She Writes the Body Electric: Aimee Herman (Boulder Weekly, 10/3/2013)

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EROTIC WHITMAN
Brooklyn poet curates collection of inspired erotica
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly

I’ll never forget meeting the poet Aimee Herman on my first day of classes at Naropa University in the winter of 2008, in a workshop led by Maureen Owen, who famously co-directed the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in late-’70s Manhattan. Herman had wild hot-pink hair, dark glasses, a prolific obsession with putting her thoughts on paper, startling confidence and — most obviously — an endless fascination with not just human sexuality but our bodies in general.

As we were roughly the same age, we both feverishly wrote poems that seemed to always include references to sex and the city, and we both had come from harsh but incredibly inspiring places — San Francisco’s Mission District for me, Brooklyn for her — to study writing in the tranquil and relatively isolated setting of Boulder. My ego (about 10 sizes too big at the time) told me I was meeting the female version of myself. Our connection was instant and strong, but it quickly became clear — especially as I continued refusing to read my work aloud while Herman hosted the Folsom St. Coffee Co. open mic and constantly performed — that this outgoing, assiduous, talented young writer was anything but comparable.

Not many writers, for instance, regularly write poems on their own bodies, or perform with their upper torso wrapped in yellow “caution” tape.

“I feel most alive when I’m on a stage,” Herman says, “and I feel most at peace when I’m writing something down.”

Now happily returned to Brooklyn, where Herman’s “heart was born,” thankfully not much has changed. Not even the hair. And what’s most amazing to me is not just that, six years after graduating from Naropa’s writing program, Herman still writes every day (she consoled my contrasting lack of output recently by saying “as long as you’re breathing you’re writing”). It’s more that Herman — who teaches at Bronx Community College and Boricua College, hosts a monthly erotica open-mic in the East Village, habitually collaborates, and is a bona fide fixture on the New York poetry scene — never ceases to be involved.

“Part of finding community is also making community,” she says, “so that’s why I love to host spaces, safe spaces, for other people to express themselves. And, in turn, it feels good to enter other people’s spaces, where I can perform and elaborate on The Word, which has led me to doing more performance art.”

“Coming back to Brooklyn a couple years ago, I didn’t really know anybody,” the poet explains. “I had to start all over.”

Herman says the reason she immediately gravitated toward so many creative New York scribes is that “the people I get along with the most are poets and writers, because they understand, and they pay attention. They notice things. Those are the kind of creatures I want to be around.”

Aimee_Herman

The self-described “performance poet,” who has released numerous solo chapbooks and the full-length to go without blinking (BlazeVox Books), is also doing a lot of work in publishing, from guest-editing issues of poetry journals such as And/Or to working on larger projects, like the just-released The Body Electric (Ars Omnia Press).

Inspired by “I Sing the Body Electric,” the timeless New York poet Walt Whitman’s distinctly American mid-1800s ode to all things physically and spiritually male and female (or genderless), Herman’s new book collects around 50 diversely visceral original works on sex and the human body, some directly inspired by Whitman. The idea for a Whitman-inspired collection of poems about the body came from fellow New York poet Mike Russo, who also chose the black-and-white nude photos included in The Body Electric, and it took Herman about a year to sift through poetry and prose submissions.

“[It was] an interesting process,” she says. “I was really pleased with what was sent to me, and I’m so proud of what’s in there because it’s all really beautiful and eclectic work. Most of the reason why it took so long [to edit] is that some people were sending in erotica, which is fine, but … it’s very easy to write bad erotica, and that’s what I was getting a lot of. I wanted to see risks taken on the page, and when I started to see [submissions] looking beyond just body and just language of the body, these submissions all stirred me in some way.

“And that’s why I write. I’ve read so many fantastic books of poetry and fiction that call my skin to feel like the writer is digging into me. That’s really exciting.”

Though Herman is physically attracted only to women, she says she has no problem identifying with writing that speaks of the body, and of sex, from the straight perspective, which is represented in The Body Electric somewhat less than the homosexual perspective.

“I write erotica and a lot of my erotica has been heterosexual,” she says. “I don’t necessarily feel that there’s a homosexual sex act or a heterosexual sex act. It’s extremely fluid. It really depends on the body. It’s for the humans who are engaging. I don’t feel excluded.”

