Poetry In Conversation
A Conversation Between Maggie Dubris & Bob Rosenthal
Third generation New York School poets write terrific stories. They made the scene in a storm of social problems that rocked the 1970s. Yet its confluence of sex, drugs, disco, hip-hop, rock-n-roll, revolution, and recession is indelibly lodged in my psyche as one of the hippest times in America. Within the mayhem raged a freedom from repression that imbues their practice.
Genre can become tiresomely academic or just a marketing tool. Writing that defies classification awakens a reader to the origins of the written word before everything was codified, like Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, it’s the journey, not how it was told. Is it poetry or prose? Memoir or biography? Fiction or nonfiction? O, genre, up yours! Writing maps thought and we think in a multitude of ways. Maggie Dubris and Bob Rosenthal, two friends from the creatively fertile days when it was cheap to live on the Lower East Side, have recently published books that are hard to classify but a buzz to read.
Writing can be done relatively free of constraints but reading requires a publishing system. The invisible hand is not always ecumenical leaving many authors imperceptible. Maggie wrote to friends and friends of friends searching for a publisher for Brokedown Palace. Confounded that she lacked a publisher I took the bait and asked her to send me the manuscript. For years I had been enthusiastically sharing her 2002 Black Sparrow Press book, Weep Not, My Wanton, which includes the absolutely brilliant fifty-page—is it a poem or is it prose?—“WillieWorld,” that describes her experience as an EMS worker in and around the pre-Disneyfied Times Square.
Maggie’s new manuscript blew me away, I offered to publish it with Subpress, the small press collective of which I’ve been a member for nearly 22 years. We collaborated with friends to make Brokedown Palace a reality: Antonino D’Ambrosio, author of Let Fury Have the Hour: Joe Strummer, Punk, and the Movement that Shook the World, wrote an afterword; Chris Casamassima of Furniture Press Books designed the guts; Gregory Homs, perennial behind the scenes image maker since before the opening of the infamous 1980s nightclub The World where he paved Second Street with patinaed pennies, designed the cover; and Luc Sante wrote the blurb.
After the party at the Bowery Poetry Club, Bob Rosenthal offered to send me Straight Around Allen: On the Business of Being Allen Ginsberg. He thought I’d appreciate it because, like Brokedown, it had a black and white cover with an old school photograph and the pages were a menagerie of footnotes, poetry, and prose. I had not spoken to Bob in years, since I used to call him for help in tracking down famous friends of Allen’s who might help us with a downtown arts festival I was managing. We made the occasion more reunion than mere business call. We met at a café uptown and talked a long while about the odyssey that is living in the City. Bob gave me his new book and an old one, the ‘70s cult classic, Cleaning Up New York, as well as this conversation between these two genre-bending authors. I have read all with envy and gusto. Now, may I suggest that you do the same.
-Greg Fuchs, Jan. 10, 2020
Bob: How did you figure out that BrokeDown Palace would be poetry? How and why did you make this decision?
Maggie: It took a long time. I started to write it as a nonfiction book in prose.
Bob: In paragraphs?
Maggie: Yeah I documented it well like a nonfiction book has to be, but after I got it done. It was dead.
Bob: In what sense?
Maggie: There was no motion going from one thing to the next. It was like a High School report. First of all, there was not enough documentation. Second of all, it should be more interesting.
Bob: Were you writing it while you were working there?
Maggie: No, it is all recollected. I started it after the Hospital shut down.
I started ten years ago—it took ten years to write.
Bob: I believe it.
Maggie: And once I got to final form it was just so awful. I had been to writing groups and showed it to people. It was always the same thing. “Oh, I love this beginning but you have to jazz up the later parts.” The beginning was always the same.
Bob: The Doomsday Book?
Maggie: Oh is that what I called it? Yes—The Doomsday Book was the actually the first thing I wrote about the hospital closing.
I thought, “This captures the tone.” but then I could never recapture that tone for any other part. So it was four hundred and fifty pages of garbage.
Bob: Wow! You got over four hundred pages. Did this become your source?
