Maybe a Little Closer: Interview with Poet Terri Witek

Millicent Bórges Accardi, Interviews Editor

Well-known for her experimental collaborations with visual artists, poet Terri Witek’s latest project with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes has been featured at galleries and site-specific installations. Their 2009 video “recife/s,” was a finalist in avant-garde film at the British Film Festival in LA.

Witek is director of the Sullivan Creative Writing Program and Melissa Sullivan Chair in Creative Writing at Stetson University in Florida. She has received a number of accolades for her teaching, including the McInery Teaching Award and the John Hague Award for outstanding teaching in the liberal arts and sciences. Her husband is comic book scholar Joseph Witek.
Her poetry collections include Exit Island (2012), The Shipwreck Dress (2008), Carnal World (2006), Fools and Crows (2003); and Courting Couples (2000), a Center for Book Arts Prize winner. She is also the author of a nonfiction book, Robert Lowell and Life Studies: Revising the Self.
Millicent Bórges Accardi: In an elevator how would you describe the work you do?
Terri Witek: Well, I tend to let other people say things like “experimental” or “conceptual.” These things sound both imprecise and pretentious to me, and in an elevator would seem still worse. But by now I’m on that side of things, by my own inclination and limitations.
MBA: What have you worked the hardest to achieve in your writing?
TW: To learn how to do what I want—I don’t necessarily have the skills to hand for this and I’m aware that maybe no one will follow/r read me either. But I simply must go to these places of no tools and even less knowing. The best thing I can say on a good day is “maybe a little closer.”
MBA: Has anything surprised you about your creative life? Like something you did not expect? A twist or turn you did not or could not have predicted?
TW: One thing distinctly. When in 2005 I met Brazilian visual artist Cyriaco Lopes and explained I was trying to write about Ariadne, he said—“oh, three days ago I was standing in her house !” We have made work together ever since—all kinds of strange monsters emerge. Who knew I would fall into this amazement? We are running a workshop at Poetry by the Sea at the end of May, based on writers’ connections to water—it will be filled with site-specific prompts.

