Alex Porco talks to Laura Jaramillo

Laura-Jaramillo“Matter in the Symbolic Universe”:  An Interview with Laura Jaramillo

AP: Before we delve proper into your wonderful debut collection of poetry, Material Girl (Subpress 2012), could you perhaps introduce your ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’ self to readers? (New York City and, more specifically, Queens— where I believe you spent your formative years— are embedded in the language, tone, and overall feel of the book; and you now live in Durham, North Carolina.) Also, could you speak a little to the origin(s) of Material Girl as a book?

LJ: Material Girl was written over four years, from when I was about to leave Philadelphia to move back to my hometown [Queens, NY] and I finished writing the book during my first year living in Durham, NC.

Material Girl is about a lot of things, but its narrative arc follows the narrative arc of my own life during those few years: leaving Philly, returning to New York and ultimately deciding to leave NY for North Carolina.  A lot of the book expresses my anger and disenchantment about the now hyper-gentrified city I grew up in, but at the same time, I hoped in writing the book to represent what was local, what was actually provincial about NYC (as opposed to an image of the city as the capital of the world) and a lot of that occurs at the level of language, though I am not necessarily good at capturing dialect. When I lived in Queens, one of my great pleasures was going to the supermarket and talking to the cashiers who were like the most insanely friendly high school kids in the world, and I think a lot of those conversations are reflected in some of the poems in the section of MG called “Civilian Nest.”

Place is an enduringly powerful node in my writing practice and as such, it was also really important to me to write about Philadelphia, Durham, and Bogotá (Colombia) as these rich landscapes that produce their own very specific psychic and cultural energies. Both gentrification and globalization pretend to be able to erase the specificity of place and that is an erasure I try to resist in my writing. The three sections of Material Girl have different formal parameters and respond to different things I wanted to explore in language during the years I wrote them, but the three sections end up coalescing around certain material life questions that reasserted themselves continuously over those years: what it means to leave, to arrive, to return, to be from, to live, is one ever home?

AP: I’d like to move deliberately— though leaving room for digression— through Material Girl’s three sections: “The Reactionary Poems,” “Civilian Nest,” and “Material Girl.” Originally published as a chapbook in 2007 by Olywa Press, “The Reactionary Poems” reads like social satire, as you tackle those “central hypocrisies” (your own included) that get conveniently muted within the “pre-recorded applause” of everyday life. From advertising copy to war, from authenticity to romance, from narcissism to Nationalism— your minimalist lyrics are equal parts “party” and “wake,” and they possess perversely comic titles (e.g., “I Like Violence Cuz They Smell Nice,”  “F U Think You Are the God of Paintball”). But, as with all good satire, you are speaking “from / the wound” that “pours light / on the fact of being flesh in the world.” Can you talk about finding your way to the “minimalist” mode of satire you arrived at in the section, and the difficulty of channeling anger and the wound into that mode. In addition, can you talk about the importance of titles, which are alternately throw-away jokes, acts of misdirection, or comically disproportionate in diction, imagery, or tone.

LJ: I wrote “The Reactionary Poems” after a very long time of not being able to write anything that felt enjoyable for me or for anyone else to read. I was post-MFA and I felt like that process had erased my personality as a writer, which was probably good because it forced me to basically start over. I started writing these little tiny poems when I had formerly been much more of a maximalist. For a long time, I was stuck in a deadly serious poetry rut, somewhere between soft surrealism and shitty ekphrasis, and so in reaction to that, I started to experiment with ways of writing where I could just tell jokes. I experimented with sticking these kind of sad, tiny poems with funny, collected scrap language as the title and that disjunction between the body of the poem and the title became the joke.

I’m really interested in the thin line between comedy and tragedy and that place is where my discursive style is rooted, both in my writing and in my life. Humor allowed me to be more tragic. And I felt what was going on in this country as tragic in the extreme: I started those poems right before the market crashed in 2008 and the housing bubble popped. I remember an environment saturated with fear, and it felt necessary to write something that acknowledged our collective vulnerability as I felt it from my own body, but to defang that vulnerability and expose the ridiculousness of a situation in which neo-liberalism in all its absurd contradictions, could leave so many people in such a precarious state.

AP: On the one hand, there is this desire to examine “tragedy in the extreme” and to express “our collective vulnerability”— in other words, to go big! On the other hand, you paradoxically go big through very intimate representations and critiques of care— or rather “carelessness” (individual, communal, institutional)— in a time of crisis. Could you discuss that ethical dimension to the poems? In addition, could you talk more about the relationship you imagine between telling a joke and writing a poem.

