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Jul/Aug 2011 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with John Vick

by Elizabeth P. Glixman


I became interested in John Vick's work after seeing/reading his visual auditory poetry on YouTube. Then I read his first chapbook, Chaperons of a Lost Poet (BlazeVox Books, N.Y., 2009).Valerie Fox, a professor at Drexel University, called it "fearless." I also believe John's work is fearless and honest, two qualities I associate with great writing. In John's poetry you enter a world so thoroughly, a world of struggle and reconciliation. Seeing the world as he does can inspire, educate, and console you if you are open to reflection. Deborah Keenan, author of Willow Room, Green Door: New and Selected Poems, has the following to say:

In Chaperons of a Lost Poet, John Vick has created an extraordinary long poem, and become part of a great tradition of American writers who have chosen to examine heritage, gender, hunger, desire, intense self-doubt, and history... there's great sorrow in these pages, hard-won wisdom, laughter, too, and a remarkable self-portrait emerges.

Vick has worked as an administrative assistant in various environments, and as a leasing manager, night auditor, collections agent, claims clerk, retail salesman, danseur, and waiter. He was also a member of the U.S. Military. He took coursework at the University of Oklahoma, Suffolk University, Merrimack College, Harvard Extension School, and the University of Minnesota. Born in Mississippi, he's lived in Canada, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Hampshire, and he now resides in Minnesota. He has been published nationally and internationally in both print and electronic publications including qarrtsiluni, phati'tude, The Red Room: Writings from Press 1, Dislocate, Laura Hird, and Poems Niederngasse. He occasionally serves as a teaching artist at The Loft Literary Center.

 

EG     Let's begin with your conceptual poetry on YouTube. What is conceptual poetry?

JV     I do not know of a consensus on what constitutes conceptual poetry in the absolute, but I have no other place to fit myself, in my reflection, than under that umbrella.

The poems on YouTube, which I designate as "conceptual," are not known or planned. Only the process takes place, and that is very much a conceptual approach. My process begins by taking either an old photo—such as a high school image from the 1970s—or a new photo—such as light bulbs, hands, fire—and applying various filters and effects to it, plus layers of other photos, until I have something that inspires me to write. I stare at the photo on one side of the screen and write, essentially with stream-of-consciousness, on the other side of the screen. To me, that process-over-planned-outcome constitutes the essence of conceptual poetry, albeit not the usual outcome of a primal scream, or passing gas. I say it in jest, but there are those who would say the difference in what I do, and conceptual poetry in truest form, is exactly that.

I think in general terms, my video poetry isn't necessarily meant to be read as a whole, and while I pan across the lyrics to my pieces, the poems, in my videos, I also make large prints of some of them, which are really solely visual works with an option to read the words should one want to do so. I hope that some people will want to read the words, but that is not the point of what I am doing.

I feel like there is a lot to explore with video. I certainly only know a few basics, and that is evident in my work, but I get better as time goes forward. My instinct is to get as far away from my comfort zone as possible. My hope is to come up with something worthy.

EG     What was the catalyst for this project, and why the YouTube platform?

JV     I work with a group of women (I am the only guy in the group), who I have known for just under a decade. We challenge each other to go specific stretches of time writing a new work daily. Providing positive commentary to each other increases productivity, and we learn from each other. It is difficult to churn out 30 poems in one month, so I have always used visual art to garner some impetus before those months begin. For the most part, that art is lost; scratched, dusty, from years of being considered only warm-up work. Much of it was also done without the benefit of digital preservation. Years ago, I would record their poems and share them, oftentimes using a popular music background. I think the advent of digital recording, where one can correct and re-record with such ease, has nudged me along.

Someone suggested I start holding onto the visual work in late 2010, so I endeavored to make it digital and save it (redundantly, as I advise for anyone working electronically). Because I did not know what to do with the work, I chose YouTube as a platform and developed it into short films with transitions and background music.

EG     The music, the images, the timing were well synchronized. How did you do this? Do you have any training in art or graphics or music?

