Interview with Chris Martin of Unrestricted Editions
WG: Unrestricted Interest recently published A Doorknob for the Eye, poems by DJ Savarese. As Iím sure you know, DJ is getting a good deal of press for DEEJ , the recent film about his life, so Iím sure that this book will be of real interest to many who have seen the film. Can you discuss how you got involved with publishing the book?
CM: I became aware of DJ's writing through the scholarship of his father, Grinnell professor Ralph James Savarese. The examples of DJ's early writing that I gleaned through Ralph's academic work, alerted me to DJ's inherent talent. Even so, I wasn't quite prepared for the force and sophistication of the poems in this chapbook, which are far beyond the kinds of poems I was writing at DJ's age. When my wife, the poet and book designer Mary Austin Speaker, and I first saw the poems we knew we wanted to be involved in bringing them to the world. I love ekphrastic literature and often use it as a lens for the intro to creative writing course I teach at Carleton College, so the chapbook is doubly or triply up my proverbial alley. Mary and I didn't expect to create a full-fledged publishing wing of Unrestricted Interest, but our desire to celebrate DJ's poems and the ability of his work to advocate for autistic voices everywhere made it an easy decision.
WG: It sounds as though DJís poetry was the first that you published. What did it take to set up Unrestricted Editions? I think there are probably others that would like to hear how you accomplished it.
CM: DJ's chapbook is actually the sixth one we've published, though it is the first chapbook featuring poems from a writer who we did not work with directly. The first four chapbooks came out of a partnership with Ascendigo, an autism center in Carbondale, CO. We installed a creative writing curriculum at Ascendigo, which included ten days of pedagogy workshops for their staff, and then worked with their clients over Skype for six months. At the end of the program we published one chapbook for each of the four clients we worked with directly. This summer we published our fifth chapbook, which was an anthology of work produced during a summer program we offered through the Center for Engaging Autism here in Minneapolis. With support from the Minnesota State Arts Board we worked with several students in a weeklong setting with guest poets sponsored by Coffee House Press. My wife and I have both run micro presses in the past and have a sizable chapbook collection in our house, mostly DIY stuff. But of course Mary is also a celebrated book designer, so that helps tremendously. She currently works as the art director at Milkweed Editions. And I was an editor at Futurepoem books in New York for several years, so that helped me see the needs and exigencies of a small press up close.
WG: What is it that drew you and your wife to working with poets on the autism spectrum? Can you talk a bit about some of the things that you have learned about writing poetry as a result of your experiences and any thoughts you might have for someone engaged in comparable work?
CM: My wife is a book designer and has taught in university and community college settings, but doesn't work directly with those on the spectrum. Though it should be said she and DJ worked in a highly collaborative fashion when designing his chapbook. I've worked with poets on the spectrum for roughly 15 years now. The first spectrum student I ever worked with attended Edward B. Shallow Middle School in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. I met him in an after-school program where I was hired to coach girls basketball. His name was Christopher and his abiding passion was the original Planet of the Apes film. I helped facilitate what was essentially an idiosyncratic novelization (lyricization?) of the film. This epic poem displayed a level of emotional acuity that was completely beyond the expectations of his teachers and transformed their notions about who he was and who he could be. Since then I've been working with writers with autism nearly every day and it's changed how I view both autism and poetry. Poetry is patterned language. Autism is characterized by patterned thought. All the so-called deficits of autism turn out to be strengths in the realm of poetry, which is inherently perseverative. Shaping my approach to poetry so as to ideally foster expression in students and adults on the spectrum has allowed me to rediscover how necessary, fundamental, and ethical the practice of poetry can be. And writers with autism constantly illuminate corners of language (and structures of language) that I'd never been able to see before. It's deeply reciprocal.
WG: I began our conversation by asking you about DJ book of ekphasitic poetry, A Doorknob for an Eye, and the attention that his work is likely to get, but I wonder if you can talk about the books of a few of the other writers that you have published.
CM: Including DJ's, we've now published five chapbooks. One of those is an anthology of writing produced by teen writers during a workshop we taught last summer. It was hosted by the Center for Engaging Autism, sponsored by Coffee House Press, and funded by the Minnesota State Arts Board. The other four were all the result of a partnership with Ascendigo, an autism center in Carbondale, CO, which commissioned us to write and install a creative writing curriculum. We were on site for ten days working with staff in the morning and students in the afternoon, after which we had Skype sessions once a week for the next six months. I've written about some of the poems produced during this collaboration for Bright and the On Being blog. My Bright essay detailed an elegy written by Zach DeMeo, who is non-speaking and deeply talented. My On Being essay focused on a poem written by Bill Bernard, in which he performs an amazing act of poetic elision to demonstrate the mind state of an injured hawk. One of our other student-writers, Will Corkins, writes articulately about persona and metamorphosis. And Quinlan Moore's chapbook focuses on the songlike aspects of poetry, often remixing traditional fare.