Maggie: Well, not even. I thought, “Well this sucks. I can’t even show it to anyone.” It was so bad that I realized I couldn’t’t fix it as prose so I thought “You know what! It is going to be a ridiculous book about a hospital no one has ever heard of, so I am just going to do exactly what I want.” I started writing bits: bits of history, say about the women, and I wrote the bits as poems. Then it really took off from that material. I had done tons of research. About four or five years ago, I started interviewing people. That was so much fun I would go out to Long Island or where ever they were and interview them. We just remembered the old days and I thought I am going to put some of these memories into the book somehow.
Bob: Most of that in the margins and some is in the poetry.
Maggie: I couldn’t’t figure out how to put it in. Then I read A Book Of Barely Imagined Beings by Casper Henderson; he had all these things in the margins like scientific things he couldn’t’t fit in but you could read them if you wanted or skip them. I thought this is the perfect place to put a lot of this material.
Bob: Interesting! So it slowly evolved from prose into poetry. At some point you have to say, “ I am going to make it all poetry except for the beginning.”
Maggie: But I have three narrative sections: The beginning, the World Trade Center and then my broken leg. Actually, I wrote a bunch of blogs posts—I started writing this blog—And I liked the way it was just thoughts. The Santeria Princess is in blog form. But they didn’t go up on my blog. I thought I am just going to combine everything. It is way too long to think it would be published by a traditional press. And way too weird. so I put it together at the end. I started with Scrivener, it is a great program like Final Draft but much cheaper. You divide your material up, put your research in there, and move it around, which is what I did. I did not have a structure that would make anyone to want to keep reading.
Bob: Oh that is what the poetry does; it makes the content lighter and easier to handle. It’s not heavy like Celine, which is unrelenting. I gather you wanted more space and air in the lines.
Maggie: Yes and I didn’t want to be tied by narrative logic.
Bob: Yeah, or narrative time.
Maggie: Right it goes back and forth.
Bob: But it generally goes forward. You talk about yourself—memory being in whirlpools and eddies and distractions.
Maggie: And you can do that with poetic logic but you can’t do that with narrative structure or I couldn’t.
Bob: And then you got the idea to title each poem off the calendar. Each title is like a calendar header and the poem is a pull down menu of items for that day.
Maggie: Oh interesting.
Bob: I had a vision that there was a central core to your memory and each entry is a slice into it. How did you organize the material. The amount of material is impressive: the number of entries, each one is distinct. So I asked myself while reading “can she really do this? How is she going to get away with this?” But you do and eventually I am really identifying with this broken down hospital.
Bob: As a character. And I don’t want this character to die.
Maggie: Oh I am so glad. That is what I wanted.
Bob: Yes that happened! Not like a novel in which a character gets killed, the reader understands that this is a tragedy because it is known from the beginning, that this is its fate.
Bob: It’s going to happen and there is nothing you can do about it. So that works in the book’s favor in that you turn your persona into nonfiction. Also there is a kind of distance even to the most personal things you say.
Maggie: Oh Really Ok.
Bob: I have a thought about this: character becomes nonfiction and persona becomes content. When you talk about Multiple Scleroses, it is very clinical, its almost like you are picking yourself up off the street. Almost but not quite. I notice in all your writing you have a strong sense of privacy.
Maggie: Yes I do it deliberately because the strongest work to me doesn’t ever tell me how to feel. It only shows me what the person saw. And that’s what I wanted to do in this.
Maggie: Not to say, “Oh my God, I was so freaked out when I got MS!” I don’t say things like that. I want people to be able to kind of inhabit the narrator and see what the narrator sees.
Bob: I handle that differently. I am more personally confessional.
Maggie: Which you have to be because you are writing about a person who is very well known. So if there is no you in there, why are you writing it?
Bob: My first version was also unreadable. It was only on Allen and I had to put me back into it to make dramatic tension. So I put in my own poetry because I didn’t have bedroom stories. Since Allen was not going to read my poetry, that was clear from the beginning, the poems themselves become dramatic tension. I think we face similar narrative issues about working with a large amount of nonfiction content. But we handle it differently. I point to myself and you point to the reader. Let’s talk about when the Supervisor is soliciting sex from you.
Maggie: Yeah—sleep with him.
Bob: You maintain your innocent integrity and it’s believable. You get away with it. One could think this is unlikely. But you outsmart him by pulling strings. If it were now, you would be outraged; you could go on TV and raise your voice.
