Following the Golden Thread to Cats in a Bag: An Interview with Poet, Adjunct Professor, & Geneseo Alum Albert Abonado

Posted by Joohee Park, GD Poetry Reader for issue 6.1

College is often described as the time to take risks and step outside our comfort zones and usual circles, but it is also a time of burgeoning anxiety about the looming, unpredictable future.

Confronted with the question of what to do with our lives, we may wonder how to trust our own instincts. Often, this uncertainty can manifest itself in one’s writing as self-editing, self-censoring even before one has confronted the page. In this interview, I pose some questions or anxieties we may have as budding writers and participants in the literary world in the context of poetry.

Joohee Park: When did you graduate from Geneseo?

Albert Abonado: Oh, you want to age me already. 2001. That’s right, the Bush/Gore election.

JP: How have your experiences or studies at Geneseo shaped you as a writer?

AA: A bunch of different ways. I actually was at Geneseo as a sociology major, not a creative writing major. I was mostly involved with theory, but I had taken a poetry workshop with David Kelly, who was the resident poet at the time, and he introduced me to different writers, a lot of the Latin American writers such as Muchado. He encouraged me to read writers who were more experimental in their approach. He was a big fan of the Beats and Ginsberg, people like that, so that helped me look more at a broader range of literature. I also became more of a serious reader of poetry at that time. I hadn’t read a lot of poetry before I came to Geneseo. In high school, it was the standard sad emo boy poetry. It wasn’t until I came here and I started trying to catch up  that I think I started to read people like Williams, Creeley, Neruda, and I read Denise Duhamal in my American studies class. They all started to shape how I thought about writing, and made me think more about taking poetry seriously.

JP: What’s it like being here, on the other side?

AA: Weird. So strange. Walking around campus always triggers memories about all my experiences here. It’s a little strange, both walking around campus and town and also being an instructor and thinking about the best way to 1.) Get students interested in writing and 2.) Find ways to trigger the creative side of their thinking and train them a little bit out of thinking in terms of theme and criticism and make them think more in terms of craft and writerly choices—I obviously don’t want to dismiss what we do in the rest of the department, which is so important, but it’s also a different way of thinking about writing—and so having to think about that and my steps and my process in relation to that has been a little more challenging. There’s so much value in understanding the cultural and historical influences or perspectives to a text, but for me on the writerly side, I think about the craft choices.

JP: As a host for a radio show, poet, and Director of Adult Programs at Writers & Books, how do your jobs inform one another?

AA: They’re all interrelated. They all center literature, the writing life, and those are important to me and clearly tied to the jobs I’m interested in or pursue. From the director point of view, that’s a lot of administrative work, but it gives me a broader sense of how programming works–how it can influence and affect communities–so that makes me think in terms of the larger literary community and my responsibility and role within it. The radio show is kind of an extension of that. I want to be able to promote poetry and feature poets in a public space. The literary center is kind of a bubble; the radio show at least gets that a little bit more out there in a different kind of space, and because of that I think it also informs the way I teach. It makes me think about the kinds of writers that I include in my syllabus; it makes me think of the voices that I want to feature. I really believe it’s important to have writers of color, queer writers. (If you’re searching for something to read, Abonado recommends Nature Poem by queer, American Indian poet Tommy Pico.) I want to make sure that these different voices are represented in the classroom, and a lot of that comes from working in the literary center, working in a radio show. They all tie together and give me, I guess, a more holistic picture of poetry and literature in general.

JP: What influences your writing?

AA: There are always certain themes that crop up. Even as I resist them, they come back up. My family has always been a big part of my writing.

JP: I noticed family a lot. “Grandfather as a Kaiju on Fire,” “The Greeting,” “How to Unbend the Tongue,” to name a few.

AA: I’d written a lot about family especially in my grad school years, and I thought I had burned out on it, but actually the stuff you’ve cited is more recent work. No matter how much I push myself away from those things, they come back up, so I’ve just learned to embrace my obsessions.

