A Conversation With Jessica Baran, Curator Of 100 Boots Poetry Series

 In Culture, Feature

When Jessica Baran and I met up for coffee, it was the day after John Ashbery died and it felt like a particularly urgent time to talk about poetry, to affirm that poems hadn’t somehow paled after the loss of him.

Right away, we began talking about literary community—how important it is and how surprised we were, as people familiar with the promises and disappointments of arts-inclined big cities like Los Angeles and New York, at how accessible and homey St. Louis’ art and writing community is in comparison.

Baran is a poet, artist, teacher, curator and art critic who served as the director of fort gondo, a nonprofit gallery and reading series, from 2011 until its closure in early 2017. For a smaller-sized city like St. Louis, it’s no insignificant loss when any art space closes. Fortunately, fort gondo’s closure led to an opportunity for a new poetry series at The Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

With her co-curator Ted Mathys, Baran now organizes the 100 Boots Poetry Series, named after Eleanor Antin’s photography project of the same title. The series kicked off in winter 2017, bringing poets such as Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Evie Shockley and St. Louis-based Alison C. Rollins to read beneath Ellsworth Kelly’s enormous, geometric wall sculpture, “Blue Black.” One could feel some of fort gondo’s energy and independent spirit carried over into The Pulitzer’s typically serene and library-quiet space. Filled with people there to listen to celebrated poets read, it became a vibrant new home for celebrating literary community and kinship.

After a summertime break, 100 Boots is back again, with readings slated from some of the most exciting names in innovative contemporary poetry. First up tonight, September 22, are Wendy Xu and Rickey Laurentiis, with Don Mee Choi, Douglas Kearney, 2016 National Book Award winner Daniel Borzutzky, and more on the calendar through Spring 2018.

Below, Baran talked with us about her most recent collection of poems, “Common Sense” (Lost Roads Press, 2016), defining traits of St. Louis’ arts community, and her approach to curating the 100 Boots Poetry Series.

You completed a bachelor’s in visual art at Columbia, then switched gears to do an MFA in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis and have since published three collections of poetry. Do you still make visual art?
I’ve had the good fortune of still being involved in a couple of art shows over the years. The Contemporary Art Museum had me do a sound installation at one point, which I did in their bathrooms.

It actually was an audio installation of a woman and a man reading the two long poems in “Common Sense,” which are “A Direction Is Just Like That.” The ‘his’ and ‘hers’ parts were divided between the bathrooms. That was really fun—I had friends read it. I was not the recorded artist.

And right now at the World Chess Hall of Fame I have a collaborative newspaper I did with my partner Nathaniel Farrell, who’s also a poet. So things like that still occur, but it’s not as though I’m making paintings or sculpture.

the pulitzer arts st louis alive magazine poetry reading

Evie Shockley reading at the Pulitzer Photo credit: Chris Bowman

To borrow a line from your bio, your poems “continuously investigate the relationship between visual art and language.” I thought that was so apparent in your first book, “Remains to Be Used” (Apostrophe Books, 2010), where, at the bottom of each poem, you give a bibliographic list of the art, films and literature each poem draws from. Do you find that the way you’re influenced by visual art has changed over time?
The two long poems in “Common Sense” that I mentioned that turned into an art installation, those poems originated from an exhibition that I was invited to participate in as a poet writing ekphrastic poems about the other artists in it. The curator, Marie Heilich, did a small show at Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art. So, those particular long poems were written in response to artist Matt Mullican’s work. He does these performances in which he hypnotizes himself and performs as this sort of hypnotic alter-ego. The title poem, too, was an erasure of a Zoe Leonard text piece called “I Want a President.” That gained a lot of circulation, very incidentally.

This is an aside, but the book has a lot of political musings that were critical, but incidentally written under the Obama administration. So, it’s funny how they now seem very timely. It’s not that I was critical of Obama. It was in the aftermath of Ferguson that a lot of the poems in that book were written, and it’s just that so much of what was already presaging the moment we’re in now was already beginning. It’s just a strange irony in terms of the timeline of the book.

My second book, “Equivalents,” also took its conceit from the abstract photography of Alfred Stieglitz—a series of photos of the sky. So there’s always still a relationship with visual art. Those are just a few examples.

