Small Maneuvers and Big Effects

Garrett Caples wrestles with “the impervious world” in his latest collection, Lovers of Today.
Graffiti-style font of the word lovers against a white backdrop.

When Garrett Caples’s third collection, Power Ballads, was released in 2016, his publisher, Wave Books, described it as “bizarre and hilarious, in which Dylan and Bowie sit alongside the French surrealists, with the occasional turn into heartfelt romanticism.” The same is true of his latest collection, Lovers of Today (Wave Books, 2021), although I’d say it’s odd rather than bizarre, and wry instead of hilarious.

The book takes its name from a cocktail bar on East 7th Street in New York City, just south of Tompkins Square Park, and down the block from a memorial to The Clash’s Joe Strummer. Sadly, neither Dylan nor Bowie appear in Lovers of Today, but Quentin Crisp makes a memorable appearance, as does Caples’s turtle, Buster Nuggets.

So, Lovers of Today is an odd duck, to mix fauna. It’s a book of poetry with titles such as “How to Score Weed in Paris”—which is indeed instructions on scoring weed in the City of Light—and “My Lip Filler Journey,” but it’s also an earnest, deeply heartfelt collection in which many of its 33 poems are either dedicated to or written after other artists (a number of whom are Caples’s deceased friends). For example, there’s the collection’s fifth poem “Warm Life,” which Caples dedicates to both the poet Bill Berkson, who died in 2016, and the Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad, beheaded by ISIS in 2015 after he refused to lead them to Palmyra’s artifacts. Then there’s “For David Meltzer,” which contains the mournful lines “it’s hard to / see you like this, snoring and / gasping for breath, yet death / at home is a triumph, an assertion / of personality against an impervious world.”

In contrast, the long poem “Emotional Rescue” takes its title from the 1980 disco-influenced Rolling Stones song of the same name (a half-infectious, half-silly track that Mick Jagger sings in a falsetto). The poem, a 15-page dream diary that is one of the more playful pieces in Lovers of Today, nails the detailed-yet-confusing nature of one’s most absorbing dreams, and is written in extremely short lines, some of which are broken mid-word: “dreaming / cuz i could / n’t sleep”; “poets barely / alive splayed / out across c / ampus & and.”

The book’s final poem, the long, arresting “Soul Book,” comprises a series of one-line mini-testimonials from the points of view of unidentified deceased individuals. Here’s a selection:

because the greatest love of all happened to me, it was easy to believe.
most people don’t know the spirit and I think it’s sad.
my nickname was rah, rough as hell, though it didn’t reflect my nature.
after a stint in an internment camp, I was raped by five guys right before I turned ten.
my figures were larger than life.
they called me the the voice of darts.

In addition to Lovers of Today, Caples is the author of three other collections, also published by Wave: Power Ballads (2016), Complications (2007), and The Garrett Caples Reader (1999). He has written a book of essays, Retrievals (2014), and edited collections of both Philip Lamantia’s essays and prose, as well as Michael McClure’s poetry. Caples is also an editor at City Lights Books, where he edits the Spotlight Poetry Series, and with Micah Ballard he edits Castle Grayskull, a new limited edition poetry zine.

This is your fourth book of poetry. Has your process of writing or putting collections together changed over the years?

I’m a lot better at putting together a book of poems than I used to be, in the sense that between my second and third books I really became an editor in a professional sense. I edited a lot of poetry books, and I learned, well, how do you flow a book all the way through?

My first two books were done in sections, but I realized that a lot of my sections were also fairly arbitrary time periods. The poems in Lovers of Today fit together because they were all written around the same time.

The challenge with the third book, Power Ballads, was to treat myself the way I’ve treated others in, say, the [City Lights] Spotlight series—just flow a book from start to finish. That was a real challenge to do to myself because I wanted a book that went from start to finish with no interruptions. I didn’t know how to do that with my own work until I’d done it with a few other people’s books.

Are you cutting more or is your work now more about organization?

I think when you flow the whole thing you end up cutting more, and I’ve always been fairly rigorous about what goes into the real books. I have all sorts of fugitive publications, but Lovers of Today is my fourth book of poems as far as I reckon them. Versus the other things, which are more like mixtapes or what have you. This is like my fourth album!

And I tend to err on the side of concision. After Power Ballads, which was very neat and tight, I thought maybe I should do something baggy and sprawling. I actually tried to see if I could do that, and I can’t. If something doesn’t feel fully up to snuff, I don’t want … it’s one thing to put in a magazine, it’s another to put it in a book.

Is that because of your own predilections or because you’ve been an editor for a number of years now?