JV     I was forced into piano lessons for a good bit of my youth, though I was never one bit talented at it. I took band in junior high and high school to avoid the horrors of physical education. I ended up being an okay clarinetist, even playing in an all-state band my junior year. Of course, it was not an especially cultural state, so the worth of that should not be taken too highly, but it was an education I remember. A couple of the first pieces I did have other's work as background music, but I segued into using my Mac's GarageBand program to create all background "noise," which I still create for current work. The music, like the poetry, is performed at-the-moment, meaning I choose my sounds, play my pre-recorded recitation of the poem, and accompany it. Little revision occurs in that process beyond minor trimming.

The timing is accomplished by accompanying each poem in a separate unit of sound, applying that vocal audio to the repeated stills in iMovie, then returning to GarageBand and recording the overall track. The iMovie video scrolls by at the top of the GarageBand screen, so it is easy to make the units a whole; to tie them together with something in addition to what I hope is a commonality that exists between them by themselves.

EG     For what reason are there underscores in the titles of the videos like "HE GRASP_ #1 thorugh #4"?

JV     I use "HE_GRASP," etc., as an ode back to the days when one could not put spaces between the alphanumerics in file names—clearly I don't obey the rule entirely, as I add the numbers at the end without the underscore. I used it in some of the first visual poems I retained digitally, and for me there is an attachment to filename conventions in general. Perhaps a call back to working in legal secretary environs and the military as well (where a consistency in filename conventions is critical).

EG     What did you do in the military?

JV     I was what they called at "titless wonder," in the Air Force. The term is grossly sexist as it is partially meant in the most derogatory of ways. However, it is also the name for someone to whom everyone else has to go for any administrative need. I worked in a weapons storage area that housed aircraft-ready nukes. I did a lot given my job title, and it wasn't a bad gig. I was able to get away from the desk twice a day for a mail run to the main part of base. I went to a film on decontamination at some point. It was lame training. As I recall, the decontamination method included affixing strips of masking tape to the outside of your protective gear; I don't recall the reason, so it seems odd today. I was given the main duty as to decontamination on an emergency roster because my superiors in the office preferred not to mess with regulations for the task. I read the regulations only once and merely scanned the updates. There did not seem to be much hope in such a situation. In the 1980s, there was a distinct possibility of mutual destruction, therefore total destruction, as the arsenals between the U.S. and Soviet Union were obnoxiously powerful, and the U.S. exaggerated, perhaps deliberately, what was the significantly smaller Soviet arsenal of weaponry.

There was also a very long and oftentimes lonesome walk from the security gate by the parking lot to the cinderblock building in which I worked. The squarish structure was down a little road leading to igloos (weapons' buildings housing nuclear missiles). In the wintertime, the wind off the Great Bay in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was brutal. In addition, the walk took a while to complete. I thought about my situation on those walks. The way I wanted to serve and I liked my job, yet I had to keep a major secret about myself, my life. It was surreal. I think my nature at the time may have rejoiced in the surrealism of it.

EG     How do you feel about the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell?

JV     I was uncomfortably pleased when President Clinton at least achieved what he did with DADT, and the discomfort accompanying it was pretty bad—I knew what had passed actually may have made the issue worse. So upon its repeal, I was indeed moved. I might note that the most intelligent and capable airmen in my squadron were very stand-up when word was out about my impending discharge for homosexuality. There was a group of miscreants, however—a misguided and no doubt confused group—but their actions were minimized by the more reasonable people in the squadron. In my case, in an effort to say what the "real" policy was in USAF before DADT came into effect—when "homos" and "commies" were all they had to investigate—I was offered a new base and clean record if I would testify against the subject of a court martial (for homosexuality). Therefore, my value as an airman, even at that time, exceeded any perceived sexuality. They literally wanted me to say I had participated in a homosexual act, but the other guy was the homosexual and I was "taken advantage of." It smacks. It is hypocrisy in a markedly destructive form. The other airman had behavior issues that in any other case would have resulted in a reprimand. His court martial was a fraud, and I refused to testify, taking the discharge for homosexuality.

A point one might take from this is that, given the better airmen in my squadron (even in 1983-84) were very decent to me, and given that there was at least one AFOSI officer at the time who would keep a gay man based on merit, even while discharging another unfairly, indicates that among the rank and file today—given the extent to which teamwork is emphasized in the military—will have no issues with gay and lesbian enlistees as to their sexuality, none beyond the number of those biased against, for instance, redheads. I do believe it would be more appropriate if people of all backgrounds and gender role identification could contribute (toward peace, of course) by enlisting in the military. And I have to add that all members of the armed services must be paid much more than they are presently paid. That we send those from meager backgrounds and little hope—as to affording a higher education—to foreign soil to die on our behalf is immorality in purest form. Attracting a more diverse military population, and again, a much better paid force, would better our situation in the world.

