Hello We’re Talking About Jazzercize: A Q&A with Gabriel Ojeda-Sague
This interview is a conversation between Gabriel Ojeda-Sague and Operating System founder / managing editor, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson — it appears in the archival backmatter of his forthcoming 2018 book with The OS, Jazzercize Is A Language, launching in NYC on March 22nd and in Philly on March 28th. Join us!
Greetings comrade! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
I’m Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, I’m a Latino, gay poet living in Philly, originally from Miami.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
Because I write. I started writing without a clear understanding of why when I was about 16. It was all very bad and I wasn’t very committed to it either. Around 19 or so, it clicked more accurately that I was interested in aesthetics and the making and unmaking of aesthetics that occurred in the arts. Writing is the field of the arts that I understand the most and have the most love for, so I committed to that craft over the others. In doing so, I’ve found my understanding of poetry as a simulation of language, experience, and aesthetics. The word “simulation” there is key for me because it marks that a poem is not true, and that gap is what I try to exploit the most.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
Someone who writes what they identify as poetry. I know that’s a boring answer, but it is really necessary, because it avoids and contradicts my three least favorite answers to this kind of question: 1) people who refuse to call themselves poets out of embarrassment, insecurity, inexperience, and so they think of poet as a far-away thing; 2) people who get overly dramatic and are like “poets are mountains of blood, bro” or something like that; and 3) people who use poetry as an honorific, like calling songwriters poets just because they have beautiful and complex lyrics. It’s insulting to both songwriters and poets.
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
This is a tough one for me. Ask me this one year ago and I would say that poets don’t do anything. That poetry can’t enact. This was me being, I think, a bit bitter about the language around “activist” poetics, which I think is often insulting. Nowadays, I’m really not sure. So my answer is, I don’t know. In the artistic community, it is just about continuing, evolving, transforming, and making conversations around the aesthetic, social, environmental, political, emotional, ontological, epistemological, and/or the semiotic. To the rest of the world? I can’t figure it out.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
I really think I’m at my best in a book. I try to write page poems that don’t stand out on their own because I am very against the gate-keeping, marketing, and selling mechanisms of the big lit mags. I’ve been moving towards long poems and book projects for some years now because I think there is something much more humane about the process of book-making, especially alongside a smart and kind press that knows what it is doing. Instead of, hey I write this and I send it to the Kenyon Review or some shit and I pay whatever the read fee is and then it gets rejected and 10,000 people are also doing this and none of us win out because they are going to solicit 15 out of the 20 people that will be in their new issue anyways. So the book or the body of work has never scared me, in fact it’s freed my thinking and made it more concrete.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
This book started with the title of it. I showed my friend a funny mash-up video of Judi Sheppard Missett quotes and me and her were talking about the way she speaks and how specific her words are. And at some point I kinda just said “yeah, Jazzercise is like its own language” and thought “hey wait a minute!” And so I had a title and I knew I wanted to write a poetry book about Jazzercise and its language and I thought okay well what’s the argument of the book. And so over some thinking, I started writing a few pages of it. I looked at what was happening in the pages that I wrote and thought, okay I think I understand my argument. I think I know what I’m thinking in this poem. Then, I asked the poet Julia Bloch to organize with me and help me format my thinking. We did it as an “independent study” and I wrote and she helped me understand where the project was going and we shared a lot of dialogue about it. And bam.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
Reference the above for the literal structure of writing this. Julia and I came up with a “syllabus” (a tool I have been continuing to use in new projects) of readings that might guide me while I was writing. I still have that list and would totally be willing to share it. Lots of amazing books that I read and reference and wrote towards and away from. The only constrictive practices were the forms in the poem. The poem has 3 forms. The first is a “paragraph” of justified prose, with phrases divided by colons. The second is two crescents of writing, one left aligned, one right aligned, with the right aligned positioned three lines lower than the left. The third is a justified column of continuous text with 3 lines of space between each line of text. All of these had exact margin measurements that I worked out, but I can’t remember the numbers right now. But it was very exacting. So the text had to fit inside of these structures in appealing ways, causing some words to not be usable in certain places. For example, in the third section say I wanted a line that said “bla bla bla I am on the freeway” but the word freeway was too long, causing it to go over the justification margin meaning the entire word freeway would move to the next line and the words “bla bla bla I am on the” would be stretched out by the justification algorithm. That wouldn’t work for me, visually, so I picked a different word. So these algorithms change the text.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