We also lead the Fernando Pessoa Game at Disquiet International in Lisbon. Note: The Fernando Pessoa Game is a workshop in which a poet and a visual artist take Pessoa’s great The Book of Disquiet as exemplar—then we send writers in any genre out into the streets of Lisbon to do/make/perform work. People have done some great memorable things. One former Fernando Pessoa gamer posts on FB only in Pessoa quotes—another based an album on work started in The Game.
And I’m also happy to announce that my school, Stetson University, is starting a new low-residency MFA in which Cyriaco and I will run a degree called “Poetry in an Expanded Field.” Hopefully lots of hybrid, crossover people will join us. But beyond all this happy institutionalization, making work with him is endlessly interesting and fun.
And with his appearance commenced the gradual return of the Portuguese I learned as a seventeen year old exchange student in Brazil. The startling Lazarus moments to feel those words find my head again, my stumbling tongue…
MBA: Have you collaborated with your husband (a comic book scholar)?
TW: Rusty loans me his comics all the time—all the comics parts of exit island, for example (those cheetah outfits!) are reworked from his scans or books. And he’s got everything he ever owned from 1969 on, so there’s lots to choose from.
My own recent comic book/ chapbook from A Bad Penny Review’s OPO PRESS is a combo of dialogue from one of Rusty’s comics and my poem: it’s called First Shot at Fort Sumter/Possum.
MBA: What do you think writers can do to enhance collaboration between writers and artists?
TW: Hang out weekly, if only for a little bit. Without effort this alters the course of the stream. My school has just offered money for “circles,” for example—two sound artists, a set designer and I have just started to meet and talk about our own projects. But I’m in a small town—we do this under the radar, too, and for me it’s a survival strategy. New media artist Matt Roberta and I have a project for public transit we came up with just by hanging our separate skillsets on the same peg now and then:
MBA: Do you compose on the computer or in a notebook?
TW: Both—for one new thing I’ve been typing appropriated material then cutting the pages physically. Eventually I often have to hire some poor digital arts person or sound person or tech coordinator to make things happen.
The gestural stuff I’m drawn toward sometimes just becomes ephemeral and undocumented. But my “materiality: empty mirror” series goes right from my phone to Facebook and Twitter—that one’s composed in the same space with the same object and one variable—what fills the mirror. Easy tech.
MBA: What frustrates you?
TW: It would be nice to walk out of a door of a hotel and go in the right direction– I am comically inept at even the most basic compass work. But that’s my life, not my work. Maybe directional fogginess isn’t so much of a hindrance in lyric poetry. I’d be happy to make a virtue out of necessity in this case.
MBA: Your poem, “A Game for Those Abroad at Night” what inspired it?
Start with an hour
and circle the village.
Start with a flagpole
at the indigo heart of the square
and circle the village.
Follow a sickle of highway.
Follow one paper route story by story.
Follow a bread truck’s little pillows of air
and circle the village.
Circle the library’s simmering stacks
  (there’s no help for you there,
   no help for you there).
Circle the duck pond’s panicky flare.
Trail a moon thin or thick
but don’t fall for a fool.
Circle your stagger
then circle the school.
Circle mosquitoes breeding in buckets.
Circle your parents asleep in chairs.
Circle bees trawling the wax museums of heaven.
Circle the honey,
 oh, circle the honey.
Circle a wallet’s dream of a gutter.
Circle two silos hungry for summer.
Circle a dish eating waves from the air.
Circle the village.
When you’ve traded your way
through the loop of a locket
and linked the ends of what isn’t there,
as your shadow unfolds again into stairs
dismiss wick and tallow,
rumor and adage.
Hang the circle you’ve circled in air
  and kick out the chair,
  kick out the chair.
Circle the village.
TW: I like the idea of setting out in a direction (in this case a circle) and then forcing things beyond themselves. Maybe that’s autoerotic asphyxiation via poetic method, in this case!
MBA: What does your work desk look like?
TW: I sit in a chair in the sun and spread things out on floor, so I think the answer is probably a messy but very well-lit room in Florida!
MBA: Can you send me a few lines from a project you are working on right now? And describe its context?
TW: I’ve just started this, maybe, impossible work based on a recent mind-exploding residency in Crete. I query the relationship of Pasiphae and the white bull she has sex with by marrying splinters of that story with closed caption sound effects from season 3 of The Killing. ‘Is this a crime scene’ seems to be the question so far:
Motive 1
you said we can never be myth
(click) if we love guilt’s deliciousness
Anyway, I’m taken with the subtitled sound effects:
Crime Scene
sobs sobbing pounding on door barking in distance
TV turns on metal clangs MOUNTAIN clears throat
door slams COW GROANING chuckles sighs sighs…
Nobody’s seen this before –and who knows whether it will work? So thanks for asking. Nice to have a breeze of confidence slide in with your question.
And Cyriaco and I have just begun to publish some of our half-word/half-image creations from that residency—the Minotaurs. Here are a few:

MBA: Do you wait for a muse, or do you sit down and allow the work to come?
TW: The wind’s at my back, Millicent—I feel such urgency. So no waiting. That doesn’t mean I can always do/make work—sometimes I don’t have a thing to fill the mirror with, so to speak. But then I do.
MBA: Who are your favorite writers? Can you share a significant line or passage and explain its importance?
TW: The questions together show the writer you are—yes, if we can’t work we read, right? I have been transfixed lately by Susan Howe’s edition of Emily Dickinson that shows the envelope flaps, etc., on which Dickinson wrote—seeing the poems spatially really changes those contraptions into still more wonderful things.
For drama, Clarice Lispector—the Portuguese so crystalline. Agua Viva is my favorite, but I was first undone by the little essay “O Ovo e a Galinha” : “O ovo desnuda a cozinha. Faz da mesa um plano inclinado”……The egg nudes the kitchen? Tilts the table? Wonders. Even to see “o ovo” makes my hair stand up on my arms—those 3 pitiless ovals!
MBA: What’s on your nightstand at the moment?
TW: Literally, Baudrillard’s The System of Objects, Ferreira Gullar’s poema sujo (new purchase), Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue. But as I just taught The Waste Land last night, that’s on today’s cerebellum-shelf.
Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So (forthcoming). She is a recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming Foundation. She organizes the reading series Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her @TopangaHippie.