My Personal Onion: An Interview with Eric Lorberer
By Hallie Cole Wiederholt
Eric Lorberer is the editor and executive director of Rain Taxi Review of Books. Rain Taxi is a quarterly publication that reviews books from all across the literary landscape.
Eric grew up and was educated on the east coast. It wasn’t until after graduate school that he found his way to the Twin Cities, which he now calls home. Lorberer’s own creative work has been widely published and some of his poems can be found in the following journals: American Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Conduit, and Volt.
This interview took place in a Minneapolis coffee shop on a July afternoon and was followed by the launch party for dislocate journal, where Eric read from his poetry.
SLEET: Let’s start with how Rain Taxi was named. I did some online digging and couldn’t find the meaning behind it. Could you enlighten me?
ERIC LORBERER: Sure. We actually used to keep it a secret, partly because we wanted an imagistic name that would convey a certain surrealist energy… but the fact is, there are no secrets on the Internet. So here you go: the name is sort of in homage to two of our patron saints, Salvador Dali and Tom Waits. Dali has a sculptural piece called Rainy Taxi—it features a mannequin sitting in the back seat of a cab, and basically he rigged plumbing to it so that when you look in the window you see it’s raining on the inside—but it got shortened to Rain Taxi because of Tom Waits’ album Rain Dogs. The meter’s better (no pun intended on “meter”).
SLEET: I’m curious what doors Rain Taxi has opened for you. Especially because coming into it, from what I understand, you hopped on the board of directors and then it took off from there. Or maybe that isn’t accurate?
EL: No, that’s pretty accurate. The organization was started by three people: Randall Heath, Carolyn Kuebler, and David Caligari—but David left before the first issue came out, leaving Randall and Carolyn needing a third person to keep things legal and to help the organization grow. I’d met them during the launch and we hit it off, so they invited me onto the board and the three of us nurtured it together from there, adding more collaborators and more reviewers and design staff and so forth. If you’re asking what doors it opened for me personally, though, I think the paths have been pretty separate. I hope it has opened doors in the minds of readers and in the literary community—as Rain Taxi grew, I think we gained more followers and more respect, and we were able to have more of an impact through our various projects—not only the magazine, but the reading series and the Twin Cities Book Festival, those crazy, written-word-centric things that we still keep rolling out—but I wouldn’t say it opened doors for me personally, maybe it’s even closed some. I think some people have the mistaken notion that publishing is all built on cronyism or something, but that hasn’t been my experience. I think there is even a slight prejudice out there that writers who take jobs as editors are somehow not good enough, not fully devoted to their own writing or something … and it’s true, it takes a lot of creative energy to edit other people’s writing. I still write a great deal, but for the most part I don’t try to get it published.
SLEET: One thing that comes to mind is the introduction you gave for Anne Carson when she came to the Walker Art Center last winter. I wonder if part of the reason you were able to do that is because of your involvement with Rain Taxi.
EL: Oh—well, I’m not sure I am getting your question exactly right, but that event was a co-sponsored program by the Walker Art Center and Rain Taxi, part of a collaborative series we have going called “Free Verse”—so as part of my official duties for that, I gave the introduction, and certainly we worked with Anne, as we have with many authors, to design the program. We have presented probably close to 300 writers through our various event series at this point, and in general that is a very rewarding part of our practice, to present contemporary literature as a live and vibrant thing.
SLEET: What has surprised you most about your journey with Rain Taxi?
EL: Well, this may reveal how hopelessly naïve I am, but I’m continually surprised that so many people are so desperate for attention.
SLEET: You mean authors?
EL: Yeah, exactly—some people seem to live and die by whether their book is going to get reviewed! I understand that impulse, and yet, people have to realize that there are more books published than ever, and that’s more true every year.
SLEET: Yet, literacy rates are going down.