JP: One of my favorite poems that you’ve written is “The Future is Now and it’s Adorable,” with its quirky imagery, “large sacks … meowing about the tight / spaces,” yet dark anxiety about the future. Where do these images come from? Can you give any advice
for a poem that starts from an image or an idea?

AA: Turning off my sensor, my filter. That was one of the poems that came out of a challenge I had given to myself, to write about Harold and Kumar for 30 days. At first I was really attached to the movies, and I was trying to work all the images of those movies into the poems. At a certain point I hit a wall, and I just said I was going to follow the images wherever they went. I turned off any impulse I had to say no to an image—so, the idea of cats tumbling around in a bag, that the future is an exchange of cats—and just went with it.

There’s a poem by William Stafford, in which he talks about Ariadne’s golden thread in the labyrinth. When it comes to writing a poem or an image, you’re pulling on a golden string, following where it’s going, but you don’t want to pull on the string too hard because it’ll snap; you don’t want to loosely hold the string because you’re not going to go anywhere, so you have to keep it tight and follow the image. I always think of that string when I’m starting a poem with an image, so I follow the image where it goes, and that helps to turn off any filters and sensors. You want to make sure you’re open to all the possibilities, and there can be a very ridiculous possibility. It could be content that you’re scared to talk about, but you need to give yourself permission to write those things, and I think that’s one of those things that’s hard for a lot of people to overcome in the beginning, especially in non-fiction, but also in poetry. I would say the worst thing that can happen is that you follow an impulse, and it fails and it’s a bad line of a poem, but the stakes are low: So what? So you wrote a bad line. The only thing that could hurt that is if you’ve told yourself “No, it’s a stupid image.” There’s no such thing in this moment. Just go with it, and see where it takes you. If you follow the impulse and you head somewhere, you might find something revealing. You might find cats in a bag somewhere.

JP: When I read your poems—I had never read contemporary poetry before coming to college—I was surprised to see that you could actually write about anything.

AA: In grad school, I was writing these really tight, restrained poems. I don’t know if you know Li Young Lee’s work, if you’ve read any of his. He’s a really incredible poet, but he has a very quiet and reserved voice, and I loved it so much that I wanted to emulate it, but this was ultimately hurting my poems. My instructor said, “Why don’t you write in Frank O’Hara’s voice, as if you’re saying something intimate to a close friend?” And this opened up the way I thought about poems.  When I started writing in that voice, I realized I could write about anything. The classics talk about rarified subjects—nature, love, even death, in such abstract terms—which are all great, important things, and we’ll always come back to those subjects because of how important they are, but that can limit what we think poetry, or literature in general, can do. You can do anything with it. It’s amazing.

JP: Lastly, as a poet of color, do you feel obligated about anything?

AA: That’s a big one, and I think there is a responsibility to a degree to tell our stories, but I’ve thought about this question a lot. In the beginning, I thought, I have to make sure my identity is at the forefront of my writing, then I came to accept that my identity is always at the forefront of my writing, no matter what it, so even a poem that seems as tangential in its relation to my Filipino-ness, say, some of the Harold and Kumar poems—they’re still being written by a Filipino American who grew up in Long Island, whose parents are immigrants. They’re still informed by those experiences, still a part of who I am. Anything you write from your point of view is going to be filled with your identity. While identity might not be overt, in my case, anything I write is written from a point of view of a person of color.

Outside the world of a poem, following an image or idea may not have such low stakes, but perhaps in the way poets let words on the page lead them to unexpected places, so too can anxious college students in this “anything-goes” chapter of their lives. After all, as a friend once told me, poetry continues off the page and into everyday life.

Albert Abonado teaches creative writing at SUNY Geneseo and hosts Flour City Yawp on WAYO. He was also Director of Adult Programs at Writer & Books. He is the author of the e-chapbook This is Superbook (H_NGM_N Books). Poems mentioned in this interview: “The Future is Now and it’s Adorable,” “Grandfather as a Kaiju on Fire,” “The Greeting,” and “How to Unbend the Tongue.”

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