One would probably assume that Herman became keenly interested in the human body at a very early age, but she never got “The Talk” and says that sex was never discussed in her house growing up (in Manalapan, N.J.). Having been raised Catholic, though Herman was raised Jewish, I can certainly understand her intimation that she most likely became so intensely curious about sex and the body because of a “true unawareness of what existed.”

The poet says she recently said to her mother, “You never told me about sex! Maybe that’s why I’m horny.”

“When I was a kid I was frightened by sex,” Herman admits. “I was curious and frightened at the same time, so as my friends got older and were into boys … I didn’t understand it. But now, as I’ve gotten older, I’m so deeply turned on by what turns other people on, and now that’s become my curiosity. My relationship with sex is extremely complicated, but I think that’s why I write about it so much. It helps me understand my relationship with it.”

Herman, who earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at Long Island University, has a singular ability to captivate a room full of people with her slow, smart and shockingly sincere deliveries of poems about life inside the body and mind of an independent, uncompromising young woman. Even lines from her blog, on which she posts daily, such as “It is difficult not to search for the flaps of skin that may be used like deadbolts to lock out the ones who crawl their way in” (Sept. 23), have a tendency to, as Herman says, “dig in” to a reader. And her time in Boulder, though it often felt foreign, helped shape that vivid, open voice.

“Boulder, to me, was the last place to live because it felt very small, and I wasn’t used to that,” Herman says. “It’s also extremely white, which I’m also not used to. I guess that’s why I love Brooklyn and New York so much, because you feel like you are living deep inside of a globe, where you’re surrounded by every part of the world. So many cultures. You walk two blocks and suddenly you’re in another world.

“Boulder, although the smallness in many ways is lovely because you run into people much quicker and feel like you know everyone, when I moved [there] I moved slower, which is necessary, and I think I found the hippie that was always longing to come out of me. And it has remained, which feels really good. And that I will forever be grateful for. I feel like I found myself because I was surrounded by so many wonderful poets, and it’s a magical place in so many ways.”

The Body Electric and to go without blinking are both available at Amazon. com, and Herman’s blog can be read at aimeeherman.wordpress.com.

Fotographs of Bones: Poetry On Sale

Like just about everything in this country, my latest book, Fotographs of Bones, is on sale right now. For just $3.85.

Working 9-to-5 in an office and spending most of my free time caring for my 14-month-old daughter, poetry hadn’t been on my mind recently…until the publisher of Fotographs of Bones told me yesterday that the book was on sale at Google Books. That news brought me back to April of 2009, when a gathering of friends and local poetry enthusiasts came together to celebrate my book and each other at Saxy’s Cafe in Boulder. It was such an honor to hear a half-dozen of my favorite Colorado poets reading my work aloud, especially Irene Joyce. That night, she and I were the only ones on Earth who knew we were due to have a baby eight months later. Enjoy this clip of Irene reading my poem “Fire and Faith” at the aforementioned Fotographs of Bones release party:

Jen Marie Davis: “Sometime Soon Ago”

Filling the Gaps of Experience
Former Boulderite’s New Book of Poetry Focuses on Life’s “White Noise”
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
9/16/10

There must be something in the mountain air. More and more young writers are coming to Boulder from far-flung American locales, unlearning who they thought they were as artists and people, and then (usually) moving on, spreading the cool, creative calm of Colorado elsewhere.

Naropa University graduate Jen Marie Davis, author of the beautiful new hand-stitched collection Sometime Soon Ago (Shadow Mountain Press, Golden), is a great example. Davis, an Ohio native, initially thought of herself as primarily a prose writer—and then primarily a self-chronicling poet-essayist when she first began dabbling in poetry. Davis’ time in Boulder, she says, taught her to slow down and not only appreciate but also chronicle what she calls life’s “white noise”: ordinary details we tend to overlook as unimportant but actually come to define our experience over time.

These days, Davis lives in Santa Fe, where she works as a book artist, co-edits Fact-Simile Press and engages in fairly complex poetic exercises that bloom out of the intense passion and focus she affords her craft. Sometime Soon Ago, however, presents both Davis’ debut solo effort and a time when she was just getting acquainted with her voice as a poet.

In brief moments such as “After Taos,” which we’ll include in full below, Davis deftly and pleasingly opens the reader’s imagination vis a vis place, time and subject. Instead of pointing us toward a concrete setting with a fixed meaning, Davis succeeds at conveying a feeling, and a range of possibilities.