EL: And that may be a related problem, actually—that’s something we could try to unpack—but there are so many really good books of poetry and fiction (and a lot of bad ones too, as always) that even a magazine like ours that’s dedicated to producing a lot of commentary and taking in a wide swath of the spectrum, we can’t get to even a fraction of it. No journal can, at this point, it’s just not physically possible. But writers seem to have an expectation that because they’ve published something interesting they are of course going to be reviewed … I’ve just been surprised by the intensity of emotion that often surrounds that expectation. Hopefully this doesn’t sound flippant, but my perspective is that each issue of Rain Taxi is merely a blurry snapshot of what is actually out there, and over time—you know, we’ve been around 17 years, and have got around to reviewing an awful lot of work—over time we’re creating a pretty vivid portrait of the literary landscape, its valleys and peaks and possibilities. The idea that there would be authors that we’d be “required” to cover doesn’t really match the kind of pleasurable chaos we’re hoping to reflect.
SLEET: As an editor, I imagine you are always living with other writers’ words and I was hoping you could comment on how that has influenced your own creative work. Also, how do you balance, or manage, the shift between the creative and the critical mindset?
EL: Well, let me tackle the second question first: I don’t think that there is a difference between the creative and critical mindset, at least not for me. My poetry is a kind of imagistic critique of what I observe, and criticism is simply a rhetorically tamer way to do the same thing. And part of that is to say, and this maybe goes back to the first question, that criticism—essay, review, these sort of forms that seem pretty straightforward—can be very exciting and very creative, because its creative energy is centered around the act of observing a text or textual dynamic. The challenge is to communicate the creativity of that act in eloquent language. I feel pretty certain that I’m as influenced, if that’s the word, by books of academic prose or essay writing as I am by poetry and fiction. Because I am a music lover, I specifically read a lot of music criticism, which gives me the opportunity to think critically about a non-linguistic form— and that process is something that influences my own work quite a lot. I am the same way with art monographs; reading and thinking about visual art triggers something in my brain that I don’t necessarily get from reading fiction and poetry, and then it affects my own creative output.
SLEET: Are you also a musician and a visual artist?
EL: No, I am terrible at those things. I’m the kind of person who can’t play a chord correctly and can’t draw a stick figure. But I will confess that I do those things in private, mostly to remind myself what it takes to use the forms and to be able to appreciate what I see and hear when others use those forms; and then of course, when I write about those art forms, I feel better able to communicate well about them. Not that I do this a lot, but this activity is also influential in my thought process and probably on my poetry in the end. Other than that, though I would say that one of the great pleasures of editing a magazine like Rain Taxi is that I get to see a great deal of new work that’s published, and I get to see it right when it’s published. I can’t say that I even read a small fraction of it in depth, but I do feel attuned to what’s happening in the creative writing landscape and I feel excited about it. It’s a great time. People are writing really well in all sorts of areas, and that too is a constant reminder and push to keep making new work oneself.
SLEET: How did you come to poetry, or how did poetry find you?
EL: Oh, it definitely found me. Actually it found me pretty early, as a child. I was the kind of grade school kid who made stories up, the kind of high school kid who would scribble poems instead of paying attention in math class … stuff like that. Fortunately I had teachers throughout who encouraged all this wayward behavior.
SLEET: Where did you grow up?
EL: I grew up in northern New Jersey, right outside New York City.
SLEET: And you went to graduate school in Amherst?
EL: Yes, I went to graduate school at University of Massachusetts, Amherst—so I basically spent all my formative years on the East coast; I only ended up in Minnesota after graduate school kind of by accident. But I was saying that fortunately I had teachers who encouraged my creative writing tendencies, and the way they encouraged that is by a) putting a lot of different kinds of writing in front of me to read, and b) showing me various forms and exercises in how to write. So poetry became for me a kind of inverse expression … it’s such an unobtrusive art form, and that’s part of the secret of its power. It takes no special tool besides a pencil and a piece of paper. It takes the most common material, a thing we use anyway for mundane purposes: language. But that is the challenge of it—to try to make art out of virtually nothing. There is something very exhilarating about the pure democracy of it, and that’s why I both love and hate it.
SLEET: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
EL: I wanted to be a teacher, a librarian, an archeologist … and I think that in a strange way I am a little bit of all of those, in having become an editor and a non-profit director. But yeah, the road not taken would probably see me in one of those disciplines.
