Many of us wonder aloud what makes a modern poet. Casey Rocheteau has lived to tell the tale. In addition to her life as a PhD student, Rocheteau has emerged as one of the braver and more vividly talented writers of verse in American life. Her work is at once a manifestation for her passionate scholarship into American history, her surrealist wit, and a style that reads and sounds like a well-read, joyful invocation of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Poly Styrene. Now Rocheteau lets New York catch up to her in a new event series entitled All the Rage, taking flight this Thursday, January 22nd at 7pm, within 3rdEye(Sol)ation in the heart of Bushwick. I find it notable that while the asking price for admission is $10, Rocheteau and the venue are quick to note that no one will be turned away at the door for lack of funds.
As the artist in question herself puts it: she is “a Cave Canem Fellow, performs throughout the country, and has lead a variety of writing and performance workshops. She has been involved in slam poetry since 2003 including being a member of the 2012 Providence Slam Team. She’s released two albums on the Whitehaus Family Record, self published four books and her most recent book, Knocked Up on Yes was released on Sargent Press in 2012.” Readers can also find a new poem from Casey coming up in the next Union Station magazine.
I caught up with Casey via email this week to hear about her origin story – growing up on the shores of Cape Cod – as well as the current state of slam poetry, Brooklyn’s unique place within literary history, and the perils of eating onions onstage.
How long have you been a poet, both artistically and professionally? What was the first poetry you wrote, and what were your first interactions with poetry, verbally and as literature?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was very young, but I started performing on a regular basis about ten years ago. The poems I wrote when I was young was mostly about whales and ghosts. When I was 18 or so I was introduced to slam poetry my first year of college, which is when I started writing and reading it regularly. I guess the first time I can remember encountering poetry on the page was reading Whitman and Dickinson, and loving Leaves of Grass. Meandering and bawdy was sort of my style. I loved Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Nikki Giovanni. I stole a lot of poetry books from the Barnes and Noble in the Cape Cod Mall (there’s a statue of limitations on that, right?). Seeing it really performed and not simply recited for the first time really impressed me, the theatrics of it.
What was your first poetry slam like? Or your later-but-still primordial experiences in it? In other words, what first got you hooked?
The first slam I ever went to, (Canadian poet) Shane Koyczan featured. It was in a barn, which is generally pretty atypical. I’m fairly certain that’s the only time that’s happened. I remember going to my first national event (in the audience) and being wowed at how crafted people’s styles were. It really blew my mind. It was the Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS) when it was in Worcester, MA in 2004. People were bounding across the stage; the audience would heckle the hosts. It was a kind of lit nerd carnival atmosphere that I think drew me in. A lot of poets who I had read (like Ginsberg), I would hear recordings of them reading their own work in the most unmelodic drone, and it drove me nuts. Slam didn’t always have the best writers, but it at least had a sense of turning the emotion of poetry into a sonic aesthetic, that poetry would be more than one thing at once. And something about it was so wildly cathartic, the stories people were telling, even just the hype of competition.
You’re a touring poet publishing books on independent presses. For Vol. 1 readers who haven’t been to a slam or reading in a while, if ever: what is the state of live poetry, in your life and the world at large? Where is it thriving, and what’s turning you on in these live settings?
The state of live poetry is sort of interesting right now. While in an earlier time, say the early aughties there were outlets like Def Poetry Jam on TV. Now I feel like there’s a lot of Youtube/independent publishing driving the direction of the form. A website like Upworthy can boost a person’s notoriety without them having to compete regularly at a local slam venue, which changes certain dynamics. As a poet who tours, I would say the scene is vibrant and shifting. I’ve done shows in places like Eugene, Oregon, which isn’t a huge place, but still packs a book store full of 200 people of all ages, which is something I never would have expected. So as someone who’s been in the game for about a decade, I thought at a certain point I thought slam was fading, because it just became the sort of thing people on sitcoms joked about, and nothing that would be taken seriously on a mass level. The reality is, though, I think it’s currently in a sort of evolutionary phase. I think we’ve moved beyond the stage of overly breathy breathing and fake crying as a common trope. Maybe I’m wrong, but I hope so. I think it’s become much more about storytelling, however, and the ways in which these spaces provide both catharsis and entertainment.