WG: For readers who might be interested in taking a look at the work of Will Corkins and Quinlan Moore's work can you tell us the names of their books?
CM: Will Corkins, Bikinis & Cocoons
WG: You said "writers with autism constantly illuminate corners of language (and structures of language) that I'd never been able to see before." Can you elaborate on that statement and also tell us how that has affected your own poetry?
CM: For many years I'd be using the word "constraint" when speaking about the formal aspects of poetry, though I'd become increasingly frustrated with its negative, almost foreboding implications. After voicing these frustrations during a conference presentation, a man from the audience came up to me and without introducing himself said, "Pattern." I knew immediately what he meant. Writers on the spectrum are incredibly gifted when it comes to recognizing and employing patterns. Sometimes I supply them with a pattern, but often they will invent patterns to suit their own needs.
For instance, I once was helping a student write an ekphrastic poem about jazz. He liked that there were two Z's in jazz, so he planned to plant words with double letters, such as "letter," into each line. Since jazz also contains the nested element of "az" he decided to make it an abecedarian poem, moving from A to Z. Finally, when it came time to write the poem we instantly discovered how hard it might be. There aren't many words that contain a double A! So the student pivoted to realize he could connected two words at the A, something not easy to do given the "a/an" rule: "My anaconda ate a xylophone." Not only did he crack the code, but he also referenced the last thing we were listening to: Milt Jackson!
Another way my student-writers tend to reopen my eyes/ears is to illuminate the inherent strangeness of stale idioms. One day a student and I were listening to Stevie Wonder and he turned to me: "Why does the heart have a bottom?" I'd never considered how odd and surreal the phrase "from the bottom of my heart" truly was. Why the bottom? Why would the bottom be more authentic? It was almost like the heart was an elevator moving upward at high speeds, collecting all its authenticity in a gravity pool at our feet. For this reason I call them linguistic materialists. They care about language. All language. They care about the words and phrases we take for granted. And often they care about individual letters with an almost synesthetic fervor.
The attention of my students has deepened my own attention when it comes to language. They care has bolstered my own. And to see poetry and its patterns free expression from so many has rekindled my belief in the practical power, if not necessity, of poetry itself.
WG: Are you currently working on publishing any other poetry books for writers on the autism spectrum?
CM: I am currently in residence at the South Education Center here in Minneapolis, working with dozens of spectrum writers. A select group of student-writers were selected to participate in a mentorship track and I will be meeting with them once a week for the whole school year. At the end of the school year, Unrestricted Editions will be publishing a chapbook by each of the mentorship students. I already know they are going to be phenomenal. One of the students, Meghana Junnuru, was recently featured as part of The Art of Autism's Peace Series. She is a remarkable non-speaking writer who I've also had the honor of working with outside of SEC. She is passionate about food, inequity, and education.
WG: In addition to publishing other writers in Unrestricted Interest you are a poet yourself, of course. What can you tell readers about your own poetry?
CM: I have published three collections of poetry:American Music (Copper Canyon, 2007), Becoming Weather (Coffee House, 2011), and The Falling Down Dance (Coffee House, 2015). The latter is an exploration of fatherhood, time, care, attention, failure, and resilience. I am incredibly humbled by Steph Burt's essay, "The Thing with Fathers," in which he calls The Falling Down Dance "the best whole book" of poems about fatherhood. My poems are often attempts to unravel an ethical tangle. I embark not knowing where I'll end up. Lately I've been attempting to write about race and about whiteness. You can read a little about that in my NEA statement. I think a poet has several solemn duties she can choose to undertake in whatever profane way arises, among them the duties to ask difficult questions and sing the universe back to itself. My most recent poems appear in Nine Mile Magazine.
WG: Chris, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Unrestricted Interest. Is there anything that you would like to add to what you have already said?
My work would not be possible without the scholarship and ardent rigor of Ralph James Savarese. I can't wait for the world to read his forthcoming book with Duke University Press, See it Feelingly, about his experience reading works of literature with different autists. It is expansive, exact, and breathtaking. Keep an eye out for it.