SLEET: When I was doing a little research on your background, I found a short alumni profile of you on your undergraduate school’s web site. It said “What do you want to do with your English major?” and then it talked about what you’ve created with Rain Taxi. I am curious, as an undergraduate, what you actually thought you would do with your English Major.
EL: Oh, I supposed I thought I would be a teacher of some kind, except the older I got, the older student I wanted to teach—you know, when I was young I saw myself as a grade school or high school teacher, then as I progressed, I was more interested in college and graduate school teaching, and finally, I just sort of zoomed out of all of it—as I was in my last year at graduate school, I realized I didn’t actually want to be in this situation full time. Although I am very pleased to teach an adjunct class here and there, and equally pleased that I get invited to be a “guest speaker” at lots of different classes and conferences across the country. Whether it’s a one-day gig or a full semester (locally, I’ve taught undergraduate classes at Macalester College and graduate seminars at Hamline University), it’s interesting to be exposed to that environment. For me, academia is a great place, for all the clichéd reasons … and really, up until very late in graduate school, I thought I would be on the job market to get a teaching job. It wasn’t until it came time to apply for a job, that I thought, I don’t really want to do this full-time, I want to do something that’s a bit more grass roots, a bit messier, and definitely more involved with fostering literary practice and appreciation in a nonacademic setting. And those goals ended up being funneled into what Rain Taxi, as an organization, is about.
SLEET: Seeing that you were around poetry as a young person, are there certain poets who have been pillars for you over the years? Who are they and what it is about their work that you are drawn to?
EL: I’m your classic voracious reader: I read constantly, and I read a lot of different kinds of work, and I like a lot of different kinds of work—I assess a poem’s success less on whether it matches a “style” I like and more on whether it accomplishes something on the terms it announces for itself. So the poets I imbibed strongly at a young age are not necessarily a super cohesive bunch: I’ll list Richard Brautigan, Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg, Emily Dickinson, Charles Olson, Sylvia Plath, and Wallace Stevens to illustrate the point. Not quite a unified group, but I think all of them tap into something vast and ineffable about America and American expression … for the same reason I was attracted to prose by folks like Hawthorne and Fitzgerald. The ideas these writers offered were consistent with how I experienced the world—this country at this time—as a young person. As I got older, I became more exposed to different styles of poetry, and discovering writers in translation (especially the Spanish and French surrealists) was extremely important to me. But along the way I also developed a fondness for Icelandic sagas and Greek Epics, and began to root for the more innovative formalists out there. At the same time I became a lot more open to outliers in poetry, people like Larry Eigner and Cesar Vallejo and John Ashbery, whose work for me felt as much about the process of thinking/being as about “crafting” a text or recording some kind of vision. And that became a really important layer to my personal onion. I think that to be a serious reader today demands being open to really different styles and not holding everything to some sort of false standard of “good writing.” That said, there is certainly a difference between good writing and not so good writing. But I think that as readers we all take a unique journey in forming our sensibilities. For example, one of my latest and deepest passions is the work of Susan Howe, and what I love about her work is of a piece with what struck me about such disparate writers as Charles Olson and Richard Brautigan when I was twelve years old—it’s an extension of my own habit of thinking into the world, and that’s why it both feels useful and pleasurable.
SLEET: What traditions of poetry do you see your own work falling into? I did a lot of searching for your work online, and there isn’t a ton that I could access.
EL: That’s true.
SLEET: Is that on—, well, I guess I will just let you talk.
EL: Were you going to ask if that’s on purpose?
SLEET: Well, I know some people, like myself, don’t like to have things about me out there, if you know what I mean.
EL: For me that’s true, too—it’s not that I have a problem with things being published online, like this very piece, but with poetry … well, I guess I just prefer poems to be whispered in my ear rather than blown through the megaphone of the Internet. That’s why I love the chapbook as a medium, it’s the most intimate. And then layer on that the common problem that many people have, the risk of formatting errors and so forth—to me poetry is a plastic art, a visual art, a sculptural art, not a text that can be reformatted according to user preference. Anyway, I’m obviously old-fashioned, but I tend to put my poetry online very sparingly, even when asked.
