Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is the author of five books of poetry (Dear Future Boyfriend, Hot Teen Slut, Working Class Represent, Oh, Terrible Youth and Everything is Everything) as well as the the author of the nonfiction book, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, which Billy Collins wrote “leaves no doubt that the slam poetry scene has achieved legitimacy and taken its rightful place on the map of contemporary literature.” Born in Philadelphia, Aptowicz moved to New York City at the age of 17. At age 19, she founded the three-time National Poetry Slam championship poetry series NYC-Urbana, which is still held weekly at the NYC’s famed Bowery Poetry Club. She is currently serving as the 2010-2011 ArtsEdge Writer-In-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and was recently awarded a 2011 National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. More at www.aptowicz.com.
UF Review: Where does your poetry come from? What inspires you to write? Sadly, poetry’s reputation precedes it. Despite its status as a low-profit venture, why did you decide to dedicate yourself to it?
Aptowicz: I think a lot of my inspiration and attitude towards poetry can be found in my experiences with the American Poetry Slam movement, which I’ve been involved in since I was 19.
I moved from my working class Philadelphia neighborhood to NYC when I was 17, pretty much because I knew that’s what writers did: they moved to New York City!
I paid my own way through college, attending NYU for playwriting and screenwriting. But the experiences I had in the classroom didn’t match the expectation I had for New York City. I wanted to be surrounded by mad, obsessed writers — people who were passionate and driven and relentless.
When fellow NYU student Beau Sia introduced me to the New York City Poetry Slam scene the summer in between my sophomore and junior years, I knew I found something special. Here was a community of passionate, driven writers of all ages, all colors, all backgrounds. They came to the slam week in and week out, pounding the stage and writing incredible work. I was hooked.
The following Fall, I started the NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam series in the basement of the Gene Frankel Theatre, and the series still runs, happening every Tuesday at the Bowery Poetry Club (people not in NYC can watch it live at http://www.bowerypoetrylive.com). The series — which is just one of four active poetry slams in NYC — packs the house every week, and usually has a couple hundred additional people watching online.
So to me, the American poetry scene is very much alive and kicking. And I write to be a part of it, to have my story heard.
UF Review: I first heard of you when a friend introduced me to a pretty hysterical poem of yours, “Crack Squirrels.” How are poems like these born? How do you negotiate writing with a spirit of play and a tone of gravity and seriousness?
Aptowicz: “Crack Squirrels” has a very funny origin story. I was at an academic reading of several sort of dry poets. And I thought to myself: if I were the next poet on stage, what would be the best possible thing I could do to shake things up? And the first line of “Crack Squirrels” popped into my head. I wrote the whole poem down on the backs of flyers that were in the venue in which I was watching in the reading.
As per the use of humor in poetry, I always say that the opposite of funny poetry isn’t serious poetry — it’s poetry that isn’t trying to be funny. Funny poems can be incredibly serious in what they are trying to express.
With “Crack Squirrels,” it is based on a true story — this time in NYC history when the whole city was obsessed with crack-addicted squirrels. I was a kid when this went down, I remember being very impressionable and every commentator I absolutely agreed with them: We should rehab the squirrels! No wait, we should kill them! No wait, shouldn’t we be worried about Crack Hawks! Etc.
And of course, the only voices of reason were the zoologists, who told everyone that they should be much more concerned about the people addicted to crack than cracked-out squirrels. But no one listens to voices of reason, do they? And that’s why the poem continues on past that point, because that’s the reality of it, right?
I think the use of humor in any type of writing can be really effective in getting readers/listeners to open themselves up to story that otherwise they might ignore. Beau Sia is a great example of this. His hilarious and spot-on poems about being an Asian-American really shines a spotlight on a culture and movement that doesn’t typically get a mainstream voice.
UF Review: What’s the difference between poetry and slam poetry? Would you call poems you write slam poems, or is it slam only when performed? What do you like about poetry and slam poetry?
Aptowicz: It is a longstanding trope of the Poetry Slam movement that there is no such thing as “slam poetry.” Since anybody can perform any type of poem they want in a slam, any poem can be a “slam poem.”
Over the years, many different styles of poetry have reigned at the top, but inevitable, something or someone new comes around, and shakes things up. So what you might imagine in your head as being a typical “slam poem” might be utterly passé the next time you hit a slam.
All that being said, I think there is one through line for all successful slam poems over its twenty-year-plus history. And that is that the poet actively wants to engage with the audience. They want the audience to pop out of their seat at the end of the poem and scream, “HELL YEAH!” at the end.
In this sense, I’ve been very surprised to discover for myself that the poems I have that do the best on stage were the easiest to get published in literary journals. I think the common perception is that there is “stage” poetry and “page” poetry, and ne’er the twain shall meet. But in reality, if you write wanting to engage with an audience, that shows up in the page as well.
As for me, I don’t categorize my work into “poetry” and “slam poetry.” I made it a rule a couple of years ago that every time I performed at NYC-Urbana (my slam series), that I would only perform NEW work and that every poem I performed had to have been submitted (or would be within a week) to a literary journal. It was so extremely helpful in erasing any lingering biases about which poems were appropriate to perform and which were appropriate to submit. I learned a lot with that experiment, and I encourage more people to try it out, if they are so inclined!
UF Review: Your poetry (at least, your published poetry) seems infused with prose. Is this prose style natural? Have you tried other forms of poetry? Have you dabbled in prose writing?