I answered this previously but I will say that a title is really important to me. A good title can really help a book and a bad title can REALLY ruin it. For example, I really hate those titles that are in vogue with lots of slam poets that are like “How to put a bottle back together, or you called me last night but I was busy watching Real Housewives so I ignored it.” God, I HATEEEEE those titles. I also hate anything overly dramatic. For a while, I thought “Jazzercise is a Language” might be too overdramatic, but then I thought HELLO we’re talking about Jazzercise! It’s all meant to be tacky so I’m keeping it. I think my favorite title of mine was for a short story I wrote a while back (I have a negative relationship to the 4 short stories I wrote, published two. I don’t really write short stories anymore but, who knows, maybe I’ll return to it), which was called “Milk for Lulu with Child,” which was about a gay teen boy giving milk to a teen girl who was pregnant. It’s literally just a description of the plot, but it does its job. Also, I currently like the title of a poem that I wrote recently called “Lanes,” it’s about that game Plants v Zombies which is a lane-defense game, but it is also a pun on “Lines” which is the title of oh so many poems. I like titles like that. Simple, descriptive, turn the work only slightly and don’t stab at it.
What does this particular work represent to you…as indicative of your method/creative practice?
I think it is the best example of my practice of writing on viewer-experience of different forms of media. This has been my main theme for sometime and motivates my chapbooks on The Joy of Gay Sex, Cher’s twitter, and The Legend of Zelda, as well as some individual poems like my poem on The Binding of Isaac. I think “Jazzercise is a Language” is the most accomplished my thinking on these subjects has been thus far.
…as indicative of your history? …as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans? What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
This book is a way of interpreting and closely investigating the way the aesthetics of Jazzercise, camp, neon, aerobics, intersect with Jazzercise’s racial/body politics through the lens of a Latino, gay, gender-discordant viewer subject (hey, that’s me!).
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
I want people to read it and I want people to see that the media we shrug off as not-worthy-off interpretation can and should be taken seriously and critically. This is not to say there’s no fun in it, and actually I think there’s a lot of fun in the book! But let’s not pretend that we should let anything stand as it is.
I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
This is a huge question, with so many different answers and so many topics to cover, many of which I have experienced myself as a Latino person, as a gay person, as a gender-discordant person, as the child of exiles from Cuba, etc. My philosophy in short has been that we need to work against the network, the web of dominant connections that the literary world rides on, continues to manifest, and uses at the expense of other producing nodes. I think it’s near impossible for your average young person, no formal training, low publication count, to get a book published in a respected press. The problem here is manifold, the problem here is the idea that one must rely on the respected press, the problem here is that people mine the MFAs lists for people to solicit, the problem here is that editors invite the same people other editors are publishing because they know they are good already, the problem here is that the young person can only get that book published with down and dirty networking skills that a lot of people don’t have, the problem here is that you have to put in 50 times the work and effort to get to the career point that somebody else is at where they can put in minimal effort and still get a really nice publishing deal, the problem here is that big presses solicit the same authors again and again and again, the problem here is that everybody is so hungry for that success that so many people forget that they have a local community of writers who are doing great work and that the only thing you need to do to collaborate with those people is show up to a quiet bar reading and open your ears, the problem here is manifold.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
I want to mention that the performance of this book includes me in full Jazzerciser drag, lip-synching to Judi Sheppard Missett videos. Fun for the whole family, as they say.