Touching Down in a Textual Moment: A Conversation with Cara Benson

Cara Benson
BY Dylan Carey

CARA BENSON is a poet, educator, sound artist, and activist. An active committee member of the PEN Prison Writing Program, she teaches poetry in a New York State Prison. Her first full-length book of phoems, (made), was published in 2010 by BookThug, a leading Canadian experimental press. Protean Parade, her second book, is forthcoming in 2011 from Black Radish Books. Her chapbook Quantum Chaos and Poems: A Manifest(o)ation won the bpNichol Award. Benson edited the interdisciplinary book Predictions for ChainLinks and is featured in the Belladonna Elders Series with Jayne Cortez and Anne Waldman. She is also an editor of the online Sous Rature and a proud member of the Dusie Kollektiv and the Belladonna* Collaborative. Her online home is

Let’s begin with full disclosure. Had I read your poetry without meeting you or hearing you perform, I probably wouldn’t have sought you out for this interview. Reading your words on the page didn’t land me in a comfortable cognitive zone, so to speak. However, your performance chased away this need to “understand.” Breath, breathing, the word: it is enough.

An uncomfortable cognitive zone, eh? So we’ve lured another one over. Isn’t letting go of the “irritable reaching after fact” the very sign (via Keats) of a person of literary achievement? I think that is when, for me, the words become, as you say, enough (I love that).

How do you prepare for your readings?

I prepare with, well, breathing. Healthy inhalations to clear the mind and connect to the body. To approach meditation in vocalization, if I can. It’s either that or I’m anxiously awaiting an audience to materialize.

Does your reading of individual poems vary from time to time? Or do you try for a consistent delivery?

Both. There are some poems that have found the way they like best to be read, or the way that feels most pleasurable to me to read them, perhaps the way that chanting achieves something specific in its repetition. Somehow that operates like a tuning fork. A way to align myself at the mic which permits me to also meander from that point.

On your website, you mention Performativity and Polyvocality as areas of interest for you. How do these terms function in the larger role of poet?

Whoa, the larger role of the poet. To be honest, I’ve been struggling with the notion that there is such a role for the poet. There certainly isn’t a large social or cultural function performed, or should I say received, as I see it currently. Having said that, I think the very difficulty of finding a definition of poem that sufficiently gets at what a poem is/does in a comprehensive manner is part of the appeal and the efficacy of it, such as there is, and therefore emblematic of its work in the world. That one can’t summarily say the poem does or is ___ without there often being a really solid case for the opposite of ___ is probably one of the reasons why the role of the poet isn’t easily demonstrable.

Performativity and Polyvocality just mean that I can tolerate a lot of people talking at the same time. Not (solely) true, of course.


BY Cara Benson

From the Publisher:

“These prose poems / juxtaposing the individual / intertwine / objects and occurrences repeatedly / a cosmological chronology / inhabits. Why /narrative tension / mention / barbed wire / pieces accumulate / Rather than a direct or linear / of the universe this / These / references to certain / prose poems / repeatedly / if altered / time it indicates / a filled space / that which surrounds it.”

Your work interests me because it seems predicated on exploring not how an experimental aesthetic is consumed, but how it is lived. As a poet, do you embrace the term “experimental”?

I don’t embrace the term but I do embrace the act. I’ve used it, but uncomfortably. I don’t know what an experimental poem is for someone else. Maybe it would be an experiment for someone to write sonnets. Do we call those experimental poems?

For me a poem too easily consumed with no flinging open of any doors is no poem at all. Or at least not one I love…

For me a poem too easily consumed with no flinging open of any doors is no poem at all. Or at least not one I love (for which I can list my own counterexamples). Anyway, what is the term that conveys that? I’ve been reading on a feminist or “liberatory” sublime wherein words, rather than being empty signifiers in random play, are able to accommodate an overflow of meanings. That within the context of certain practices, these terms can exceed their boundaries. So it will be an experiment for me to use the word with this in mind. Regardless, as Derrida said, inadequate though they may be, words do seem to be necessary.

When I saw your book title (made), I immediately thought of the Greek word poema, meaning literally a “made thing,” poemata being the plural. Even if you didn’t have this particular association in mind, it is there in our Western imagination. Don’t you think that piece of etymology enriches all the other made things in the poems?

I hope so! Absolutely, I am working with the thing in hand as artifice. One of the poems states that the book “is only here because you hold it.”

