Five Questions with KC Trommer

KC TROMMER is a poet and collage artist based out of New York City. Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, Poetry East, MARGIE and The Antioch Review, among other journals, and more recently in Sycamore Review. KC was kind enough to answer a few questions about her poetry and work with other visual arts. — Mario Chard, Poetry Editor

SR: “The Mechanism of Pleasure” recently appeared in our Winter/Spring 2009 issue. Would you mind telling us a little more “about” the poem, something of its genesis perhaps?

I was visiting with my friend in her summer camp at the tip-top of New York State, near Plattsburgh, when she gave me the idea for the poem. I hadn’t seen her for a number of years and, in the intervening time, she had had to undergo brain surgery to remove a tumor. We were having an epic talk, during which she told me about her surgery, the description of which is the substance of the poem.

When patients undergo certain kinds of brain surgery, they are kept awake, as there are no nerve endings in the brain. This is also as a means of ensuring that the patient is doing well when the surgeons are working in a particularly sensitive area. My friend’s doctors knew that they would be removing a tumor that was located in the pleasure center of the brain, and that she would likely have an orgasm while she was on the table while they worked, but they had not warned her about this. She would have had to have undergone the surgery anyway, but they ought to have given her that information and let her make some attempt to prepare herself. She described to me how the atmosphere in the room changed as they worked, with the doctors huddling in a ring above her to see when she would orgasm. After she noticed them inching closer to her, she experienced through her whole body a completely stunning orgasm, over which she had no control, and for which she had many witnesses.

What she described was so unusual that I kept thinking about it, but the idea to write a poem about it came much later than when she initially related the story to me. At the time, I was just happy that she was alive and well, and I was upset that her doctors had denied her this critical piece of information. Of particular interest to me was the juxtaposition of the clinical setting with what ought to have been a private experience; I was also interested in issue of control—that she had had no control over the situation nor over herself, that she was in every way at the mercy of her doctors, who themselves failed to maintain a clinical distance during such a sensitive moment.

My attempt to write about what she had described to me from outside the experience—from the standpoint of an observer—came out flat. When I’m having trouble with a poem, I try to write from more than one perspective, to see which one feels true to what I am describing or which allows me to evoke the emotion I want to convey. I tried writing the poem from the table, and it seemed to work. I also had helpful editorial input from the poet and editor Ellen Wehle in order to arrive at final draft. I think of this poem as my friend’s and not mine, and sent the poem to her to make sure that it was acceptable to her that I send it out, which she said it was.

SR:  What would you say divides or unites your role as both a poet and collage artist? Is it difficult to move between one or the other? In the creation of your art, how do you determine which medium to use?

Poetry and collage are inexplicably linked: poets take seemingly irreconcilable images, ideas, and experiences and try to yoke them together to enact on the page a work that makes sense of them. The collage artist does the same, albeit with different materials. In my experience, the same process applies to the making of poetry as does to the making of collage: good poems, like good works of art, are the end result of many failed attempts, which themselves are usually the result of the effort to impose the maker’s will on the thing made.

Since I was just talking about the brain and pleasure, I feel compelled to mention that I find the process of making collages almost always immensely pleasurable and the process of writing poems both alternately pleasurable—I’m thinking of the beautiful moment when I write a poem that has been simmering in me for a while, just before I show it to anyone, when I’m still in love with it—and brutal. (I’ll spare you my ready litany of self-criticism.) I think it’s worth mentioning that I probably feel this way because the visual art occupies the right hemisphere of the brain, while writing involves the left, the area that governs language and critical thought. I probably just need to hang out on the right side of my brain more.

The fact that collage is more enjoyable to me makes me suspicious of it, and I can’t help but wonder if I find it so because I just don’t have the same standards for collage as I do for poetry, since I have not been making visual art with the same dedication that I’ve been applying to the making of poems—and my crusty, old New Englandy-self thinks that things that are hard are more worthy of my time. I find that I’m happier with the collages that I’ve done than with many of my poems, which I often return to and rough up and pare down and just generally bully around. Poor things.  Maybe I should stop writing this now and go make a collage.

SR: What is the significance of being “New York City-based”? Is a notion of “place” important to your poetry?

I mostly put New York in the title to scare people. (Maybe a little.) And to sound cool. (O yeah.) If anything, I likely wrote NYC-based as a reflex, having created the site once I moved back after a few dismal years in Michigan where I felt dismally about any number of things.

There’s a cachet to saying New York City-based, as if I had to elbow a bunch of other poets and collage artists out of my way to make my mark. But the truth is that most of us in New York are in Brooklyn or Queens, mucking around and making things. It’s a big people soup here, so I reached up out of the broth to pin my name on the map.

