I set this particular book, “When You Bit…”, in Chicago, because I visited Chicago several times between 2006 and 2008. 2006 was another pivotal year for me— in many ways, the Philly Free School in its original form effectively ended (Mike Land’s 7/29/06 extravaganza at the Highwire being the final Free School show with all the “classic” elements in place), I finished my M.F.A. and began as a University Fellow at Temple, and, most importantly, harnessed all my energy (which hitherto had suffered some dissipation) towards writing and publishing poetry seriously. I hit some open spaces and some walls instantly— “Beams” was published by Blazevox in late 2007, but accepted for publication in October ’06; roughly the same time my first poems appeared in Jacket Magazine. The walls I hit had to do with the infrastructure of the Philly poetry community. During the Philly Free School years, I was shielded from facing this infrastructure— by a vibrant social nexus, by our multi-media approach, and by my then-scattershot approach to publishing. Now, I found a new world which was bitter, brittle, hard, and cold, and I found it alone (Mike, Nick, Mary, Abby, and the rest had gone their separate ways, at least temporarily).
The Philly poetry world, at high levels and where high-stakes publishing was concerned, was run by old money and what could be purchased, which was everything. Two or three tightly constructed and connected cliques ruled the roost, and demanded absolute conformity and forfeit of control for entrance or acceptance. These cliques also frowned on sexualized behavior and artistic work; on attractive looking people in general; and on poets being judged by talent, rather than by strictly reined-in and by-certain-books behavior. This all sounds rather daunting, and it was. But the key figures in these cliques were also hopelessly untalented geeks, bizarre looking, and not particularly taken seriously by anyone outside of Philadelphia. One of their funniest riffs was about talent— in their world, there was no “talent,” and “talent” was a myth created by naïve patriarchal authorities to impose subaltern status on their underlings, etc, etc. They also hated poetry— “it’s not the poems, it’s the thoughts about the poems.” The net effect of all this meshigas is that by late 2006, I had seen a new, waste land version of the city I loved. I was determined and ambitious— I wasn’t going to run back to curating Free School shows, and give up the idea of making my name as a poet. I also had some newfangled advantages— the Net, and particularly Blogger, were finding ways to save my ass. But the whole in-love-with-Philly, Free School vibe had turned sour.
As of late 2006, the new Philly for me was a monstrosity. If I was going to find romance, intoxication, and intrigue, I’d have to look elsewhere. Because, during the course of doing my M.F.A. I had befriended a Chicago-area poet named Steve Halle, it looked like Chicago might be an option. I made arrangements to visit Chicago in December ’06— to stay with Steve in the Chicago suburb Palatine where he lived, to read with him at Myopic Books in Wicker Park, Chicago, and in general to commiserate with the Chicago poetry community. My visits to Chicago weren’t anywhere near as baroque as the Free School years— moderate drinking and drugging, no carnivorous carnality. But I did find Chicago enchanting, and unique, particularly Wicker Park, which was always our first stop in town. Chicago reminded me of the best bits of New York and D.C. in composite form— the cleanliness of the one, the imposing scale of the other. I liked the fact that being in Chicago (even more than New York) was like being marooned on an island in the middle of America— and that middle America (places like Palatine) was a sight to see. I found life in Palatine like being on the moon.
In short, I found Chicago imaginatively stimulating enough that the weight of dealing with waste land Philadelphia was balanced. The idea for “When You Bit…” began from a small incident which happened at a bar in Andersonville after one of my Chicago readings in mid-2007— a Chicago poetess picked up my arm and bit it. She and some of her friends became the Muses for “When You Bit…” I decided, early in the game, to employ the sonnet form here— both because the emotions of longing and confinement were being investigated, and because I felt I could take the sonnet form someplace new, towards transgression and perversion. My particular Chicago Muses were two poetesses who seemed to always show up as a Dynamic Duo— as the initial portion of the book would investigate a ménage between a protagonist and the two of them. The middle section of the book would dwell on the protagonist’s interiority; and then the final portion of the book would reunite the protagonist with one of the Dynamic Duo. As I mentioned in an interview with Mipoesias in ’08, the narrative structure of the book is this: 3, 1, 2. The action is set in Chicago, but doesn’t necessarily need to be— the real activity is in the protagonist’s consciousness, as it and he sift through the vicissitudes and junk-heaps of the flesh to find something genuine.