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.
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?