Don’t be satisfied with the quirky, often hilarious, shell of Unisex Love Poems. Yes, this is a funny book; the reader is tickled by 1950s style dating manuals, typography comics and strange potions/recipes. Single lines jump out and gather unexpectedly in laughter. But the core of this book is a lot more interesting than the puns alone. Readers are treated to a truly absurd treatment of the language of relationships: we see the vaguely homo-erotic vaudeville act of lawyers Spitz and Spatz who lay out the rules of language use (much like the dating manuals) and knot them beyond recognition; we see Slug and butterfingers in a clumsy courtship, each infected with an excess of language (Slug literally with “a rash of ‘h’s”); butterfinger’s prose lines are spaced out across the page, creating holes and pauses in her speech, mirroring the halting self-awareness she speaks from ; we are given a variety of shifting stages that, as readers we must consider how to read and interpret. The recipes are punctuated by sassy footnotes, scrambling up reading order and confusing linearity. Slug’s field notes are jumbles and fragments of text, private and cryptic in parts, always revealing of a strange landscape of language (apartments, spiders, bodies). Together, these seemingly disjunctive pieces join to reflect the truly unrecognizable places love inhabits, the places licked by familiar, yet out-of-place phrases, teaching each reader the value of a rogue, brash or undesirable word.
The Danforth Review: The first question is a reaction to Spitz and Spatz’s assertion that when you consume an acorn or an apple it “becomes your property.” This is their reason then why Slug has to give his accent back to his ex-lover; she had “consumed” him and now had rightful ownership over his accent. This is kind of a cheeky question then: in what ways is dating (or being in a relationship) a form of cannibalism?
Angela Szczepaniak: Well, the way the etiquette manual writers handle it, courtship is figured as a predatory relationship—trapping unsuspecting persons, manipulating them into fulfilling your desires. Following that trajectory to its logical conclusion would lead to (metaphoric) cannibalism, I guess. The recipes make that idea more concrete. What I’m really interested in with that part of the book is language. How much words can conceal or reveal—the way we can use diction to manipulate a response. To take up the recipes as an example, they’re based on real recipes, and the culinary language makes the task and product seem palatable. Switching that for medical language makes it repulsive; romance metaphors slipped in for the culinary makes it off-putting and probably funny. I like how language can elicit visceral responses (revulsion, laughter etc).
TDR: Yet, as readers, we’re asked to undergo a fairly large range of emotions and responses. I was especially struck by the myriad of reading techniques we need to employ in succession (in a five page stretch we may read a recipe, then a scattered prose-style poem, then a piece of dating etiquette, then a play-style dialogue exchange). I’m interested then what is gained by asking the reader to read so many different ways?
AS: I’m primarily interested in what it means to be a reader, how we go about constructing meaning with a text. I think of reading as an intensely creative, active process that requires a high level of engagement. Reading is a dialogue that requires readers to participate. Organizing ULP to privilege that readerly work (and the many different kinds of reading strategies it calls for) is, I hope, more fun-work than a slog.
TDR: And how exactly did you do this during the writing process?
AS: I wrote all the pieces throughout the whole writing process, in alternating small batches. So I went through phases of writing Spitz & Spatz dialogues, then a few Butterfingers poems, then some of Slug’s, then back to Spitz & Spatz, and so on—it really just depended on what my mood was or what occurred to me at a given time. Then after I had a full manuscript I went about arranging and rearranging the order numerous times, until it sequenced in a way I liked. Only the Spitz & Spatz vignettes really follow a specific narrative order, so the others could be arranged in pretty much any way to achieve different results. What I love most about storytelling is the editing and cutting; I like texts that imply relationships between scenes, characters, or larger thematic connections through juxtaposition, rather than setting up linear narratives with a lot of exposition.
TDR: I wanted to talk then about dialogue: the book is almost entirely conversations, sometimes between two or three people (like Spitz & Spatz with Slug). For a poetry book, this is really unique.
AS: You’re right that poetry often doesn’t have actual dialogue, but the “narrator” is referred to as a “speaker.” I interpreted that role to be an actual conversant—with specific characters, rather than an “authentic” first person speaker that stands in for an authorial presence, or a third person narrator—who converse with both named and unnamed participants. Some pieces have specific addressees—Slug often (but not always) talks to Butterfingers in his monologues, say. By not including her responses, I wanted to see whether readers would take up that part of the conversation, have her reactions for her, or at least take a more active role in the conversation, since that half isn’t supplied.
About conversation in general, I like the way it triggers different registers of language. Allowing characters to speak in their own voices (instead of having a stable narrator report on characters’ actions) enables a much larger range of diction. I’m interested in idiom—different uses of language for different contexts. You can learn a lot about speakers through the way they use language, not just what they say—Spitz & Spatz have a whole way of speaking that is basically understandable, but totally their own. I wouldn’t have been able to create their characters through language unless they were speaking.
TDR: It’s interesting too dialogue often takes place between the author and an “unknown” or assumed reader. In the dating manual sections, for instance, the author apostrophizes directly to the reader.
AS: In the case of the advice bits, it’s a generic stylistic element to write in the form of the “address,” and they often acknowledge a second-person reader. I was fascinated by that—the assumptions it makes about the reader, as it implicates her in its ideology by casting her as a part of a community of shared beliefs through creating this sort of intimate conversation between text and reader. When I was researching that form, I kept having alternating bemused and repulsed reactions to the gender assumptions those texts make, because of the way they treated me (as a specific reader) as an interlocutor who shares those assumptions just by reading.
TDR: I do think that’s one of the more interesting things going on in your book, these assumptions made of the reader and how squirmy that can make that reader. I think this is heightened by your continued attention/reference to the construction of language: Slug is infected by language; Spitz and Spatz are in constant attack (via the pun) on language and standard reading assumptions; fonts carry on conversations. How do you see all these different modes of explanation working together?
AS: The language does form a kind of thematics for the book, so while some of the pieces talk more to each other than others, language permeates the whole conceit. I guess I wanted to explore the different ways language functions (visually, viscerally, aurally, orally, etc).
TDR: And this is where the humour becomes very important.
AS: Yes. Part of the joke of the “Alphabetics,” for example, is that the fonts are characters in multiple senses; they have personalities, speaking parts, but are also typographic characters—they are language, but they also use it. I think of language as plastic, mutable… tangible. I wanted to see it contort into all sorts of shapes, like a circus performer. It was a lot of fun. Made me nostalgic for my Play Doh days. I still kind of miss that doughy-sweet smell on my hands.