One of my favorite NYC venues is still the Nuyorican. You head out to that spot on a Friday night, and it’s live. The bar gets packed, people wait around the block to get in, and the audience will do the Wobble and sit in rapt attention for poetry. That’s magic to me. And it’s bled out to other arenas too. I think the worlds of published on-the-page poetry has begun to overlap with performance poetry. Like, for instance, Cave Canem having Patricia Smith, who is both a slam legend and a National Book Award finalist as faculty, or having Saul Williams as a guest lecturer. That’s happening more and more, and even between poetry and other art scenes. I used to live in Boston and I’ve done so many house shows or shows at bars where the other acts are all musicians, often bands, and one of the things that continues to blow my mind is the way so many people think “Oh jeez, a poet? This is going to be boring or awkward,” and two minutes in to a poet reading, you can hear a pin drop. People’s minds can change, because in the end it’s not about the genre so much as it is about the content and execution.
Likewise, what can we expect from All the Rage? What separates it from the pack of other poetry events around the city, and what are your ambitions for it will become?
The idea for All the Rage is two-fold. First of all, there are three venues running regular slams connected to PSI right now in New York, and they’re all in Manhattan. Most of the poets who I know live in Brooklyn. So, in that respect it just makes sense geographically to create such a space. Secondly, there’s been a host of tragic realities that have come to light in the past few years within the national slam community. Not everything is love and support and harmony within this network of artists. There’s often been this talk about the slam “family”, but it’s highly dysfunctional. On the one hand, poetry readings and slam can be real spaces for growth and healing for people, especially people who have been denied a voice in other spaces in their lives. On the other hand, there are people who are predators and charlatans who prey upon other people or who are willfully blind to other peoples’ pain in a way that reinforces a lot of the bullshit that keeps us silent or afraid.
All the Rage started as an idea I had that in order to combat a lot of the bullshit we’ve been seeing, and to intentionally create a space that is more dedicated to being anti-oppressive than it is to being competitive. I began talking to a particular group of poets, and the idea has grown into a reality. My dream is that All the Rage becomes a space in which no one feels alienated or alone, where you could attend something like a Know Your Rights (when it comes to the police) workshop before the show, and then see performances that challenge you to create work with nuance and innovation. We also were adamant that All the Rage not be just poetry, but a space for all kinds of performance. Maybe that’s a bit lofty, who knows. One of the realities is that the reading series is coming from a place of turning the frustration from the ugliness into something positive. The name itself is a double entendre.
Your first two feature acts for your debut show are Rachel McKibbens and Shira E: discuss.
Rachel McKibbens is a brilliant writer. She came up through the world of slam, and continues to have one of the most unique voices in performance poetry, and, I think I can say without exaggerating, in American poetry today. She has a new book, Into the Dark and Emptying Field, and it’s a behemoth. Shira E is gonna kick out some electro-soul and wail at our first show. She is a live wire. I am really excited to witness these two ladies blow the roof off this place.
How would you characterize your own aims as a poet? What does it afford you, and why is it your chosen medium (in addition to your adventures as a musician and historian)? What is unique about poetry as a mode, both on the page and read aloud?
My poetry is something that I think benefits me as much as I hope it benefits the people hearing it. Sometimes it allows me to say things about history that I can’t say in an essay, and to convey it tersely. I make music because I enjoy making music and it’s fun, but I write because I need to. I can divulge more in a poem sometimes than I would ever in conversation, and read it to an audience of strangers, and there is something truly liberating about that. There’s something deeply human about this short form storytelling, something that strikes a chord in most people, whether or not they’re aware of it. It feels a lot more organic to me than the forms that inhibit the way I write as an historian. On the page, poetry often conveys so much with such an economy of language. It’s more profound than most tweets, but requires the same sort or precision if it’s done right. I write with visual and aural aesthetics equally in mind, and I think there’s something three dimensional to the way we experience poetry.