What artistic considerations prompted you to work on prose poems in this collection?

There was a filling that needed to take place. The lineated poem seemed too delicate somehow for the piling up that is happening in the book (on the planet). Also the horizontal orientation of the poems was redolent for me of horizon. Swaths of earthbound views, if contorted through philosophy and compression and expansion of spacetime.

Cara Benson

You are a member of the Dusie Kollektiv. Would you explain how it operates?

First I must mention Susana Gardner as the founder. She had the great foresight to call into being this evolving network. It is an international constellation of poets who make a yearly poem or set of poems into handmade renderings of the work. Then everyone mails them to each other and Susana makes .pdfs of the work available online. The network ranges anywhere from fifty to (this year) nearly a hundred. Each poet is hand-stitching, pressing, printing, coloring, binding, sticking, stamping, sewing, ribboning, festooning enough to mail to the entire list. Plus they are archived at some special collections. Poet’s House. University of Arizona Poetry Collection. University of Buffalo.

What are some examples of work done for the annual exchange?

Last year was the “upcycle year” in which we were to reuse discarded materials in a way that increases their value. Elizabeth Bryant’s poems came in a toilet paper roll. Dana Teen Lomax’s were in used prescription bottles. Jared Hayes’ had fancy wine list covers, and the poems, which were recycled language from Gertrude Stein and Jack Spicer, were printed on old menus. Mine were adhered to pages of the New York Times to read in some ways as the anti-news. 

How has your Dusie participation affected your overall poetic sensitivity?

I think of poems for this project in their material manifestations rather than just text on a page or screen. Maybe this year I will glue together alphabet blocks. (Probably not, we have a hundred to make!) Also, the freedom and support of the project has fostered a space for me to go beyond what I think might fit a slot on a bookshelf, not only literally in the physical execution, but also symbolically or categorically.

In addition to making a hundred renderings of your own poem, you’ll be receiving an equal number of productions from other poets. Has this opened up your general understanding of poetry?

One of the ways Dusie has been instrumental in my thinking about poetry is that it is based on community. Much of mainstream literary production is still operating on the model of the individual creative genius. Sure, that individual may be thinking about himself as part of a tradition, but more often than not as a solitary participant of such. I think this can tend to foster competition, solipsism, and a need to be the next “it” writer.

Who are the most exciting contemporary thinkers (no poets!) you follow?

Off the top of my head because I’ll torture myself over this one… Cornel West, Slavoj Žižek, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein.

What do you personally do to bring on a poem? To “join the state of making”?

It varies. The most important thing, though, and this may sound cheeky, is to get the computer on, the pen in hand, what-have-you. The next book, Protean Parade, has involved research as a fishing expedition. Research usually is, but this book, for me, is quite broad in its attempts/subjects. So I drift — the Situationist’s dérive — in a variety of databases, archives and other potential sources until there’s some drag on the net, as they say. Then the writing begins.

Cara Benson
BY Jon Lathrop

At the recent City University of New York (CUNY) Chapbook Festival, where you represented the Kollektiv, I was intrigued by the diversity of models for exchanging poetry. Such exchanges will inevitably impact the poetry itself, don’t you think?

The spirit of cooperation in the Dusie project opens a space for creation that is free from market constraints and worries. Thus, to my mind, it is generative of far more interesting work than products executed by writers who have as the primary motivation a desire to sell well and/or be well-reviewed. This is not to say that I think no interesting work is for sale or that money itself, material needs/wants, needs to be antithetical to creativity. Or that I think it’s wrong to want one’s work to be appreciated. Anyway, it’s very difficult to operate completely outside of capitalism at this point, though we do talk about the gift economy in poetry. A whole lot of book swaps happen. Rarely of hard covers, I’ve noticed. By which I mean that a certain level of market success (and here I’m absolutely including academia) creates a need for more success. So less gifting possibly. This is conjecture.

Your work is clearly rooted in community and history. I’m thinking now of the Belladonna* Elder series where you honor foremothers Anne Waldman and Jayne Cortez. Can you tell us more about the series?

The Elders Series was the vision of Belladonna* founder Rachel Levitsky and Erica Kaufman who was co-curator at the time. (Belladonna* has since reformed into a collaborative, of which I am now a part.) The idea was for emerging feminist, avant-garde writers to host in a publication and performance one or two writers who have had influence on the up-and-comer.