There’s no real separation in my literary mind about any of this stuff. I do a lot of different things, but they’re all one. Sometimes it’s putting my own poems together, but sometimes it’s taking care of Diane di Prima’s poems. I’ve edited over 60 books at City Lights, not all poetry, but I’ve done a lot of books of poems, and you inevitably get better at it. In a way, my last two books are better put together than my first two, but on the other hand my first two books are what they are because that’s what I was at that point.

What would you say is your motive of poetry, to borrow a line from George Oppen?

In a cosmic sense, I feel like poetry is a very old human activity, and you take it up and you hand it off. So, some of my motive is to write what I think is poetry that ought to be written now, to keep that chain alive. It’s an ancient art, it’s an ancient profession, in a way that being a graphic designer isn’t ancient or being a film director isn’t ancient. Being a poet is something that’s gone on for much of human history. Some of it is just thinking that it’s on me and my colleagues right now to keep it moving, to try some new stuff, to inspire further generations to do it.

Do you know when something is a poem versus an essay?

The poems at this stage of my life always kind of force themselves, in the sense that I’m not super prolific. I never sit down to write a poem, unless I’ve got one going that I’m working on. The poem has to come, I can’t make it happen. Once it comes there’s plenty of work to do, and you try to pull it off. But the poems declare themselves, and if I finish it, it’s probably a good poem and will be something I use. If it’s not a good poem, I don’t even get to the end.

I was very inspired by Philip Lamantia when I knew him. I feel like he taught me a lot about being a poet. He was famous—as a poet—since basically the age of 15, but he only had about six or seven overlapping books. Like, he was alive for about 60 years as a well-known poet—from age 15, so, say 62 years; he died when he was 77—but we got 500 pages in the collected, even with unpublished stuff. Not like [Robert] Duncan, where there’s masses of books.

And I was inspired by that, in the sense that it was very much against the grain, because everything in the poetry world tends to be anti-inspiration, especially with the avant-garde that prevailed in the wake of, say, Language poetry. Things like inspiration and lyricism and all that were deemed to be retrograde, bourgeois affectation, and you should have these processes to generate poems, and …

... and you’re not process-driven?

I’m not process-driven at all, because I don’t have a process, except I smoke marijuana. It’s literally the only common denominator: getting high and working on poems. But the way the poems work themselves out is different every time, and if it wasn’t I don’t think I’d be that interested. If writing poetry was a workmanlike thing, where I just sat down and said, I need to send 10 poems here, and sat down and did them …

Like novelists who try to write a certain number of words every day?

The thing with poetry for me is that I don’t want any of it to be drudgery; it might be work, but I don’t want it to be drudgery. I’ve written some fiction and I’ve gotten better at making that fun, but there’s always an element of drudgery when you have to get from A to B. And the whole joy of poetry is that you don’t have to be anywhere.

I’m pretty good at very conventional expository prose, and that’s been fun for me as well, but it’s a certain amount of work—you make yourself sit down and do it, and if you have an argument you have to go from one point to another. But what has made expository prose good for me is I never plan my essays; I just do them. I never outline anything. Because if I outline something and I’m trying to fill it in, it’s just joyless.

Well, let’s go somewhere now: to a bar. Why did you name the collection—and the first poem in the book—after a bar?

That poem is probably the first poem I wrote after I finished the last book. It’s the first thing I wrote that I kept, the scene and some of the lines were just handwritten in New York at the time and then I took it home and turned it into a poem. I don’t know, there’s no huge …

There’s no hidden COVID commentary?

There wasn’t any kind of agenda, so much as I thought the bar had an interesting name. It was just a night in New York, or a few nights. And with that poem, I took a certain pole out of my ass, in the sense that I used to be against referring to people by first names. I used to feel like that was exclusionary or name-dropping or whatever. And when I have these kinds of biases, I try to push against them: if I don’t like something, I try to make myself do it. I used to hate poems where the title is the first line. I used to hate that, so I made myself do it! I’m a maximalist in a certain way, a minimalist in others, but a maximalist in the sense of I think you should use the space you have to do stuff.

This is my first book where the title is also a poem, the title of the book is a poem. I used to think, “you’re being lazy, you’re wasting a chance to do something else by not having a fun title,” but I try to do different types of titles, not to fall into a pattern there.

Regarding maximalism, you’ve got a handful of prose poems in Lovers of Today. What’s your relationship to line breaks? How do you feel about using prose?

The first poems that I ever kept, that ended up in a book of mine, were a series of prose poems. And if you come from a prose writing background, as I do, it’s a good way to start. To be honest, early on the line break was a real mystery to me: where do you break a line, and why the fuck do you do it? Why would you break it there?