In “Common Sense,” I noticed the word “look” appears frequently. It seems that even if the poems aren’t engaged with visual art, you’re still interested in asking your readers to look closely at things, whether it be the news or one of your own experiences.
That’s right, absolutely. I think that was part of the agenda starting with “Equivalents” and then moving through “Common Sense” was this broadening of what close looking could be directed toward; that we don’t necessarily have to have a revelatory visual experience with art exclusively—to expand the parameters of what ekphrasis can embrace, and, like you said, including things that are more daily and more democratic. I think that came out of a feeling of discomfort with the art-world hierarchy—a desire to democratize that gaze.

With each book, I’ve been trying to get closer to a more intimate, lyrical eye—which, with the first book I was very shy of, and instead very interested in, even occupying pronouns that shifted my gender or identity in ways that don’t align with what is perceivably ‘me.’ And with each successive book, I’m becoming more traditionally associated with the “I.” I don’t know, necessarily, if that’s its own sort of criticism of the intellectualization of ekphrasis, the kind of cold remove that’s assumed in our experiences of looking. But I think I really want to be able to write a book that ultimately synthesizes that more—a kind of understanding of the self-merging, hopefully with increasing fluidity, with this observational impulse and engaging with art.

As an artist and writer, what keeps you in St. Louis rather than cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago?
On some level, I don’t know that I’ve had a lot of power over that decision. It’s a very affordable city, so there are some very unsexy reasons I’m here. It is so hard to live in New York. These other cities that proclaim to be these cultural centers never opened themselves to me in that way. And I suddenly have, I think, a really special writing community here. Mary Jo Bang, Devin Johnston, Stephanie Schlaifer, Danielle Dutton, Carl Phillips, Ted Mathys, who I work with on the Pulitzer Series—I mean, the list can go on and on. And it’s easy. It’s not like five boroughs away I see them at the occasional 100-person, 92nd Street Y reading. I actually get to know their lives.

I think another component, too, especially when I was directing fort gondo—is the possibility to run an art space, create a poetry series and do all the things we did there. I could never have done that in New York City. It totally changed my life.

When I was growing up [in Indiana], my whole propulsive energy was put toward escaping the shitty hometown and thinking I needed to be certain places in order to be the person I needed to be. So, coming back to the Midwest was a really big deal to me. Actually taking pride in being here and defending it actually felt like I was doing more work than being just another smug New Yorker (laughing). I can actually do something good here, and that feels good. You can be a contributor. You can actively help and improve upon the arts culture here, or the political culture—so many different strands depending on your interest. I just never felt like some of the larger cities really needed me.

How do you approach curating the 100 Boots Poetry Series for the St. Louis community?
That’s been a learning curve. Ted Mathys would have to chime in on this, too, but reading series, I’m realizing, are so bound to their institutions. Even though we’re the exact same people who did fort gondo, working with a different space has different expectations and parameters.

There are amazing aspects to that—having the institutional support of the Pulitzer is remarkable. I mean, that space is gorgeous. We’re thinking more about their interest in coordinating these readers with their shows, too, so that there is some sort of relationship between their language. That was not much of a concern at fort gondo. And, having more resources to bring in readers who are often on a higher level of establishment has been a big difference.

I think what’s important, though—and what we’re trying to stay true to—is that these are writers we’re really excited about. It’s never just like, “These are the people who are doing really well right now.” I don’t even know what that would mean, to be honest [laughs]. We read the books, and I love that about the curation—it gives me an excuse to read a lot of contemporary poetry and for us to then sit down and say, “I really liked that,” and wonder what they would be like if we brought them here, and how it would correlate with certain concerns in our community.

I think right now, with the current political moment, the poetry community is doing a lot of work exorcising some of our frustrations and speaking to a lot of problems that other forms of journalism or media maybe aren’t able to touch on. That’s also been on our minds a lot—who’s really speaking to certain issues.

Our sense of what a representative reading series includes is not merely gender and racial parity but age and also the degree to which the readers are established in their careers. That was always a component of the fort gondo series. I always like that personally, too, for readers to feel excited that they were being paired with someone that they maybe never imagined having the opportunity to be paired with. That’s definitely a consideration, as much as we can make it possible.

100 Boots Poetry Series
Wendy Xu and Rickey Laurentiis
Friday, Sept. 22, 2017

Solmaz Sharif and Jennifer Nelson
Friday, Dec. 1, 2017

Don Mee Choi and Daniel Borzutzky
Friday, Feb. 23, 2018

Douglas Kearney and Layli long Soldier
Friday, April 13, 2018

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