A Brief Interview with Andrew Epstein

Interviewed by Bobby Riley

How did you get involved with the Commabox project?

The main way I got involved is that I’m friends with Judy Rushin. It probably started because she came to a reading that I gave from a recent book that I had published last summer. We have already been friends for a while, but I think she felt that my work touched a chord with some of the stuff that she was thinking about for the next Commabox. So then we met for coffee and she asked if I wanted to contribute, and originally we had an idea that I would write some sort of essay, or maybe gather together some critical essays that had to do with some of the themes of the project which had to do with fragmentation and objects and things like that. Then our discussions evolved and we decided that as I worked on it that it might be interesting for me to contribute something that was sort of somewhere in between kind of a critical piece and a creative piece. The themes of the project, having to do with fragmentation and objects and kind of ordinary everyday materials, had a lot to do with a work I've been doing for the book that I had written. It just seemed like kind of a natural fit, even though everybody else involved was a visual artist and I'm a professor and a writer.

Could you tell me a little bit about the reading you did that of struck a chord with Judy?

I think it was sort of an overview of a book that I had written and then some sections from it. The book is called Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture. It is about a kind of fascination with the ordinary and the everyday and contemporary poetry. It is also about some of the kind of unusual formal experiments that poets and other people do in other spheres of culture, and just kind of weird projects and experiments that try to pay better attention to the daily, the ordinary and the otherwise overlooked. A part of that is poets doing things with fragmentation that's picking and gathering up little bits and pieces of everyday life or everyday language and collaging them together. I think that echoed some things Judy is thinking about in terms of visual art and creating a box that might be filled with small bits and pieces of ordinary objects, and that some of the themes seem to echo one another. I spoke about some of the philosophical and aesthetic ideas that the book is about. Then I gave some examples from some poetry and talked about them.

Has working on this project changed your own practice at all?

There are a couple of ways that I can answer that. I used to write creatively, more than I do now, but mostly I'm a scholar and a critic and so it was fun for me to do this project. I didn't even really know what to call it originally. I just kind of gathered and compiled these quotations and then in collaboration with Judy decided to do it on the note cards, and I guess now on coasters. I feel like it's sort of a poem that's sort of an essay, or there's a term that people use nowadays for kind of experimental essays called Lyric Essay. It's a little bit like that. It's sort of a collage. I learned a new way of coming at some of the scholarly interests that I have through a kind of creative project that I found fun and interesting, and then to see how it fits together with the other contributors and the other items in this kind of marvelous box that Judy and everybody created made me think differently about some of the issues and themes in the quotations and fragments that I've gathered. It just seems like a big bounce off each other in interesting ways.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

I am, but on something that's much more conventional, sort of scholarly writing. It's a book about American poetry since World War II, and a kind of overview, or an introduction to American poetry since 1945. It does deal with some similar issues that this project deals with. Also, I’d like to add that it was a nice coincidence that the piece Carlos contributed is about a Frank O’Hara poem. Of all the different things I've worked on in my critical and scholarly career, Frank O’Hara is probably the person that I've written about the most. So there's some things that I'm continuing to work on. I have a blog that's devoted to the New York School of Poets, which is the group that O’Hara was kind of the leader of. So I’m just continuing to work on stuff that goes with this particular project.