When you’re really young, and you first come to poetry, you think everything has a meaning to it, and as you do it, you realize that line breaks are felt. And sometimes you break a line because the poem has established a certain line length, and sometimes you’re doing something funny or weird. Like in “Emotional Rescue,” I started doing line breaks in the middle of words, which is a weird thing to do.

And it leads to a jagged reading experience.

I don’t know why I did it. I never decided to do it, but it decided to be done.

There are a number of poems in the collection that are either for or after people. I’m interested in those impulses, writing poems for others, or after others’ work. How does that relate to what you were saying about how all of your literary work mashes together? And would you say that doing something for someone or after someone is what gets a poem going?

There’s a lot of death in this book. And some of that is, I’m getting to that age—I’m 49—when all of my heroes, including ones I got to meet and be friends with, are dying off because they’re old. And often the intensity around that generated some of the poetry.

David Meltzer dying was pretty rough. He still seemed youthful at 79 (I know that’s old, but [at City Lights] we also had a boss, Ferlinghetti, who lived to 102). You expect your poets to stick around into old age, to some degree, the ones who didn’t die in their 20s.

With the poem for Bill Berkson, I was in the middle of a poem when I went to visit him, which ended up being not long before he died. He had had an operation, and it was really intense: he had skin cancer problems from, I think, being a sunbather before they knew that was really bad for you. He had part of his scalp removed. I went to borrow a book at his place, and he’s there, and, you know, he’s missing part of his scalp, but he’s still being Bill. I was really moved by it.

And, so, I went home, and when I picked up that poem, that one became about Bill. I actually sent it to him, and he read it and liked it, so it was a living tribute, but then he died maybe two months later. It became a memorial poem even though it wasn’t necessarily. And at the time, too, I was reading about Syria, with the destruction of antiquities, and Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by ISIS because he’d hidden all of these antiquities that they would have looted. And with just a random juxtaposition to what was going on with Bill, that poem came together in all of these different stages. I didn’t set out to write a poem for Bill; I’d written maybe the first five or eight lines before that visit to his house, but that changed the whole poem.

I know he passed away before COVID, but it’s interesting to read a book published in 2021 with so many poems that are essentially memorials.

Very little of the book was written during COVID, which happened just at the end of the book. Even though the book was flowed and arranged, it’s broadly chronological in terms of when I wrote things, and so the last—except for the very last poem in the book, “Soul Book”—the last few poems in the book are the last ones that were written.

And “Soul Book” was written prior to COVID?

“Soul Book” was written for an art project by a woman named Veronica de Jesus, who lives in LA now but who started her career in San Francisco. She worked out of a bookstore around here called Dog Eared Books, and when various people died, whether they were someone famous she was interested in or whether it was someone she knew, she would do a little memorial drawing and stick it in the window of Dog Eared. Eventually there were about 300 of these drawings, and at some point she was looking for accompanying text but didn’t want an art essay or something like that.

“Soul Book” is all first-person sentences, one first-person sentence per drawing. It took on a different form in this book because it was written as prose, and it appears as prose in the art book, but then Joshua [Beckman] at Wave said, “What if you broke it up into lines?” I thought that’s a great idea, it turns it into something else. The whole idea was to make a kind of composite portrait of all of the individual portraits. It’s a bunch of incompatible facts, but something about putting them all in first-person gives them unity. And even though Lovers of Today isn’t a COVID book per se, it feels very of this time.

It’s interesting that the book begins with you, or your speaker, in a bar, and ends with so many others.

I hadn’t thought of that aspect of it, but it’s atypical [of my work]. My idea of poetry is generally … the things that I like about poetry are very small, and so my poems tend to be short. I’m interested in small maneuvers and the big effects that they’ll have in language. And again, [“Soul Book”] wasn’t even really conceived of as a poem so much as it became one through the course of its life.

You’ve said a number of times that a poem might not necessarily have started as X but became Y—is that typical of how you work, or is it something you’re becoming more comfortable with?

That’s the whole essence of these pieces: they’re improvisatory. It’s very different from my prose writing because you’re not developing an argument in the poem, except in the most oblique fashion. You’re not having to accrue evidence. You don’t even have to get from one place to another—you can just go there! And not even make any kind of transition except the transition itself. For me, poetry is letting go of all that, letting go of all of the rational constraints that I have to bring to every other piece of writing.

It’s the type of poet that I am, I guess. There are a lot of poets who conduct their entire intellectual life in poetry, and that’s not me. I try to leave my intellectual life out of the equation. I feel like my intellectual life takes place in prose. My poems are ultimately things I feel.

Originally Published: October 11th, 2021

Kevin O’Rourke lives in Philadelphia, where he works in publishing and writes about science. His first book is the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle (Tinderbox Editions, 2017). He is currently working on several follow-up projects, including a book about surviving suicide. Other writing has appeared in the...