Maggie: Yeah—you remember those days? That was a real man’s world so I did the only thing to do. I was not innocent. In fact it was not being innocent that got me through it. I knew I wasn’t ever going to sleep with this guy. Ever! That not only would be repulsive but it also would be a big career mistake. He had nothing on me. I could always get another job. I have been strung out. I have had all these crazy jobs. I have been living on my own since I was seventeen. He couldn’t touch me.
Bob: Yes that is how I felt too—that you were untouchable. You sort of just walk through this and it is kind of magical. Like having an aura that protects you from bad shit flying at you.
Maggie: Yeah exactly.
Bob: Both of our books do something similar. People tell me that reading Straight Around Allen they felt that they were working at Allen’s. That’s good—that’s what I wanted.
Maggie: You had a unique position—that’s the thing that’s what makes your book interesting Everybody knows about Allen Ginsberg’s life. It has been written about by some of the word’s greatest writers, like Kerouac.
Bob: Yes, he has been lionized in literature.
Maggie: Yeah so I don’t want to hear that. You were his assistant and not his sex partner for many many years so you had a really different picture of him. You have a picture he did not present to his biographers. So that makes it interesting and we have to know who you are.
Bob: And I had to modify my writing to keep up the authenticity of what I was saying—the veritas of it. I am an erratic writer.
Bob: Well my grammar like comma use is inconsistent. I punctuate sentences differently from each other. I worried that if I had any errors of grammar, the information would also be deemed wrong. That’s why the main body of the text is stripped down. There is not a complex sentence or semicolon in there. It’s just bang bang bang.
Bob: That speed lends to the busyness of the job. Shelley laughs when people marvel at how busy I was. She didn’t think so. The hard-boiled prose sped it up.
Maggie: It’s almost like the Daily News—it is their kind of sentences. It gives the impression of being factual journalism.
Maggie: More like a newsreel than like Ken Burns. You know what I mean?
Bob: Oh, Yeah no laconic violin.
Maggie: Yeah. Exactly that is just what happened and that is what happened and you need that.
Bob: Also I am generally telling a chronology but it is also subject based. Your piece couldn’t be purely chronological either. I keep thinking BrokeDown Palace needs to shuffle. It has sixteen sections —sixteen right?
Maggie: I am not sure but there are a lot of sections.
Bob: Which makes it about 17 pages per section on average, which is poetry and not hard-to-read poetry. It doesn’t slow you down; it is fast poetry.
Bob: One reads them prosaically (don’t take that negatively).
Maggie: No, that is what I aim for.
Bob: Each section is a well-contained read. I think in Willie World, the prose is ecstatic. It’s poetic to the max. And your poetry here is prosaic to the max. So these inverses are really interesting!
Bob: Like you say— you are not always displaying your emotions. You do reveal feelings in the memory parts— looking back on the empty rooms before they are demoed—going up into the chapel. That’s very vivid. There is a discipline in this book. Like Willie World has a city scene at the end with glorious curtains of light opening. It is really wonderful and really works. And I was wondered while reading if you were going to do that in BrokeDown Palace but it never comes. Because it is a tragedy—waiting to happen. So as Robert Creeley says “Form follows content”. You and I both have large contents to put into …
Maggie: some form that fits.
Bob: Yes and we both had to be inventive about the form. Now, talk about the word Palace.
Maggie: Ok that sort of came subconsciously with the idea of the Memory Palace, which is a memory trick.
Bob: Oh, it’s a game?
Maggie: It is not a game. It is about people who remember everything. We’re extremely good at remembering places we know. You pick someplace you know well and you put things there that you want to remember. Like if it is here, you put something on the table and something on the couch that you want to remember. Then when you walk around the table you can pick up each thing and remember it. So I thought that is what memory is like because it is not chronological
Bob: Ah. Right.
Maggie: It is a little random like what you remember and what you don’t.
Bob: And I think of the word Palace the way Joshua Heschel the Jewish philosopher wrote in The Sabbath that the Sabbath is like a “Cathedral in time”. It takes you out of the present and you are in this edifice. The edifice is made out of time—24 hours. And this is what this Broke Down Palace is also. A poetic edifice we can enter and feel safe. So I feel safe and that safety makes everything going on around the hospital more interesting. It is a balance of lightness and heaviness.
Maggie: And to me that is a hard balance because people often expect heavy to be unrelenting.