EG     Yes, certainly hypocrisy was involved. In light of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, could you get the reason listed for discharge changed today or some kind of reparation like even an apology? (I know I am a dreamer, but...)

JV     Well, certainly "reparations" sounds nice for those who have fallen victim to gay discrimination by governments. I think black Americans have much more direct evidence of my government's deliberate oppression—an oppression I have not seen lifted near to the extent I have seen progress in acceptance of the GLBT community over my lifetime. The kind of discrimination gay people have suffered over the centuries is so vast, I can hardly see any possibility of adequate reparations for the GLBT community. I hope that a recognition of "fabulousness" (in all regards) in the community can at least serve as the world's acknowledgement of equality. Women could make similar claims to the GLBT community's, as to centuries-long discrimination—and that is where my point lies as to vastness.

EG     Often writers develop their voice after years of writing. How long have you been writing, and when do you believe your discovered your voice?

JV     Aha, the "voice" question. It always comes up in workshops and conversations, especially in younger writers who feel they do not have a voice. In fact, we all have our "voice" from the first words we utter, if not before then with our gutturals and coos as infants. Voice is engrained in us. What we learn is how to translate it using the terminology that best expresses it. We cannot be true, though. It is impossible for one to fully express her paradigm in writing. The best we can do is use the voice we have at the moment fingers hit the keyboard, or pen goes to paper, brush to canvas. That is one's "voice," and I challenge any poet to look back on a high school love poem, or college essay, and declare that they do not hear themselves in the words.

I began writing around 1988, when I purchased Writing Down the Bones, while living in Boston. I had a number of notebooks gathered over the years, then in the mid-90s I had a small computer with a very early version of Word on it. There isn't much left of that writing. My retention of every hard drive I've had preserves some of it. One aspect of this is that while a computer is fairly sturdy, printers are not, and I traveled a great deal, rarely owning a working printer. I've been told we should look back—I suppose I fear the fate of Lot's wife. There is a gadget you can plug any old hard drive into and it will extract all the data. That may be in my future regardless of fears. Most of the writing was pure journaling. Poetry came to me after moving to Minneapolis in 1995.

EG     Some of your poems have a spiritual sense, others feel a little manic, a little, pardon me, insane.

JV     Well, they are exclusively thoughts, and that they ever make sense is no longer a surprise to me when I return to read them. I am a little insane, I suppose, but no one is in danger. I rarely have a clue about what I am writing except to let out each successive word, hoping that they make sense when I am done. There is an exercise called "Six" online somewhere—and probably in untold viral emails—wherein one is required to recite the number six in mathematical equations, etc., and through rapid repetition. Then the exercise asks you to name a vegetable. Well, I immediately said, "cumquat," which is not a vegetable, nor does it have six letters (which was not a requirement, but presumed toward the answer). Apparently 98% of people answer, "carrot," and that I did not is truly disturbing. Not only was I in the 2% of oddities, but I was wrong as well.

Also, I have trained myself relatively well in taking a step down from consciousness to write. It was an unexpected outcome given the impetus. I had a hip surgery in the middle of the last decade and was fearful of becoming addicted to codeine. The pain was best controlled, I found, through meditation. I began to read a lot about Buddhism and decided there was some worth to it. As an agnostic, I heavily questioned some of its tenets, but when I heard the Dalai Lama say, "Where science and Buddhism differ, Buddhism must change," I was quite taken with both him and Tibetan Buddhism. I abhor religion in general, as it was all created by men who apply their personal sense of right and wrong to a supposed all-knowing god (who no doubt would have its own sense of morality—a perfect one). Given that all religious individuals claim that only their god is all-knowing and all-seeing, I find it contradictory that they can apply their personal concepts of morality to printed tales which have been bastardized over the centuries, from what were once the belief systems of ancient mystics and those who believed the world was flat. So, is that an indictment of Buddhism along with Christianity and the whole lot of other belief systems? Perhaps, but I cannot shake the Dalia Lama's statement about science. That, to me, makes the philosophy of Buddhism an exception to the rule in some ways.