LJ: My predilection for dark, dry humor comes at least partially from my family, who is Colombian, and lived through the violence of the War on Drugs and the economic crisis of the 80’s and 90’s there, but there were always jokes to be made from all of this shocking corruption and from a very real sense of being totally fucked. Humor is a way maintaining and affirming dignity, even a way of affirming reason in unlivable, irrational situations. In general, I am really attracted to works that with greater or lesser subtlety invokes justice, says, “xyz thing is some bullshit! I’m gonna deconstruct it and in the process point to the contradictions inherent in living in the world and the impossibility of justice, the sublimity of that” (I am thinking here of works like by I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, Hughson’s Tavern by Fred Moten, Not Me by Eileen Myles, The Dead Lecturer by Amiri Baraka—and obviously I am being somewhat facetious here—denunciation is only one of the modes at play in these works, but it is one I have found intensely compelling.) So for me, humor allows me to perform this deconstruction without feeling like a distanced, superior interlocutor; it keeps me implicated.

But humor is probably very much about distance too, so there’s always that bind between wanting to have the distance to do things with language but also to address the ethical as it gets filtered through the personal. This latter part is probably where notions of care come in for me. The structure of our lives under late-capitalism, promotes a kind of carelessness towards each other, but also towards our own bodies and our own experiences, and while I would never ever call my writing therapeutic, writing has often functioned for me as way to reconfigure sentience and affect, language and images into more coherent relations than everyday life would usually allow me to. Maybe what my experience in the American creative writing system taught me is that you can learn to write a poem where you don’t get your hands dirty (whether it be through documentary poetics, conceptual flarfeneutics, confessionalism, or whatever), but that the work that feels actually good to write and feels good to read operates in a delicate field between the personal and the world, a play of sometimes uncomfortable proximity and distance.

I really love so much comedy it’s hard to even recall or list it all but: Monty Python, Katt Williams (whose stand-up routines are surprisingly bound up with ideas of care), (early) Margaret Cho, Steve Coogan, Charlie Chaplin, (Freak-era) John Leguizamo, Richard Pryor, Tina Fey, Kids in the Hall, this brilliant Spanish t.v. show Muchachada Nui, the list could go on forever.

AP: It seems appropriate—  given “xyz thing is some bullshit!”— to ask how you feel about the avant-garde. With a poem like “Music for Blown Out Speakers,” I get a sense that you’re suspicious of its recent codified or “hip” formations and manifestations. I get a sense that you’re not exactly satisfied with what it can do, what it purports to do, and for whom: “as if that supremely / impersonal avant-garde could pave over, even express / our peasant sufferings.” It has the power to “level difference,” as much as anything else.

LJ: Well, I guess I will put it two ways, which are not always reconcilable:

1. I see what’s infinitely cool and sexy about Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle sitting in a tree and Mina Loy hanging out with the Futurists. I see how these relationships and these formations of friends and lovers produced certain beautiful energies that can still be detected on the surface of their texts. And I see what’s also infinitely cool and sexy about all of modernism’s declarations, it’s manifestoes, it’s tangled fascist and anarchist politics.

2. But we’re in like the infinite hangover of modernism now, and there’s in contemporary poetry still this drive for the “new,” or for a rupture that historically/aesthetically has already happened and that has really lost its shock value. And however much conceptualists don’t make a claim for the new, the whole public performance of conceptualism, with its injunctions against expressivity and its appropriation of the banal, re-inscribe this whole historical avant-garde posture of de-familiarizing the audience with a cheeky gesture. Which is fine and has at times sparked interesting debates, but that’s not where the work lives, for me. I’m also a little exhausted hearing about the avant-gardes of white American men when there are all these post-WWII radical avant-gardes that happened in Latin America, in the Antilles, in Africa, in southern Europe, and people did some radical shit tactically and aesthetically, so right now, I wanna hear about that stuff.

I believe profoundly in avant-garde culture as I believe in wild stabs at utopia (fiercely, madly). But maybe I believe in a micro-utopian, micro-avant-garde practice, not one of grand gestures and P.R. machines.