Bob: Yes. As a teenager, I liked to read Naturalism: Theodore Dreiser, Emile Zola, James T. Farrell, and Frank Norris. Naturalism starts a story at a high point and goes inexorably to the bottom. Unrelentingly. The life of a poet is a lot more fun. It is not naturalistic. I think the poetic persona offers a little bit of distance to alter the ways things are usually seen. You have seen the underside and the not-underside of the city. I think it is great that you have created a persona of the city.
I didn’t mind that your book has an afterward.
Maggie: It was nice so I like it.
Bob: I did too I read it and do not disagree with it. In fact, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a good analogy. Cleaning Up New York was compared to Marie Condo and Anatole Broyard so I had to read them.
Maggie: The afterword wasn’t my idea. It was Greg’s [Fuchs], the publisher’s idea.
Bob: Was he worried about adding more gravitas to the book?
Maggie: I think he loved the book. He was an awesome publisher, I couldn’t have wished for better. He did editing but not much cutting (not even a line) but he fact checked things or pointed out areas for clarification.
Bob: AH. Did he rearrange parts?
Maggie: No, he wanted to do this book from the first time he saw it.
Maggie: He did such a beautiful job, such a great layout, and I think he wanted someone well known who liked the book as much as he did to write the afterword. So I think, “Yeah. I like it.”
Bob: I want to go back to the question of Time and Space. I think your huge accomplishment is the infrastructure, the poetic infrastructure that holds up this big reservoir of deep human pathos. You are juggling it like a Jester maybe that is your mask too—you are wearing motley but about space and time? Did you think about that when you were creating it or did it just feel instinctively right?
Maggie: Well the book is very much about time. One thing I wanted more than anything else. I did aikido for several years and people in the class were really young. This is not a marital art generally done by people our age. A lot of them were great people but they were young so they didn’t know about things I do. They weren’t adults during 9/11. They could not imagine a world without AIDS and I thought we like to revise the past or least I do. And I remember saying once, “how could this guy [an AIDS patient] want to sleep with all these guys—what was this guy thinking? If there were no AIDS, why wouldn’t you want to sleep with all of them? They wanted to sleep with you, you know, there is nothing stopping you.” But, we see everything through the lens of the present people and I have to get past that. What was it like really? To be in that world where you don’t know where AIDS comes from. It wasn’t ridiculous to be scared of it. I wanted to get those memories where I didn’t revise them in my own mind. Let people see what we saw because we will be gone and nobody will report it the way it really was.
Bob: Because it is poetry you can take more license. Drop in descriptions that are comments. I noticed how many times you mention that gloves are not being used in procedures. Now one doesn’t even get a sandwich without the server wearing gloves. So it builds up. Did you go back and add these things or were these notations part of your subconscious criteria?
Maggie: No, it was that people I know had photographs. They post them on Facebook so there would be a picture of me and Lucy on this bloody call. And I had those cut off gloves on. When I am thinking about my memory of that time, I remember that we didn’t have gloves available. Not only didn’t put them on but if you did put them on people would ask you why you took them out of the OBS, the kit for delivering babies. And that is just banished now. Now we never reuse thing. It is kind of gross but people should realize that that is how it was then. And the reality is that no one got sick from it.
Bob: So people were not being killed by St. Clare’s?
Maggie: No! Well, no and yes!
Bob: St Clare’s was not the cause. If someone is homeless and weren’t getting treatment anywhere St Clare’s didn’t make them worse.
Maggie: Right. They did do a good job on my leg.
Bob: Right that was high tech.
Maggie: Well, they were waiting for a part. They never got that part that was horrible.
Bob: They had to improvise and make do—it was that kind of their style.
Maggie: I got out in one piece but that is the kind of care they gave not because they were shoddy, but because they were broke.
Bob: They were idealists.
Bob: They didn’t mind the gross aspects because their eyes were upon the prize. That’s fascinating. But, I do think you work well with time and space. The daily entries—they’re not daily but they feel daily—each entry has a calendar base. That is time related but I stopped looking at if this entry was two years before that one. It didn’t make a difference unless the date was specific like September 11, 2001. Some of the harshest material was in the most airy poems almost open field but not quite but the poems are really traditional.