It’s a pauper’s market, right? If all the doomsayers are right, print is dead, and poetry in the mausoleum with it, and yet there are ways in which I get the same sort of atmospheric pressure in my head from reading one of Nikki Finney’s poems that I do from watching an entire film. And watching poetry performed, sometimes I get so caught in someone’s voice, or the language of a poem I feel the same way I do when I’m listening to the radio and a Drake song comes on. The hook gets stuck in my head for days, but with a poem, I’m still thinking about what that means to my own life, what truth it unfolds for me. I mean, I got love for Aubrey, but he doesn’t quite do the same thing for me. #worst.
Do you write differently for the page vs. a live audience? Is all of your work intended to be read aloud?
I think when I was first starting to go to slams, I wrote differently for the page than for a live audience. That’s really changed over time, where the page takes precedence for me. It’s not all tailored to be read out loud, but I know how I would read most everything that I write. I’m interested in the language guiding the voice and not the voice guiding the language, if that makes sense.
Slam as an event seems completely unique to me, insofar as it makes writing a competition of sorts, yet one that at its best is communal and mutually rewarding rather than the act of grinding an opponent’s face into the dirt. Does Slam scratch a competitive itch in you, or do you participate for reasons more vital than competition? If so, what are they?
Honestly, I don’t really like slamming. I like the aspect where you get to collaborate with other poets, and you can do a lot more in performance when there’s more than one person embodying the work, but the process of getting to that point? Nerve racking! I think that it feels that way for a lot of folks. And the way that I know it’s not just stage fright is that I never have that same anxiety when I’m just doing a reading. I have also never cared enough about scores for that to be what drives me. I see some people get so bent out of shape over not making it to a certain point, or on not making finals stage, or not getting played in a round and it just seems so unnecessary to me.
Like, you’re quite literally being judged for your art, and the results are immediate, you present, they critique. That’s stressful, because nobody likes being told, via arbitrary numbers, that they’re mediocre at something. But it’s also judged by five yahoos who you don’t know, and who really cares what they think? That’s sort of my philosophy. Like, I’m way more interested in having a conversation about the subject of a poem with somebody that comes up to me after I’m on stage than I am trouncing or being trounced by my peers. And at the same time, I still do it, right? So obviously there’s something there for me, which fulfills some sort of desire for me.
What are some of your fondest memories at Slams throughout your career? What stick out as the most cathartic, surreal, odd, humorous, devastating, absurd moments?
Oh lawd. I’m not sure how to answer this question without being like “I have known rivers”. It’s almost hard to pin down, because there are still times when something in a poem hits me, and I get a chill down my spine, or I’m suddenly crying or laughing so hard my stomach hurts. I’ve seen someone eat a whole banana with the peel still on, and then a whole onion at an erotic poetry open mic I was hosting. A friend of mine who lives in Seattle now, who I had been on teams with in college, wrote a poem where she quoted me in a poem about “crazy bitches”, which cracked me up.
There have been very few times where I’ve found myself in a position that I know I’ve put other people in that way. There was also a moment recently where someone who I think truly deserved it got booed and hissed at during a poem on finals stage because of things he had done to people within the community. I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that happens in other literary spaces, or most art spaces, and it was in front of a huge audience! I wasn’t even really aware it was the kind of thing that could happen at a slam. And people caught feelings about that moment on all fronts. I personally think it was warranted and it’s a harsh form of accountability for a person’s actions, but I think it highlights the ways in which this medium is not polite, or coy about all the things that leave us raw as artists and as people.
What do you make of New York and in particular Brooklyn as a place to be a poet? How is it alike or different from other places you’ve lived and worked?
In New York, even in Brooklyn, there’s this reliance upon networking and maneuvering in peoples’ mindsets so often that makes it really distinct from other places I’ve lived or been. Everything, even the poetry game, can be broken down as a hustle. I think moreso than anywhere else I’ve lived, though, New York has the highest percentage of working artists that I know. People who make their living as teaching artists, writers, and there’s less of a divide between people’s day jobs and their glamorous poet night lives. That’s not to say everyone is living large of this poetry money, but that it’s more possible to make things happen in New York than in other places. Time also moves differently in New York, so I often find myself writing with more of a sense of urgency for some reason.