EG     Have you every written poetry where conscious intention came first?

JV     Yes, and usually it is lousy poetry. I cannot write very well with intention and I am not sure that is where the best fiction and poetry are created. Non-fiction, to me, is the realm where one first decides what they will write about, how it will play out; and usually there is an agenda. If one is writing good poetry, one slants the truth as homage to Dickinson, and expresses their personal truth through lies and deception. There is no way to fully express one's paradigm by using empirical fact. That is boring. One's true worldview is more effectively expressed through imagination.

EG     How do you define the word chaperon related to the chapbook? I think of a chaperone as someone who helps people go to a dance or on a trip and the people are often young needing supervision.

JV     These are, obviously given the word choice, male chaperons, and I use the term precisely as your interpretation suggests. There are five distinct (I hope) voices in Chaperons of a Lost Poet, and I view them all as guides through an exploration that is at times immature, or at least reflective of stages in my life, that was wrought with immaturity. My growth and introspective search for meaning and purpose needed and still needs those five voices as a double-check, a tickler system, as supervisors of my behavior, whether directing me toward fun or seriousness.

EG     We all have a cast of characters or voices inside us. What are those five voices? If you would rather a reader read your book to find them, you can take the fifth.

JV     There is an italicized voice that is very critical, probably a part of one that catalogs the worst in us, as our introspection's analysis of action occurs. The floating boxes are that part of us that remembers authoritarian books—the kind that seem to look down on you, but are rather reference books that are, in fact, correct. Therefore, all those bits of empirical knowledge behind them—the ones we remember, anyway, the ones that define our world view. The narrative voice, is a manic voice, but at the edge of hyper-effectiveness, I think—as that voice manages a good deal of sustained amusement with life and embracing of it. I find the voice in regular font the most frequent in my case. Probably too introspective in some respects, but there is a lot to sort out and I move quite slowly. The fifth voice, which was added last at a friend's suggestion, is the footnotes, which are scattered throughout the chapbook. Those footnotes are the part of you that collects bookmarks—the highlighted areas of a textbook one cannot forget or everything around them would come tumbling down.

EG     There are passages of recognition of misdeeds about same sex relationships in your work. Here is an excerpt from Chaperons:

I really must address
this quietness with some music, to drown out
the sounds of the garden Buddha chanting, the cat's
purr, the trickle of the fountain out the window.
I hear too much when it is this quiet,
and the truth is that kid was obsessive
at a time stalking wasn't pop culture–
so you may be somewhat right,
but as far as that kid goes,
he pretty much flickered away.

So you aren't going to mention the day.
The day in front of the Boston Public Library.
When he yelled John probably nine, ten times.
You just kept on,
and you never turned your head or hinted
at a smile or nod. You really just chose
to be vicious. You really just chose
something totally uncool. I'm putting my foot
down here. You need to reinvent your story.
You step into denial too easily.

JV     You are the first person to advance that question, regarding this part of the long poem, directly to me. I think it is disturbing in its honesty toward a type of situation we have been in at some point, and whether or not one is able to admit that to oneself.

There is little slant on the story you cite. In fact, the young man terrified me as I saw much of myself as a young hustler of sorts in him. He wanted to move in with me. He had only recently graduated from high school, which he completed while living on his own, as his family life had been abusive. Social services allowed him emancipation when he was eighteen. I was ten years older and the thought of that type of involvement, especially in that it put me in the role of "sugar daddy" (albeit a young one), was overwhelmingly frightening. I was determined, as I have been often in life, not to treat others as I was treated and not to repeat the history from which I have come. We generally behave in the way we are treated, and despite the utter rudeness toward him, I believe I saved myself. The critical voice in Chaperons has many good points, but they point to manners more than motivation and outcome.