You mentioned that the Doomsday Book is really your Ur book. It is sort of the chewy center of the text. You didn’t cannibalize it; you left it alone. Is it artifact.
Maggie: No, I felt it is very complete. That is the first thing I wrote and it was very complete in of itself. That was exactly how I felt right then and how it happened. I wrote that really soon after. And I liked it that was the tone that I wanted and it would draw people in. And also I didn’t arrange everything until very close to end of working on the book. I went down to an Artist Colony and I had everything on sheets of paper and I pinned them on the wall. And I moved things around.
Bob: Oh how interesting.
Maggie: I would say this one is really about this topic now I see it so let me move it next to this poem (also on that topic) over here.
Bob: Oh that’s how you created the sections.
Maggie: Yup and when I created the order of the sections—that took a while—I did some of that there in hard copy but then I put the text into Scriveners so I could move it around.
Bob: Well I think the thing about the Doomsday Book is that it has a breathless quality. It is dense prose moving quickly and in the rest of the book the poetry lightens things up so it seems that it is sort of the germination of the story. It does work that way but in inexact amounts. I think inexactitude is a part of your book.
Maggie: It is. So if one person said something and no one contradicted him, it was fact.
Bob: But is that quoted?
Maggie: some people are quoted and sometimes several people remember the same thing that is real because what is real? It is all filtered through our memories.
Bob: I am working on a memory piece now. I feel I have to add more persona to it. So writing about how I felt about life at age nineteen feels like writing fiction.
Maggie: How do you not tell the story you told yourself all these years? That was one of my struggles so I have rewrite—particularly the Trade Center section—over and over to get it right. To have it not informed by everything that came after.
Bob: Yes, Keep it in its own time and keep the immediacy. That is exactly what I was running into in Straight Around Allen. I had so much to say that the paragraphs became giant and lacked cohesion. Luckily I found a young editor [E. Claman] that suggested I pull stuff out into the margins.
Maggie: That is a great trick isn’t it?
Bob: It is wonderful. Textbooks do it all the time. And that freed me up to be even more digressive.
Maggie: Yeah, stick it in the margin.
Bob: Sometimes it is just corroborating the information in the main text and sometimes it contradicts. She helped me order the material like pointing out that I had actually had Allen dying too soon in the book. So I needed help to clarify things. Like what you said there is what I remember and there is what I think now and what I can see looking back.
Maggie: But the one thing you have is that you were originally there. Many people can look back but you can actually get back to what you really saw and what it was really like that is something no one else can do.
Bob: Yes and speeding up the grammar is what does that. Because it was high paced I can also go into nostalgia—about what New York was like in the 1970’s. Your book does that too. What an interesting place it was. We were all doing different things and we were not even aware of what each other were doing.
Maggie: We sort of knew and sort of didn’t.
Bob: Some people were not working.
Maggie: But they were doing interesting things.
Bob: Do you think I asked the important questions?
Bob: We talked about Palace. We talked about poetry as infrastructure. I think that is really the special thing. How many people notice how rare it is to read a book of poems like this one? How do the poems work individually?
Maggie: Some of them work really well. Other not as well but I am making readings and they work really well.
Bob: Oh really do the poems pull out in little clumps or are they scattered all over.
Maggie: Generally I pull them out. For the book party, I just wanted the best I could do. The most accessible ones work. If you know nothing about who Mother Alice is. Or who my great great grandmother was. It is not going to be really interesting. So I end up picking parts where people do know the subject like AIDS or a hospital.
Bob: And this is a book I do want to read over again. Because being a writer, I want to figure out what you are doing. In fact, the first piece has your father in it. He is in a dementia.
Maggie: Yes toward the end of it.
Bob: Yeah the long end.
Maggie: Yes, it is heartbreaking.
Bob: My father too had dementia and now I am at the age it started to show.
However, your book is a great read. When I put it down I wanted to pick it up again and then in the end, like a Russian novel, I didn’t want it to end. You really achieved something new because a character usually has to change to make a novel good.
Maggie: And this doesn’t change.
Bob: St Clar just ends like you know it is going to. And that is hard to beat the downer quality but you do with poetry lifting up the time and keeping it afloat.
Maggie: Yeah because it was fun. I loved that hospital and everyone involved with it.
Bob: You were lords and masters of your world.
Maggie: That was a fun interview.