I'll be a guest blogger all this week on The Best American Poetry Blog. (Thanks to DL and SH for inviting me to join in the fun.)
Here's my first post about a painting, a poet and a poem called "Poem."
I was thinking about a particular kind of move I sometimes see in poems -- and happen to love, and sometimes use myself -- which I want to think about some more and write about later this week.
But before I get to that, I thought I better get to this: remembering a gallery show I went to at the beginning of last year, and what I saw there....
Thanks so much to Poetry Daily for featuring "Little Thieves" as their poem of the day today.
"Little Thieves" appears in This Time Tomorrow and first appeared in the excellent journal Memorious.
"Little Thieves" describes a night markets on one of the "snack streets" in Beijing. Remembering this scene -- where birds I wouldn't have thought of as "food birds" were being served up off the grill -- made me think of Mao's campaign against the sparrows, which I had read about in one of those wider-ranging, feature-y year-end issues of The Economist -- a surprising source of useful info for several poems in This Time Tomorrow.
That's something I love about writing, and especially about writing poetry: how you collect these odd bits of visual or historical info and let them bump up against each other until you start to see the possible connections between them.
I remember the first "Next Big Thing" interview I read was by Mary Biddinger about her second book of poems, O Holy Insurgency. Since then, it seems like pretty much everyone has done one—and now Rebecca Morgan Frank has tagged me to do one too.
And in the spirit of keeping a good thing going, I'm going to tag three poets I don't think have done this yet, but should: Susana Case, Jay Leeming and Andrei Guruianu.
This interview took place during the recent AWP Conference, on a snowy morning over breakfast at at a waterside hotel in Charlestown. The coffee flowed freely and so did the conversation.
What is your working title of your book?
My third book of poems was just published this month by the Waywiser Press. It’s called This
Where did the idea come from for the book?
This Time Tomorrow is a collection of poems about traveling and finding your way in other cultures and landscapes—specifically Japan, Iceland and China. My wife and I visited each of these countries over the course of several years. While I didn’t set out on these trips with the intention of writing this particular book, I knew our experiences in these surprising, challenging, sometimes disorienting places were things I would want to find their way into my poems in one way or another.
A friend’s wedding led us to visit Japan in the summer of 2005, and following that trip I wrote a long poem called “Disappears in the Rain,” which was originally published as a chapbook by Parlor City Press in 2009. This poem, written loosely in the shape of a renga, sits at the heart of This Time Tomorrow. It’s preceded by a sequence of poems set in Iceland and followed by a group of shorter poems set in China and Japan.
What genre does your book fall under?
What that same happily married friend and I used to refer to in our college days as “the first genre”—poetry.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in their younger days. (If you’re going to ask, I’m going to go for it.)
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A poet finds his way (in many different senses) through unfamiliar landscapes by looking both outward and inward.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My book was published by the Waywiser Press, under the careful and generous guidance of editors Philip Hoy and Joseph Harrison.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
That’s hard to say. As far as I can remember, I started writing “Disappears in the Rain” in early 2006 (after my memories had percolated for a while) and was working on drafts of some of the last poems to go into the book while I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2009. But there’s also one poem in the book I wrote while I was in the MFA program at The New School, circa 1999, which never felt right for my first or second book, but fit into This Time Tomorrow like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. And come to think of it, there’s a three-part poem in the book that I drafted before grad school, brought to David Lehman’s workshop at The New School, then tinkered with on and off for the next 10 years—and again, it never felt at home in a manuscript until this book came into focus.
Maybe novelists can give clearer answers to this question, but for me it tends to be the case that I’ll have poems like this that keep hanging out waiting for a book they fit. Putting together my first book, Subject to Change, I found I had some really good poems that just didn’t work in the context of that collection—and ever since then I’ve been happy to hold a few back that might be the start of the next book, or the next. And for that matter, I wrote a couple of poems after This Time Tomorrow was accepted by Waywiser that might have fit into the book. But it felt like that door had closed, poems-wise—the book felt complete to me—so they will probably find their way into the next manuscript.
What other books would you compare this book to within your genre?
I would trust other readers’ answers to this question a lot more than mine. My response is more aspirational than observational, but I can tell you I had Elizabeth Bishop’s poems about Brazil in mind, as well as poems by Seamus Heaney and Robert Hass. In addition, what I do structurally in several of the poems in the book is splice together several different story lines within a single poem, so that the poem cuts back and forth between narratives. That’s a move that I later realized was inspired by Pulp Fiction.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired by my experiences in these countries—by everything that was delightful and unfamiliar and disorienting, by the excitement of getting to know new places and the bittersweet feeling of then having to leave them behind.
Traveling in places that are new to you, you experience a continual sense of discovery—just ordering breakfast can be an adventure—but of course all this is only new to you: for most people there, it’s just everyday life. Jasper Johns said that sometimes we get so close to our lives we can’t see them anymore. For me, being in Japan and Iceland and China for the little while I got to spend in each had exactly the opposite effect. Everything felt clarifying and wakeful, like warm bright light and a new pair of glasses. And that was something I wanted to recreate in these poems as a way of going back and being there again.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
For all the fog-on-the-mountains stuff I just said, these poems are also filled with the real, roll-up-your-sleeves stuff of life being lived. Who wouldn’t want to read about following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps to sample the best hotdogs in Reykjavik? Or visiting the tomb of the first emperor of China, discovered when a farmer tried to dig a well? Or taking a peek inside a mountain-top monastery in Koyasan to hear the monks’ six a.m. prayers?