After Taos

What separated
the morning from
noon was not the stretch;

instead, proximity:

the well-placed promenade
and song between drags
of riverbed.

The short, succinct and unlocked poems of Sometime Soon Ago include references to New York cafes, dance classes, ornithology and the day-to-day struggle to keep a relationship vibrant. These passing flashes of a seemingly normal life stimulate the imaginations of patient, curious readers and suggest fluid and tantalizing implications that grow with each reading.

How Davis plays with tense, shape and sly pronouns—the word “she” is painted all over the proverbial walls of this book—nixed my preconceptions about poetry and meaning as I read Sometime Soon Ago last week on an airplane from New Mexico to Maine. In a brief recent chat, the poet herself told Boulder Weekly the profound elusiveness I discovered in her poems was no accident.

Boulder Weekly: It was surprising, after repeatedly hearing you read your more complex and abstract work in Boulder a few years ago—which I assumed was your older work—to read these charming Frank O’hara-esque koans

Jen Marie Davis: These were actually the very first poems I’d ever seriously written. I had been interested in the compression of time and memory and had written about it in longer [prose] forms. The synchroneity of form and content is very important to me; it seemed wrong to write about compression in a long form—I wanted to successfully communicate an idea or multiple ideas in as few simple lines as possible. At this time, I hadn’t read much poetry, either; certainly not Frank O’Hara—I’m glad to say that I have since. So I was moving from prose—to be more specific literary journalism/creative nonfiction—to these poems, which actually began as the seeds of essays. So, instead of developing these “seeds” into essays, I decided to see if the ideas or themes translated simply in just a few lines. Eventually, with more reading, writing and understanding poetry and language, I was able to move from these to what you referred to as my previous work.

BW: How did your time in Boulder affect you as a person and as a writer?

JMD: Before I moved to Boulder, I had the mindset that unless I was working—writing, reading, researching—I was not being productive as a writer. My time in Boulder slowed me down; I learned contemplative practices and mindful behavior. Noticing what I noticed and why I noticed became just as if not more productive for me as “working” and began to inform my writing. The poems in this chapbook all reflect what I would call short “non-moments”—the kind of things that regularly happen to a person or the thoughts that may cross a person’s mind that tend to go unnoticed. The “white noise” of life. Being in Boulder taught me how to be present and listen to and engage with the “white noise.”

BW: This writing seems much different from what outsiders generally consider the stereotypically free form and messy poetry Naropa writers produce. How did you transcend that style

JMD: I’m not really sure what “stereotypical Naropa poetry” is. During the time I spent at Naropa, I encountered such a variety of aesthetics. I remember one poetry class in which no one was writing in a similar manner, everyone had different concerns, but everyone responded respectfully yet critically despite the differences. That’s actually one of the reasons I really love Naropa and is one of the most important skills that I learned there—how to read and respond to a variety of work. If my work is different from typically Naropa poetry, I would owe it to a background in magazine journalism/creative nonfiction. I read a lot of MFK Fisher, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Anne Carson and philosophy. [Before coming to Boulder] I had never read On the Road, any Ginsberg, really no Beats at all.

BW: One of the most striking moments in Sometime Soon Ago is an opening lines that reads, “She interrupts life to write it down.” Is the overwhelming urge to write ever a curse?

JMD: The curse of forgetting what I wanted to write down always outweighs the curse of writing.

BW: Who is she?

JMD: “She” is an eye, a lens and a position. After taking a lot of workshops in the personal essay and reading a lot of “I”s, I became bored with close personal experience, which led me to become interested in the gap that exists between a writer and third-person narration. Can I write essays in a third-person narration? What shift in perspective happens with the change of position?

BW: How did this project come about?

JMD: [Shadow Mountain Press publisher] Travis Cebula was familiar with my work and asked if I would submit a manuscript. I’ve wrote most of these poems two and half years ago and knew that Travis had read and enjoyed them, so I thought that they would be a good fit. I’m very pleased with the book—Marie Larson, a very talented poet and artist, designed the cover, which I think resonates very well with the contents. My biggest concern when I make a book through my press [Fact-Simile] is that the form resonates with the work. With Marie’s cover, the artisan paper and hand-stitched construction of the book, I think Travis achieved that aim.