“When the Kardashians talk/at once at each other/I hear an aria/to the first-person pronoun, an icon/as sleek as the four-inch stilettos,” Valerie Bandura writes early in her latest poetry collection, Human Interest (Black Lawrence Press; 75 pages). As a poet, her lens is trained on the America where millions live paycheck-to-paycheck and dream of game-show winnings even as television and our social media peddle visions of unobtainable celebrity. Bandura’s poems are not removed from the daily experience of most people, rather they are our experience, whether we’re wondering in traffic about the life of the driver who proudly displays his “Take the Migrant out of Immigrant” bumper sticker, are irritated that our latest Facebook post didn’t attract more “Likes,” or are concerned about our family and their woes.
Bandura, whose poetry has appeared in ZYZZVA No. 100 and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, talked to us about Human Interest and her startlingly personal verse.
ZYZZYVA: In your poetry, you never fail to implicate yourself in the strange circus that is American society:
“I’m with you, but it’s all me, baby/the irresponsible babysitter, the pregnant grandmother/the felon, the pervert, the hot mess/in the reality show I film/in a desperate darkroom of the mind.”
Of course, the “I” in these poems is not necessarily the author, but I find your poems constantly interrogate the ways all of us—even liberal-minded writers and artists—are complicit. Is this self-criticism important for you as a poet?
VALERIE BANDURA: A speaker who admits failure is more approachable, less threatening, and allows the reader to more easily enter his or her own failures and shortcomings. This is the democratic experience of poetry (my American self, perhaps), to seek to equalize, egalitarianize, the power struggle within the poem, and the people in the poem the reader is asked to judge. No one wants to read about a speaker who’s flawless any more than we want to watch people on TV who are perfect. We crane our necks to see who’s being arrested when we see the red and blue lights of the police. We retweet stupid tweets. If the reader’s entrance into the balance of power presented in the poem is through the speaker, and the speaker is complicit, the reader, too, should, theoretically, more readily admit to failure and weakness.
Art is not an artifact. Beyond the craft and formal considerations of the poem, poetry for me serves a moral and social obligation to deepen and broaden public discourse. This attitude may originate in my being raised in a Russian household, where literature, like other art forms, is integral to a culture’s identity and politics. Where Matthew Arnold may have seen the function of poetry to console or rejoice—what Natasha Sajé calls the “separation of aesthetics and morality” in her essay “Poetry and Ethics”—I see the function of poetry as political engagement, “political” understood in the broadest sense of the term. Self-deprecation is, on the one hand an ethical choice, an effort to enter public discourse.
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Z: The book displays a great deal of empathy for the working class. I’m thinking of the poem “The Price is Right,” in which the glitz and glamour of a game show is starkly contrasted with the neediness of its poor contestants: “and at the same time, an admission/of how pathetic and desperately ordinary/that luck really is, is, for the folks watching/at home, the real show––a true spectacle.” Class struggle often gets overlooked when the national conversation is simplified into Red States versus. Blue States, a way of seeing things that is arguably to the advantage of those who receive “representation without taxation” as you point out in “Mama Money.”
VB: Although I’m not sure I’m the right voice for the working class, I’m glad to hear the poems present a speaker who could be interpreted to be that person. What do I know of economic struggle? I’ve never been out of a job. We have a “pool guy.” Our pool guy was complaining one day about the rise in taxes on the wealthy. So I joked that if his business was successful enough to make him 250K a year—the income threshold the tax hike targeted—then I’m in the wrong profession. Which is when he said, “Jesus, I don’t make that much,” before he paused to say, “But one day I could. And I don’t want to see all my hard-earned money going to someone who makes less than me.”
Now, this guy was a white male. And if I told this anecdote to a person who lives around here—in Phoenix, Arizona—and had not specified his race, my listener may likely assume my “pool guy” is Mexican. Class is not an economic issue—or not only an economic issue, not these days. In a post-recession climate where jobs are hard to come by, class can also imply race.
Politics aside, it’s the self-deception inherent in the public discourse about class that makes for instant drama and conflict—enough energy to power a poem into existence. I’m interested in the flawed, in how struggle bends or breaks a person. I like investigating what motivates people’s choices, what they fear or lack or think they want. The greater the fault, the more energy produced in the poem when the speaker has to admit to the same. I could argue that studying the other is a way to get to know the self, but that position may be a stretch. If Jane Goodall studied apes to see the human, I could be Goodall in love with ape behavior. The way TLC used Honey Boo Boo or the E! Network uses the Kardashians. It may be more accurate to admit that I’m trying to redeem my salacious self-interest, trying to excuse bad behavior so I can continue the fun my bad behavior affords. User and profiteer in equal parts.
Z: I sense an undercurrent running through the subjects of many of these poems: consumerist America’s fear of leading an inconsequential life. We see it in “The Bigger the Orgy the Better the Party”: “screwing every square inch of this gigantic fear/we can’t seem to shake/that one day we won’t be/in his story or each other’s/unless we make ours the one story/we can’t wait to hear,” and it is a fear perhaps heard beneath the “aria/to the first-person pronoun” we hear coming from “The Real Millionaires of Kardashian County.” Do you feel like much of this anxiety is wrapped up in our popular culture, specifically in the way people try to construct their image on social media?