Aptowicz: I write nonfiction as well as poetry. I am obsessed with true stories, and so all of my poetry are about true events — either my own or historical. I do try my hand at forms (sestinas, sonnets, pantoums, etc.) if the occasion calls for it, but I mostly write in free verse. I like use to proper grammar (period, commas, capitalization, etc.) in my poetry, so that might lend itself to feeling prose-y. But really, I just want to bring a lot of clarity with my writing, and using proper grammar helps with that, I feel.
UF Review: Which poets do you look up to? Which writers? Which performers? Do you have any favorite books?
Aptowicz: Oh my gosh — this list could go on forever! I’ll just list off the top of my head:
Bob Hicok: I adore his writing. He is an incredible force in American Poetry. He is surrealistic, yet grounded. Narrative, yet free-flowing. Funny, but heart breaking. Pick up any of his books. You will not be disappointed.
Denise Duhamel: She is a huge inspiration for me. She is extremely funny and playful with her work. She has this irresistible freshness with her poetry, where you feel like she is so excited to show you this new thing she has written — but that feeling is infused in everything she writers. Incredible.
Beth Ann Fennelly: She is a Southern poet, a mother and a woman and a teacher and a wife and so much more. Her themed series of poems are always so smart, and I love the tenderness with which she writes. It is a strong, strong tenderness — just wonderful.
Matt Cook: He is a poet I was first introduced to by the slam community, although he had stopped slamming by the time I came on the scene. His work is so bravely idiosyncratic, and very much rooted in the Midwest, which — as a city girl — I love being able to experience.
Brian S. Ellis and Mindy Nettifee: These are two poets off of Write Bloody Publishing, which is the press that publishes my poetry books. Like Matt Cook, both of them allow me access to worlds I might never have experienced otherwise. Their work is so good it makes me angry.
And again, I could go on and on. But I’m going to stop there.
Oh, wait one more: Sherman Alexie. That man can do — and does do! — everything. Poetry, fiction, screenwriting, essay-writing, young adult — anything. I love the freedom he gives himself to explore his ideas, and then how good the end products always are. They are always so, so good.
All right, that’s all. If you want to know more about the poets and writers I like, check out my Amazon review page here: http://amzn.to/gUclAZ.
UF Review: For you, what can poetry do that prose cannot? What can prose do that poetry cannot?
Aptowicz: I don’t know if there is really an answer to this. I think they both can do whatever they want, just in different ways. For me, I like to use nonfiction to write longer stories that require a lot of detail and specific information to be best understand. And with poetry, I use it to evoke specific moments and times in my life. Poetry books, therefore, can link these stories to a larger narrative, so in that sense they can achieve a similar goal as my nonfiction books, but I suppose with the poetry, I am less interested in filling in all the blanks that my poetry might leave. While with nonfiction, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.
UF Review: What does your revision process look like? Do you revise differently when writing poetry or prose?
Aptowicz: The ways I approach poetry and prose are actually polar opposites.
With poetry, I have one big Word doc with all my poetry in it (that doesn’t already appear in one of my poetry books). The file is usually named after the number book I’m working on — so my current file is called “Sixth Book.”
In this one big file, I collect all the poems I’ve written or currently working on, as well as title ideas, poem ideas, or just good lines I’ve thought of. They are all separated by page breaks, and when I feel like writing a new poem, I just go to the top of the document, do a page break, and start typing. I save everything — I never give up half way through and delete what I’ve written.
And then when I am looking for new pieces to perform or new pieces to submit to lit journals, I have everything I need in one file. There has been numerous instances that I’ve finished a poem that file just so that I had a third poem to include in a lit journal submission — and then had the “just finished” poem be the one poem to get accepted.
I think having all the poems in this one file normalizes them all — everything is a work in progress, and each poem is equal until I start culling out my favorites for my next manuscript.
With nonfiction, I have a file folder titled with my latest project idea, and then each new addition is its own Word file. I keep building and building and building until I reach a tipping point. And that point I try to take all of these little files and merge them into two files: “Stuff in the Book” and “Stuff Not in the Book.”
So that’s how I roll with each form: for poetry, I work on creating one big file from which I pull all my work; and with nonfiction, I create a ton a little files with the goal to fuse them into one.
UF Review: Besides poetry, what are some of your interests and hobbies? Do these activities influence your writing? How?
Aptowicz: I am huge nerd, so I love reading any and all nonfiction (including memoirs), watching documentaries, etc. Anything that could be converted into a trivia question, I’m down. And I think that is definitely reflected in my often-nerdy poetry.
UF Review: As a writer, poet, and performer, how important is it to be part of a community?
Aptowicz: I think it’s extremely important. And I know, considering my background, you might think I am talking exclusively about being a part of the poetry slam community. But when I think of the poetry community, I think of it in much larger terms. I love buying poetry books, and going to poetry readings, and reviewing books by poets I love but have never meet. I like directing people to rad new lit journals, or to great reading series in our area, or nag them to apply for grants and fellowships. As artists in this community, we should be the biggest advocates for our fellow artists and arts organizations. If not us, then who, you know?
UF Review: What advice would you give an aspiring poet or writer?
Aptowicz: Be aggressive about what you love — both within your writing and in your larger community. Be unapologetically aggressive. Read a lot. Write a lot. Share a lot. Love what you love.