AP: The final section of your book is “Material Girl,” the long poem— or, as you comically describe it, a “non-epic accretion / of happenings.” There are multiple lines of inquiry introduced in the poem’s first section, including fashion, feminism, mental health, and the pressures of urban experience exerted upon intimacy. It’s a rather disenchanting poem. However, it’s not impervious to the utter glamorousness of Madonna’s “Material Girl” camp. It still makes room for pure joy. I mean, fashion, for example, can be as vacuous as a “shopping bag full / of shopping bags” but it’s also can be something blissful— it can matter. Can you talk about the poem, especially its multiple takes on the “material” and its relation to the long poem genre? Also, more tangentially, are you a “material girl”?

LJ: I think a lot of this question centers around the theme of escapist pleasures that come up a lot in “Material Girl,” to which I’ll say, that escapist pleasures are hugely important to me personally. So they’re in the work because they’re part of my day. I have the relationship that probably a lot of women have to fashion, where it’s kind of a fantasy but it’s also a small-scale project of thinking and rethinking aesthetics on a personal scale. There’s nothing more soothing to me than looking at couture collections on-line because fashion is a lot about manipulating the body through forms. It’s like how much formal invention can come from the cut of a simple skirt—the permutations are endless and I love that.

On one hand, a question that I try to work through in “Material Girl” has to do with navigating so much matter that gets churned out by consumer society. But on the other hand, I find the images and surfaces of consumer cultures, especially ones directed at women, really absorbing and seductive. And I’m interested in capturing this disjunction between my seduction and my alienation from things like fashion.

AP: “A small-scale project of thinking and rethinking aesthetics on a personal scale”— I’d like to follow this up and ask you about tattoos, the decussatory crossing of “matter” (i.e., the physical body “manipulated”) and “the symbolic universe” (visual-textual signs) on a personal or small scale. How are tattoos part of the pleasure or alienation you describe? What tattoos do you have? In part, the reason I am compelled to ask these questions is I’ve come to realize how my own tattoos are sources of aesthetic pleasure and symbolic meaning but, also, they function as archives of important autobiographical occasions (both positive and negative). As such, they are part of my writing life.

LJ: Yeah, my tattoos are a big part of my (writing) life. I have lots and am working towards sleeves, after which I promised myself I would stop. At first, I started getting tattoos simply because I think they’re beautiful, especially sailor tattoos, which have their own history and lore. I’ve always liked the idea of manipulating the body, and of decorative excess and for me tattoos are that, a baroque-ness inscribed onto the skin. But over time, I’ve gotten more literary, personally meaningful tattoos—a hyacinth, in reference to the hyacinth girl at the beginning of the Waste Land, two Apollinaire calligrammes, and a commemorative tattoo for my first creative writing teacher and good friend Karyn Kay, who died last year. Other of my tattoos have taken on meaning over time, like my first one which was two mermaids and a clipper ship on which I eventually filled in the banner with the line from the song La Bamba, “soy capítan.” But in general, the thing that I love about my own tattoos and other people’s is the accretion of symbols and occasions, graphics and words, sometimes meaningful and sometimes not, massed on the surface of the skin.

AP: Returning to “Material Girl”: it often moves quickly from cultural critique to ekphrasis, from biting satire (“But the ladies, / they have so many choices now / they wear high heels they wear sneakers”) to interjections of the abject. But, the second section of the poem— in homage to Frank O’Hara— begins, “The immigrant mothers of America / do not approve this message // or the use of psycho- / tropics // in the treatment of depression…” Elsewhere, you describe a “waiting room” that’s more interested in administrative policy and practices than helping patients. How does the notion of care or help (including self-help) inform the poem?

LJ: This is a question, which I can’t hope to answer exhaustively, but I will say that my own struggle to care for myself in various ways (emotionally, physically, psychically) is present in my poems (whence some of the abjection). I feel extremely critical of various self-help discourses, new age thought, and of psychotherapy, and at the same time, have been helped by these discourses and further, saturated by them. So there’s a contradiction there that I find myself inhabiting with extreme unease.

I want the pain of living to be tolerable but I am not a unitary I— I am I in relation to others. Not sure this is a totally resolvable problem, but Foucault’s writings on the care of the self have been incredibly helpful for me in rethinking the dynamic between the social and the self. He argues, after the Epicurians, that we cannot have an ethical relationship to others without having a discipline of the self, an ascetics. I love that Foucault foregrounds the necessity of pleasure in the ethics of the care of the self.

AP: Your answer returned me to lines I love from your more recent work, Cannibal Sonnets: “So constant is / my care // the hurt that I / sustain // suffers less / her scorn // than her scorn / being vain.” Cannibal Sonnets is a work of concrete poetry that includes English and Spanish text. Could you describe your new project— and how it engages the history of the “sonnet” (playfully), among other things.