VB: It could be argued that social networks can produce a hyper-realized sense of self, or that the artificial search for temporary approval our virtual reality provides creates a vacuum where there could instead be satisfaction and fulfillment. It’s easy to confuse the two when a culture driven by marketing sells the idea of attaining the latter by doing the former. As I type this, my husband’s going out for his evening walk to clear his head. But I know when he turns the corner he’s going to whip out his cell phone and scroll through his Twitter feed. There’s fulfillment, and then there’s decompression.
But I’m interested in challenging arguments, in applying pressure to those positions we assume to share. Every generation effects progress that requires people to adapt and change, an experience some tend to resist. I’m interested in challenging arguments against that progress, argument that could instead be expressions born out of our fear of change.
Online engagement and consumer culture may offer relief, but they don’t create our fear of inconsequence, death does. That’s the universal lens that triggers my poetic sensibility. Mortality, Death, Time, these are easy ways to create drama in a poem since they are our universal issues. When I was six, I looked up through our basement window at the orange leaves on the trees, and I thought, Wait, the last time those leaves turned from green to orange, the change took much longer. That means this life will move faster and faster, I thought, and one day, I’ll be eighty, thinking back on a life that will have been my past. I thought, I better start planning for that day now.
Z: You tackle the pervasive influence of advertising in our lives, and how the constant bombardment of ads tries to convince us there’s always some new gadget we need but that remains out of reach so as to keep us from ever feeling entirely complete. Your poem “Would You Like Cheese with That” features the lines, “One long Please sung in an endless rotation/from a heart with a marketing hole/what we fear and want widens,/cars to make us cool or Coke to make us smile.” I noticed you often incorporate the actual wording of advertising into the text of the poem itself (“I want to whine less/and sing more two all-beef patties/special sauce lettuce cheese as I had as a kid”), which I can’t recall seeing before.
VB: The appropriation of language isn’t new to poetry. Like any art form, poetry cross-references in its effort to engage in the larger social conversation. The more the poem can embody the culture it’s referencing, the greater the sense of allusion and linguistic texture. Solmaz Sharif successfully appropriates language from the U.S. Department of Defense in her book Look to talk about politics and identity. Marianne Moore regularly stole language from cultural and literary sources in her poems as way to respond to those sources.
That said, innovation forces us to look for what’s marginalized. Language borrowed from advertising may seem counterintuitive to poetry (conversational quotes, bumper stickers, news headlines), but that position is politically elitist and poetically shortsighted. What if we’re not snickering outside the party—what if we’re all in the same room? What if we are the party? Persuasive language commercials use is our culture and therefore our language. Catchy slogans permeate our language. Media is our culture. When a cigarette company wants to sell women cigarettes, its congratulates them for their equal rights achievement while still pejoratively calling them infants in the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.” When the country’s anxiety about the border wall was triggered by the recent presidential election outcome, 84 Lumber aired a Super Bowl ad assuaging an American public that yes, the Mexican mother and her kid will find a massive door that will open for them even if the wall exists.
If that seems like I’m drawing a parallel between advertisement and poetry, maybe I am. Both mediums are constrained by an economy of language while still trying to say something people will listen to. The comparison has limits—poems aren’t commercials; there are, of course, stark differences in the levels of craft and emotional and intellectual engagement. Nonetheless, ads are a voice, however unsophisticated, in civic conversation. Why ostracize or ignore it? Poetry’s inclusion or response to what’s popular doesn’t suggest approval, simply engagement. Low diction, colloquial, conversational speech has the potential for intellectual rigor and linguistic play.
Z: I enjoy the way you include candid aspects of what the reader assumes to be your personal life, such as your relationships with your family and students. In “Same Diff,” you powerfully state of your students, “These kids/were four when the Towers fell,” and later, “My sister/walks into a CVS and hears voices in her head.” The poem grows self-reflexive when you write, “I think this poem’s pretty good,/but what do I know.” As a poet, you don’t seem to hold anything back. Is it a delicate balancing act when writing about family or do you prefer to be as revealing as possible on the page?
VB: My first book, Freak Show, was all about my experience as an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, my sister’s schizophrenia and its effect on my family members, and my current identity as a result of those experiences. I’m not a poet who struggles with issues of privacy, or propriety for that matter. The success of the poem trumps all other considerations. Each poem has to negotiate between intimacy and authenticity.
However, the speaker on the stage of the poem is also a device. Dean Young reminds us in The Art of Recklessness that “the blood may be fake, but the bleeding must be real.” He was arguing that sincerity is a stylistic choice among all other tonal opportunities. But I extend that idea further to relate to all seemingly personal information in a poem. This isn’t to say that circumstances from my actual life don’t bleed into the poem, they do. But their amplification serves the success of the poem rather than some emotional exorcism. I’m not sure emotional scars can be written out, and I’m not sure they are why we write. What happens on the page is device and effect. That self-reflexive quality you mention is another device to demonstrate the imaginative contract between the reader and writer. I love the effect of the speaker entering a poem, especially in that 19th century Russian literature kind of way—the narrator apologizing for any surprises the story may incur before the story even begins, for example. I love how that device increases intimacy between reader and writer, while challenging the veracity of the imaginative world the text creates. The device reminds the reader the text is a construct, that sincerity and authenticity have limits, that the writer is not here to serve the reader as much as to play on the page, that the reader is an observer of that product of that play, and therefore, the writer has agency to intrude on the reader’s solitude. Authorship and authority in equal parts.