munson’s artwork in the book illustrates, sometimes that regulation can be a good thing.
MZ: Patti Smith once said the role of the poet was that of a Paul Revere of sorts; e.g., not necessarily about solutions but all about waking up the populace. Any thoughts on that appraisal?
AR: I think that’s a wonderful description! Poetry is a rhetoric: a way of writing and speaking that shapes the way we interact with the world. It’s a way of thinking. In that regard, it’s the opposite of advertising. Good poetry, like good food, is a slow process. It takes time to digest; it gives you strength. But we’re inundated with junk food – empty calories, empty words. Fast food, Twitter updates, celebrity marriages. We’re left, individually and culturally, bloated, weak, and constipated.
MZ: But do you see any chance of us moving to a more nutritious, poetry-based diet? Perhaps one day, long after industrial civilization has imploded, humans will live a modern version of the clan or village-based life and this would be more conducive to storytelling?
AR: I think a balanced diet should include a bit of poetry, but also some fiction. And non-fiction: histories, biographies, academics, manifestos. I’m not a nutritionist, but I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to limit our diets to just one thing. We need painting, and music, and theatre, too. I don’t know how exactly an arts-based civilization would function, but it would be a welcome change from ours based on property, militarization, and surveillance.
Poems will never be as flippant as the “Twinkie defense,” or pad the profit margins like a marketing campaign. A poem will never have the same impact as a bomb, but I’m pretty comfortable with that.
MZ: If not the impact of a bomb, what then did you have in mind as you compiled America Plops and Fizzes in terms of both choosing poems and the order they appear in and potential reader response?
AR: At his sexiest, and most subversive, the poet Pablo Neruda said “I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees.” That’s the kind of explosion I am interested in. Of course, Neruda said it in Spanish so most of us in the US need a translator to read his poems. But that’s something I wanted to capture in this book as well: translation, negotiation, reconstruction.
Our memories are always selective – just ask a racist about the cause of the Civil War – but in critically reflecting upon our experiences we can begin to see the spaces where real, potentially radical options existed. What I hope these poems will do is reconstruct, little by little, the reader’s own experience, the way bricks from a torn down wall can be used to build something new.
It is one thing to know where you have been and where you’re heading, and that’s vital, but is something altogether different to look at where you could have been, where you could be going. So it’s that moment of stepping forward, after the book has been read and put down, that I’m most interested in. I want to encourage people to disrupt the paths of least resistance – the political, the social, the personal – and to do so creatively, emphatically, and with love.
MZ: One last thing – since you suggest it in your new book – what is the poet’s equivalent to a sparring partner?
AR: A boxer’s sonnet, maybe. A martial artist in blank verse.