Also, I am curious about the issue of prosody: that is, the visual prosodies of Cannibal Sonnets versus what feels like O’Hara-esque “go with your gut” prosody of Material Girl— though, Material Girl also draws on the rhythms of the list/index, advertising, popular song, and everyday vernacular talk. How do you think about rhythm in your poetic practice?

LJ: Cannibal Sonnets was a project I started based on comparative research into Brazilian concrete poetry and Cuban neobaroque poetry (which also includes quite a bit of concrete poetry). I was interested in the graphic aspects of the Brazilian concretists and of Apollinaire’s calligrammes, of how powerful the conjunction of graphic and word can be when it’s done right, it can be so visceral, for example, Apollinaire’s crown calligramme which says “the king who dies is reborn in the hearts of poets.” I also am a little bit obsessed with Cuban neo-baroque poet Severo Sarduy’s concretist works in his Big Bang book (I will add that I consider Sarduy generally to be one of the most unjustifiably neglected writer-poet-queer theorists-geniuses of the twentieth-century). Within the ambit of international avnt-garde concretism, the Brazilian concretists’ minimalism leaves me a little cold, both at the level of language and at the visual level, and yet, I find Haroldo de Campos’ theoretical work on cannibalism so compelling. Campos writes about how rather than subsuming Latin American culture under colonization, European culture gets cannibalized by the native culture––adapted and hybridized, and syncretized and fucked with from architecture to literature to religion. Which I think is an interesting way of conceiving of mainstream/subaltern culture more broadly. I wanted to cannibalize concrete poetry, cannibalize my own habitual English, my own fear of writing poems in Spanish, and appropriate various classical texts to see what would come out of it.

The poems themselves mirror architectural forms common in New World Baroque Architecture. I chose the sonnet form because it’s a form that Sor Juana wrote in a lot and because I wanted to work within a somewhat classical framework. I also, of course, just love the Berrigan-esque loose sonnet form. I can’t write an interesting “correct” sonnet to save my life.

I’ve tended to go back and forth in my writing between a graphic prosody and a more musical, aural prosody. My earliest full-length work takes sections of Benjamin’s Arcades Project as graphic chunks that I intercut with my own narrative. I think my ultimate aspiration is to one day be able to write in both modes at once, but it hasn’t really happened yet—it seems like it would take an extraordinary amount of skill to do that. I find one of the things that I continually find to be true about the graphic works is that it demands a simpler vocabulary to “work” and that can feel limiting. The nice thing about Material Girl, where the page space is pretty unambitious is that it frees up the language a lot.

AP: Thank you so much for answering the questions, Laura. But, before we (officially) conclude the interview, I have only one last question. (It occurs to me, I just sounded like Detective Columbo!) We both share affection for the great Ghostface Killah. Supreme Clientele remains a personal touchstone, and it includes the incomparable “Save Me”— Ghostface expressively rapping over Freddie Scott, being archly romantic along the way: “baby, your the greatest / I’mma sell my guns, and with the cash I’mma bring you to Vegas…” What’s the draw to Ghostface?

LJ: Oh man, Ghostface. So, I just can’t even deal with Ghostface’s mix of soul and rapping. Because he’s all smooth and romantic, and at the same time tough, and then super fucking funny. Obviously charisma is requisite to being a famous rapper, but dude’s got charisma in spades with his lisp and his squeaky voice. Rap and poetry are two related but different arts, but I truly aspire to Ghostface’s lyricism and his capacity to weave these bizarre narratives into his raps.


from Material Girl


I, on the other hand, am
miniaturizing so my anger
doesn’t lose its



Well, we (poets)
have a code which I can tell you
now that the jig is up. We place
the (commemorative) Reagan stamps
upside down on
the envelopes, then we abdicate
the very idea
of communication



Go there
so our eyes can’t
meet here
across the room the Yankees
are playing
like shit this year


LAURA JARAMILLO is a poet from Queens. She is the author of chapbooks The Reactionary Poems (olywa press, 2008) and Civilian Nest (Love Among the Ruins, 2010). Material girl (Subpress, 2012) is her first full-length book of poems. She studies Latin American and Spanish cinema at Duke University, where she is pursuing her Ph.D. Her poems have been translated into Spanish and Persian.

ALEX PORCO is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He specializes in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. He received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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