For that matter, how many books of poems feature cover art by a Chinese emperor? As the story goes, one day twenty cranes alighted on the roof of the emperor’s palace. Who wouldn’t consider that a sign of good luck to come, of good things to discover when you open the book?
This Time Tomorrow is here! Hot off the presses in Cornwall and ready for the AWP Conference next week in Boston, where I'll be signing books and reading with David Ferry, Morri Creech and a host of other fine poets published by Waywiser Press. And then a reading here in New York, again with David and Morri, at the end of March, and home state readings in Ann Arbor and Lansing at the end of April. (Michigan friends, I'm coming to see you!)
You can get the full debrief and preview -- read a few poems, take in a blurb or two, get the inside scoop on the story behind one of the poems -- right here on this site.
And in the spirit of the day after the Oscars, I have some important people to thank. I'm very grateful to Philip Hoy, Joseph Harrison and the Waywiser Press for handling my work with affection and care, for producing such a beautiful and elegant book, and for now helping This Time Tomorrow to find its first readers. If you're a poet looking for a publisher, I would definitely recommend sending your manuscript to the next Hecht Prize competition.
So how can you get a copy? This Time Tomorrow is available now directly from Waywiser Press with free across-the-pond shipping. Or you can order a signed copy from me via this site. If you prefer our online giants, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are offering a 35% discount on pre-orders. I would be happiest of all to have you come to one of the events in Boston, New York, Lansing or Ann Arbor, if you'll be in one of those palces, where you can hear the poems, and some of the stories behind them, and I can sign a copy for you and say thank you so much for reading.
The AWP Conference is only about a month away. Are you going? This will be my third AWP. I tend to go every year or two when the conference returns to the Northeast. The book fair is my favorite part -- it can be overwhelming, for sure, but I love seeing all the different literary journals and getting the chance to meet in person editors I've only known through their emails or via Facebook. It's also exciting to see all the new books hot off the presses. Especially for poets, it feels like our whole community of writers and editors and publishers is there, all buzzing around that one really big hall.
I'll be doing two readings and two book signings this year to celebrate my two new books, This Time Tomorrow and Every Possible Blue. Please check out my Events page for all the details. The Waywiser off-site reading is especially exciting -- I'll be reading with a terrific line-up of poets published by the press, including David Ferry, Morri Creech, Carrie Jerrell, Dora Malech and Eric McHenry. To make it even more enticing, we're reading at an Irish pub!
There's a great review of Every Possible Blue by Warren D. Woessner in the new issue of Rain Taxi. Here's a preview:
With a title like Every Possible Blue, you might expect Matthew Thorburn’s second collection to be a series of laments, but you’d be wrong. These poems are filled with blues—but they are the blues of blue skies, blue birds, and most emphatically, blue pigment.
Please visit the Rain Taxi site to read the full review.
Hey, this really made my day: "There's this string" is the poem de jour on Verse Daily today. Big thanks to the editors of the site for featuring my work.
And thanks again to Rhett Iseman Trull and Jeff Trull, the editors of Cave Wall, for originally publishing it earlier this year. (If you don't know Cave Wall, check it out: it's one of my favorite poetry journals.)
"There's this string," by the way, is part of what's slowly starting to look like a new collection of poems -- and was something I began writing in my head one morning while walking to the subway, on my way to work. Like many people, I follow more or less the same route back and forth, five days a week, getting to and from work, and started thinking how it was sort of like I was following a rope or string that marked the way....
On Friday I had the pleasure of leading a walking tour of the West Village, as part of the Academy of American Poets' annual Poets Forum. You can't walk half a block in this neighborhood without passing a building where a poet once lived, or drank, or fell in love -- and to see them all would take a two or three-day tour, at least. But in our hour and a half, we made a good dash of it.
The highlight for me was seeing 61 Perry Street, where Elizabeth Bishop stayed several times (it was the home of a painter friend) and where she first met Lota. We also passed by the site of a one-time speakeasy where Hart Crane liked to drink and complain about how the Village was going to the dogs, a building where Gerald Stern and W.S. Merwin were roommates, and the (now closed) hospital Edna St. Vincent Millay was named after -- St. Vincent's. Patchen Place was the best surprise of the tour: a beautiful half-block alley, hidden away behind a wrought iron fence, where e.e. cummings lived across the street from Djuna Barnes. If I had three wishes, wish number one just might be for an apartment in that oasis in the middle of everything.
Thank you to the Academy, and especially Alex Dimitrov, for inviting me to lead the tour. In spite of a little morning rain, we had a blast -- and a good crowd of both locals and long-distance visitors. (And in true the big city is a small world fashion, in talking to one tour guest I discovered she was the mother of my former down-the-hall neighbor, visiting from upstate just to come to the Poets Forum.) And special thanks to Kate Sugar, who helped keep the tour on track and on schedule.
Here's looking forward to next year's Poets Forum. And here's one more photo -- the plaque on the wall outside the apartment building that was poet and "baseball enthusiast" Marianne Moore's last home:
Thank you to poetry editor Clay Matthews and the staff of The Tusculum Review for picking up my poem, "This Morning on the 1 Train," for their next issue. A poem from the new collection I'm working on, it's an ode to subway commuters and people watching and being thankful to have a job and the hustle-and-bustle of getting to work each morning.
Several poems of mine were included in the very first issue of Tusculum Review, way back in 2005, so it's especially exciting to have my work appear there again in what I believe will be their 9th annual issue.
(Photo of the 1 train courtesy of RailPictures.net.)