When I was younger I used to reject the idea of place, the way that some younger poets think that, by being general, they appeal to everyone, but I’ve gotten far away from that idea and enjoy dropping the names of subway stops and other landmarks in poems, as little offerings. A long while ago, I remember reading the poem “Gaspé” from the collection Rain, which was written by my first teacher, the excellent poet William Carpenter, and feeling then that the poem was less effective for being about a place, which was silly of me. That just reflected my own discomfort with where I was at the time. Now I find that there is something wonderful when I come across a poem that mentions a place I know or which I’ve visited; it gives me a little thrill. The poem should work on other levels, of course, but I have started wanting to be connected with where I am, and that’s reflected in the poems I’ve been writing lately.

SR: Do you view the Internet, and in particular its capacity for the promotion and proliferation of one’s art, as something beneficial to poets today?

When I was in Michigan, I had the chance to work with superstar proto-Forker Thylias Moss (creator of the theory of Limited Fork Poetics) as she elucidated the benefits of moving text and combining text with image and sound—work that is best realized on the Web. I began working on videopoems, which, despite their clunky name, are interesting ways of realizing a poem in a new space. Writing in this way, a process which involves taking the text and considering how to bring new sounds and images to inform the poem, rather than offering a didactic interpretation of it, allowed me to directly use my visual arts background and to consider new ways in which a poem can be written, transmitted, and understood.

The Web offers such amazing possibilities for poetry, not only in terms of redefining poetry—since I love to sit with a book of poems and experience poetry in a traditional way—but also to expand our understanding of what constitutes a poem and the audience for poetry. And I love that hyperlinks work like secular advent calendars, opening into other worlds, ideas, andimages.

I also love how easy it is for work to be shared online, and I almost prefer when my poetry appears online instead of in print, since the work has a better chance of being read and because writing is, in my view, about communication—a notion that is not always in vogue in some poetic quarters. While the poem may lose some sense of legitimacy for not being in print, though that notion is abating, it gains readership. It’s wonderful to have work in print journals like Sycamore Review, of course, but I love when people tell me that they’ve read my work online where I know it’s accessible for quite a long time to anyone who is interested. (Editor’s Note: KC’s poem, “Mechanism of Pleasure,” is available online here.)

The site is a virtual collection of publications and images. Setting up the site has had nothing but a positive effect on my writing, and has given me a small (if completely artificial) sense of legitimacy as a poet and an artist. These identities are always somewhat fragile, particularly when the rejections roll in or when I met yet another person who says that they don’t read poetry, or see that someone would rather buy earrings than a print or a photograph. (I love earrings just as much as the next girl, but I love art more.)

As much as I love the Web and its dizzying pile of possibilities, I still like to approach poetry in the traditional way: to go to readings, to read collections, and to memorize and recite poems. The traditionalist and the progressivist in me have been getting along well, each offering the other a little space, and accepting the other’s terms. Because I’m not a digital native, I am able to enjoy both possibilities and don’t really feel the need to chose one over the other. I just move from house to house.

SR: Finally, you mention you have completed or are working on two collections of poetry–the first of these titledThe Hasp Tongue. To which does “The Mechanism of Pleasure” belong? Is there any kind of theme or “arc” (perhaps some aspect found in “The Mechanism of Pleasure”) that runs through the collection?

The structure of The Hasp Tongue was bedeviling me for a long while. A nice-sounding bit of wisdom is that a poet should organize a collection along an emotional arc, but the dirty truth is that the poetry publishing world (contests, contests, contests) almost demands that the first ten to twenty pages of a collection be a cluster of a poet’s strongest poems, regardless of how they fit into the manuscript as a whole, in order to maintain the screener’s good will.

For a while, I just kept frontloading the book with the poems I thought were best, to no happy end. This spring, when I managed the final shuffle, I shaped the collection thematically, with an emphasis on the variety of the kinds of poems I write. For good or for ill, there’s a lot of sex (though not necessarily sexy sex) in The Hasp Tongue. “The Mechanism of Pleasure” is in that collection and possibly falls under the “for ill” heading.

The collection’s title is taken from a poem of the same name, which describes the lamprey eel, a creature that uses its tongue to affix itself to the side of its prey in order to feed. It seemed such an ugly and gruesome image, one that expresses desperation and tenacity, and it fit with many of the poems which deal in some way or another with the idea of the act of speaking, either in order to make sense of the world or as a means of articulating emotion. It’s also intended as a play on being a sharp wit with an even sharper tongue. (Guilty.)