SLEET: One reason I bring that up is because I am not as familiar with your creative work as I’d like to be, and for that, I am excited to hear you read tonight.
EL: Thanks, I think it will be fun—I’ll read some erasures and some new “disclosures” too. But I don’t want to get away from your original question about traditions. I think that in the most general sense, I am one of many people interested in negotiating what potential gaps there might be between lyric and language poetries. Between high art and low art. Between modernism and post-modernism. These are not academic issues for me, these are core realities of our contemporary psychology that poetry can help articulate. To be more specific, I am very much in a tradition that is descended from the surrealist impulse. One needs to be a little careful when talking about that, because surrealism is a historical movement and it’s so often divorced from its historical underpinnings in ways that aren’t always useful, and that lead most people to have a very two-dimensional view of it. That is probably a conversation for another time. But the ideas and the strategies derived from surrealism are still very exciting to me and I think the challenge for me, or any writer who is using them, is to connect them to our own moment in productive ways. On top of that, however, I am also very fascinated by form, which I mean in at least two ways. First, I often write in form, sonnets and pantoums and so forth, although I don’t think anyone would ever call me a formalist poet. More broadly I mean that sense of poetry as plastic art, as object, Williams’ “machine made of words”—to be able to express through artifice, that is an exhilarating part of composition for me.
SLEET: Did you say sonnets before?
SLEET: Shakespearean or Petrarchan?
EL: Well, I play with those conventional forms, but the point is we need to torque everything received toward the future: that is how I interpret Pound’s dictum to “make it new.” But I also consider form in the sense of architecture, rules, restraints—I use a lot of restraints when I write. I do a lot of erasures and that’s a kind of formal impulse, or a blend of the formal and visual impulse. And I give myself a lot of exercises and instructions to follow, at least for a while. For example, for the past month I have only been allowing myself to write poems from the last line up, meaning from the last line to the first—it’s an interesting exercise because different things happen if you say, “I am only going to compose in this way.” Of course I won’t do it forever, but I’ll do it for as long as it feels useful to do and as long as I can learn something from doing it.
SLEET: So does that mean you start with your last line, or do you start at the bottom of the page, or do you start 3 pages in…
EL: Right, start with the last line and move toward the first, for however long the poem requires; I’ve written poems of various lengths this way. It changes your thought pattern to attempt to build the piece backwards, because we are all so used to pointing our arrows in the forward direction, and that is logical, it’s the direction of logic. But to try to think backwards is interesting and very doable, because as I said the goal is to create some kind of effective artifice—so if you can imagine it from the end, you can start to visualize what the earlier parts are going to be like. I also think of it very architecturally, like I am creating these buildings: sometimes I make a shack, sometimes I make a house, and sometimes I make a skyscraper—I’m just doing it from the ground up rather then from the top down.
SLEET: The modest amount of poetry I have read of yours strikes me as very image-heavy, and I think of the image as connected to the fragment. Do you have a relationship to the fragment or feel like you utilize that in your own work?
EL: Yes, I do have a very deep, almost lustful, relationship to the fragment. As I feel it, the fragment is the unit of thought that matches how humans experience the world, and so not to sound pretentious about it, but negotiating the distance between the fragment and the sentence is really what I’m most interested in doing. The sentence is a falsehood, an artifice, but it is also civilization; the fragment is the primal act our brain actually performs. So as important as it is to work towards the civilized message, I feel it is equally important to honor the primordial sludge from which it came. For that reason I pay a lot of attention to how fragments behave and I shine the spotlight on that behavior in a great deal of my poetry. But wait, you had another question in there, you were saying…
SLEET: What are your thoughts on the fragment in poetry, in general? And then do you see that as a tool in your work?
EL: Oh, I think a lot of people are interested in this same thing. And while I’ve always had this impulse, for me this whole topic ratcheted up as a result of 9/11.
SLEET: In your own work?