EG     It is always good to hear about the motivation of a character or narrator that is not explicitly said in a work. You had many struggles with gender growing up that are recorded in your poetry. I like the line, "I realize now that the baby blanket was merely / precursor to a life of investigating gender," in this excerpt that describes an early experience:

There was cause to do drag. It was 1980 in
Norman, Oklahoma. There was fabulousness in the
air. David was doing it and the other David said
he'd help us both become gorgeous. I did not drag
well, sister-woman-girlfriend. There were several
reasons not to feel much like a woman, yet David
(the first one) ended up with a football player in
the back of a Chrysler Imperial outside the afterhours
bar and continues to put on a get up to this
day; a lot of work for an extremely hirsute, now
middle-aged, rough-at-the-edges man.
The red and black outfit was usually wall art, pieces
pinned, glued, and nailed like a bad three-dimensional
Vogue cover sans model. It represents
a lack of hobby, one more remnant of something
just not working out. That spice rack from high
school workshop never stained. The outfit
represents complete, utter, uncontrollable manic
lunacy. How many days until the mascara washed
away? How many ways to say how real it all
was–the best time of your life–nimbus clouds all
rained out. And there was a young hustler who
wore false teeth and a ready smile. And I paid him
twenty which he loaned back to me for pizza after
sparking our brief affair. And he was the perfect
size.

You see, dressing up was the easy part. It's the
walking, the lifting of voice and vise of a corset.
So, there was a dance when I was seven, and
what an age of adventure and make-believe to
remember.
And I danced with my baby blanket as gown
(after all, My Fair Lady was on the 8-track). I
was dancing all night as Audrey Hepburn at
the movies; my name was Eliza and I was
pretty.
My much-feared father entered stage left and
said to my reddened shock, "don't stop let's
dance," and we did, albeit uncomfortably. But,
I realize now that the baby blanket was merely
precursor to a life of investigating gender.
What I understand is there wasn't just one boy
wearing his mother's shoes on occasion. I
know a simple plan will let me dream of it for
sure and isn't that the flash of fine lace in life;
of the angelic part of the brain that says you are
supernatural. The part that lived so vibrantly at
sixteen years and today lies buried in a cerebral
alcove of dust and paper mites.

You are very open about all that has happened to you.

JV     Well, yes, you have nailed it. I want to share my life in this way for anyone who feels alone with her/his emotions. While many of us, as artists, are dreadfully in tune with the permanence of our pain, others are not. Youth frequently are not. If I can make anyone say to themselves, "Hey that's as fucked as my life was/is. Maybe there is hope," then I have succeeded.

EG     Is that struggle with yourself, society, and your family gone or ongoing?

JV     Honestly, it is over to the extent that I feel no more damage could possibly be done to me. I've become a bit bitter and cold in the past couple of decades. I retain humanity, and am told I'm considerate, but the best thing I think came from the journey of my earlier life is that I deal with change frighteningly well. Change, being that pit we fall into and must crawl out of slowly, is a slipstream to the top of the wall for me. That said, I eventually react to change of a significant sort about a year later (I think that is referred to as "avoidant behavior")—nearly like clockwork—in the manner of a brief hour or so breakdown and lashing out loud—near always when alone—at the instigators of negative change in my life. Then it is gone.

EG     What is your new poetry book about?

JV     My recent unpublished manuscript is about observation. Well, that is what a poet does. It is my world view in the form of an explanation of process. I wrote it in the early winter of 2010, showed it to a few trusted friends with the question, "Is this anything?" Largely my concern was that the first draft of a very long—book length—sequence came out relatively quickly, over the period of a couple of months. The original piece had more than 80 sections, now there are significantly fewer. It is surreal. It is imagination-based.

The gist of it is that within each section, and in the umbrella of its entirety, one can understand the tangent connecting the first and second images/ideas written when one reads through the third or fourth idea. The tangents are thin and purely a result of the connotations which come to my mind. Because they are primarily relative to me, my hope is that they are at least identifiable as tangents, or felt as such, regardless as to whether one actually understands my world view as it drives them through their reading.

So, through describing my observations and ways of looking at the world, I hope to get the feeling of my existence across to the reader without shoving it in their face. There is no lyric "I" in the sequence. ("I" is used twice as quoted remarks from the subject of the poem.) My intent in removing "I" is to set the sequence apart from myself as a tool for anyone to use. While a reader of the first draft suggested I insert myself into the book with the pronoun, my decision was to make the reader feel it was universal. My point in doing so is that my view of the world is universal to me, so why make an ownership of it when I am constantly making futile efforts not to insult people's intelligence—often to my detriment, as frequently they have no idea to what I'm referring (no doubt due to my own dysfunction). Thus, my desire to relate my experiences as universal stems from a simple—universal—search for understanding by others, and perhaps acceptance.

 

Check out John Vick on YouTube.

 

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