Are we never to touch down in a textual moment? Should we never name because that name will always simultaneously delimit, fetishize, come unhinged from, pretend to represent when it cannot or is not actually anything other than the name itself?

Apparently, there were some criticisms levied at the Elders Series regarding ageism and entrenchment of identity roles. This is only hearsay on my part. I imagine there was some concern, perhaps among other issues, about a reductive sentimentality or fetishization of the role of the canonized forbearer of a purportedly sacred tradition, but I could be wrong. If that’s the case, it is a legitimate concern. From my perspective, the conceivers of the project and its participants (should we question even that role while we’re at it?) were/are conscious of the problems of language, representation, identity, relational subjectivity, etc. Are we never to touch down in a textual moment? Should we never name because that name will always simultaneously delimit, fetishize, come unhinged from, pretend to represent when it cannot or is not actually anything other than the name itself?

In your preface to the book, you write: “That with free will (liberated choice), we can choose compassion and equanimity” (“The Insurgent Imagination” aka Wild Mind). This does bring, as you say, “some relationship with choice,” which you exercise here.

Absolutely there are names that are harmful. And obviously, considering my response to the use of experimental, I can appreciate grappling with any given term. I didn’t receive this one that way. Perhaps that had to do with my initial contact with the project. When Rachel Levitsky and I were first talking about the possibility of my taking part, she was perfectly ambiguous in using the term. It was very clear to me that “elder” did not need to have anything to do with the chronicled age of any of the participants, etc. This was always about relational sites and as such as fluid and fixed as any triad.

That reminds me of your poem, “me-tooism,” from (made):

What the word will become cannot be known.

To guess is to contradict.

not to mention the gallowishly hysterical:

Wigs that were worn while the dead were alive as we have come to define the term.

To return to your sense of community, your website also mentions “Artistic Acts in the Public Sphere, Artistic Acts of Compassion and Confrontation” as areas of particular interest. How does your work teaching in the prison fit into this?

This may sound too romantic, but really I feel like that work chose me. Maybe one of the things that is/has been so, oh, I don’t know, interesting? important? crucial? about this project is the unbelievable constraint of the situation bearing in on and thus pressing incredible weight on each and every word. Even the words we cut. This isn’t always true. We scribble out rough drafts that feel superfluous or ridiculous or trite yadda yadda. Like anybody writing anywhere. Ultimately, though, there is a different, I’ll say again, weight to the work.

The compassion is the commitment to show up every week and pay attention to their words and in what order.

I also think that the poems feel very close to the lived experience in there. Not necessarily the content, but the fact of them. The compassion is the commitment to show up every week and pay attention to their words and in what order. It is not pity, I want to be clear. I don’t “got” it over anyone, even when ego says I do. Which can happen in any situation, of course. I’ve supported a variety of approaches to the room over the years. That’s where my tolerance for many talking at once comes in, the Polyvocality previously mentioned. Allowing group conversation to take a bumpy course until I feel nearly negligent for not offering two cents, too. Other times I’m using the chalkboard and putting words all over the place on it. It’s a balance and like any teetering practitioner, I totter.

Could you speak more about the variety of approaches you’ve used over the years? In particular, what has worked, and what has not?

Early on I was very nervous, and so I always had a ton of poems as prompts. I read them aloud and kept going and talking and asking questions and dealing poems out like a croupier until finally I would say, Okay write. I was afraid of the silence. Of losing them. I didn’t want to go too deeply into anything too quickly and risk frustration or boredom. That was all my problem. Paulo Freire says you have to have faith in who you are going to teach. I don’t think I had faith in any of us. In the poems.

But the response was good. The writing and talking and questioning were happening, and so now I’ll risk a lot. As I mentioned overtalk without me is just fine for a time. Also, I was (and am) very conscious of my role as being a privileged position. So I was (and am) very hesitant to offer material authoritatively. That happens to be my personal potentially syncretic or anarchic bent anyway, but sometimes it’s frustrating for them. Sometimes they just want rules, and I provide (instigate?) too much chaos in the thinking. Jane Tompkins talks about vertigo in the room. Sometimes the right amount of structure is really productive. However, I don’t just mean structure for behavior or course of study, but in the material itself. So, we’ve worked through specific theory and movements, through accepted terms and approaches. Then we undo it.

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