EL: Yes, definitely. Everyone has a sort of “how 9/11 affected my writing” story, so I hate to even add to that, but the fact of the matter is, in my distress over that event, I felt—and this is similar to what I was saying about my predilection to assign myself exercises earlier—I felt so humiliated at the thought of writing complete sentences, so almost immoral, that for the period of a little over a year, I consciously obliterated every motion toward the sentence in my poems. I felt I really had to limit myself to working exclusively with fragments to deal with my own response to that horror. And I wrote about 450 poems like that, one of which I’ll read tonight and most of which have never seen the light of day. But it was an incredibly productive time for me and an incredibly important restriction to place on myself—because frankly, it helped me recover, it taught me how to speak again. And come to think of it, that is sort of an example of the kind of real issue that I think a stylistic choice in writing undertakes: it’s not just a kind of tool for me. It’s a decision about how to live.
SLEET: Are there one or two poets or books that you feel are working with the fragment that you really respond to or admire?
EL: Well, I mentioned Susan Howe earlier—again, it’s more historical accident than anything else, but after 9/11 I felt closer to her work. I had always admired her work but more on the basis of its adventurous technique, I hadn’t been cut to the bone in the way I was after 9/11, but when I went back and re-read the earlier material, it seemed like it was always pointing toward this discovery for me. Of course, her mastery of the fragment is in counterpoise to her mastery of the tight, taut sentence, which I think is one of the great achievements of contemporary poetry. But really, there are dozens of people I could name, dozens of moments, of fragments. Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath was a very early love for me and was no doubt instrumental in my thinking about this. There’s a James Tate poem called “Vallejo” that I love, as it kind of enacts the thought process of fragmentation without technically using any fragments; it’s also a soaring triumph of voice, of emotion, and that tension runs throughout Tate’s work. There’s a similar tension in Michael Palmer’s work, though with a far different tone. Peter Gizzi is a deft wielder of the fragment, as is Lyn Hejinian. Richard Brautigan developed amazing strings of paratactic metaphors, which shows a thorough understanding of how fragments work. I mean really, it’s a huge list. But then again I’m not camped there exclusively; for instance, Sylvia Plath is one of my favorite poets—as with Brautigan, it’s a crime how misunderstood and undervalued her work is—and there’s probably not a single fragment in her writing.
SLEET: What is your editing process for your creative work? Do you have one person that you show all your “good” stuff to, or is it always changing? What is that for you?
EL: It’s a little different between prose and poetry. With prose I tend to show it to a lot more people and I tend to really think about the intended audience, so I try to find people who I feel are connected to the intended audience, whether that is a newspaper review or a magazine publication or a conference lecture or something. But poetry is very different. When I was younger, in school and right after graduate school, I had writing groups and close friends I’d show new work, but I think part of developing as a writer is getting to the point where you can be your own editor without that input. The other thing is, I’m ruthless with other people’s work. I don’t care if you’re my wife, my mother, my spiritual advisor—I will question every comma and every letter and tear your poem to shreds if I think that can help. And so I try to bring that same ruthlessness to my own work. For my practice, what that has meant is things take various amounts of time to percolate—so occasionally, there is a happy situation in which a poem gets finished within a week or a month of the initial composition, but more often I have drafts of poems that go on for months or even years. I recently finished a poem that I had kicking around for ten years; I’d go back to it every once in a while and it just was never right. I couldn’t fix the problem. But you keep trying and trying and you finally find the answer. Maybe that would go faster if I showed it to other people, who knows. I would like to show my work to more editors who could advise soberly—well, that’s the point, rather than friends or fellow poets I would like to show it to editors who would be ruthless about it as product rather than as art.
SLEET: Do you not feel like there is that community readily available?
EL: I don’t, actually. That is maybe one of the existing flaws in the literary community, which, as we all know, in general is quite healthy and great and also sort of weird and dysfunctional at times. But, I think there isn’t quite the bridge between writers and editors that there could be. Now this problem is usually solved at the level of book publishing, because at that point writers are typically working with one editor at the publishing house who is really intent on getting that particular book to be the best it can be. So that’s great, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, but I think there could be room made for editorial intervention earlier and more often and more deeply in the process, as opposed to just having that happen at the final, bookmaking stage. That would be something, I think, a lot of people would welcome as a development in the literary world.
SLEET: Do you have a most rewarding moment as a poet or as an editor? A moment when you thought, “I made it,” or were able to sit down with a poet you really admired and talk about their work? Some kind of milestone.
EL: Really, the rewards of editing are not big milestones like that; rather, they accrue from the mundane joys of making something that’s already good a lot better. At Rain Taxi I have worked with writers of all levels on their pieces and some of the most exciting and rewarding ones have taken a long time. As you might know, we published a long review by David Foster Wallace and editing that article with him was a joy, because I knew that I could ask any question or make any suggestion, and that even saying, “Shouldn’t there be a comma in this sentence?” would lead to an amazing discussion about what that sentence actually meant. That is as much a “milestone” or “moment” in the editing world as a more conventional public, flashy thing.
SLEET: I even think about the first time you delivered issues to a coffee shop, or all the small successes along the way….
EL: Oh sure, every time we publish a new issue it feels sort of unbelievable; I think many magazine editors feel this way. Or every year at the Book Festival, to pull off a giant project is extremely satisfying even though it is also extremely ephemeral. You know, you have a new issue, it’s bright and shiny, you put it in the world and send it to the subscribers and then fifteen minutes later, you are on to the next thing. So it is a very ephemeral joy, but that doesn’t make it less real.
As a writer, those moments are a lot fewer for me. Even people’s compliments hurt sometimes: “you should really have a book out” is not the greatest thing to hear, though I know it’s meant well. But of course when somebody finds something in a mag or hears something at a reading and likes it, that’s a good feeling. I guess because I am so publicly associated with Rain Taxi and with the public projects we do, if somebody is moved, at any level, by what I do as a poet, that is awfully nice to hear and awfully rare.
SLEET: How often do you read your work publicly?
EL: Not that much. I tend to join in when asked, as I am doing tonight for the dislocate folks, but I also don’t feel a strong … I would be suspicious of myself if I were urgently trying to line that stuff up. I used to send work to magazines quite a lot and book contests and so forth. I don’t send work out anymore at all, simply because I have no time to do it. In general, my productivity hasn’t decreased too much, because I have a need to make poems. But I don’t feel the need as urgently to publish or read them, and that’s partially because again, I sit at a desk where I see almost every publication and it’s just ridiculous how much volume exists. There is so much that the truth of the matter is nobody’s book is really needed, however, it is also equally true that some of those books are desperately needed. And, it’s just one of those conundrums really, it is a paradox. I think I’ve just learned to be comfortable with that paradox.
SLEET: What is the last book you read for pure pleasure?
EL: Okay, well I’ll give you the last three. This week I finished the most recent volume of Scalped, which is a noir-inflected graphic novel series set on a Native American reservation; I think it’s really excellent work. I also finally got around to Retromania, Simon Reynolds’s book about our fetish for nostalgia and how it fits in with the consumerism of music and art. And I’ve just started Bernadette Mayer’s latest book, Ethics of Sleep—well, I guess that’s work related, since she’s the next guest in the Rain Taxi Reading Series, but it is pure pleasure too. It’s like inhabiting someone else’s dream.
BEATLES VS. STONES
Something is on fire in another room
A chess set in a cage lit by pools of radium
I was afraid of having my testicles crushed
And more afraid of hearing my own voice echo
If anything is swimming it is swimming toward the sun
There is brine on the stone and on the wheel
And on the immaculate conception
I put a loaded gun on the podium
And pointed it at the new technology
The friend lays a flower on the turned earth
We traveled miles by underground canals to get here
I thought silence existed
But I had not put silence to the test
No silence exists that is not pregnant
A flame made live to amplify the heartbeat
Sleet guest interviewer Hallie Cole Wiederholt earned her BA in English with a concentration in creative writing from Hamline University. Shortly after graduation, she moved abroad. Now, she is completing her MFA in poetry. This year, she served as the poetry section editor for Rock, Paper, Scissors, and was on the 2010 poetry editorial board for Water~Stone Review. She fell in love with the fragment in January of 2012.