Matthew Thorburn, Poet - Author of Dear Almost
Recently I had the opportunity to interview poet Dan Albergotti for the Ploughshares blog. As is often the case with these interviews, I admire and am interested in and want to talk about this writer’s work so much that I had more questions that space permitted, so here’s part 2 of our conversation…
MT: Could you also talk more generally about how a poem starts for you? And on the flip side, would you talk more specifically about “Inside” and “Aphelion & Aphasia”? How did each of these poems start, and what was the writing and revising process like?
DA: I wish I could respond to this intelligently, but really, I’m pretty baffled about where my poems come from. All I know is that I am obsessive about lines and phrases (and even just sounds). I’ll find a few words dancing around in my head, often when going to bed or waking up and sometimes during repetitive, routine activities like walking and showering, and I’ll keep returning to them, willfully or not, until I write them down somewhere. That’s where the ideas for poems most often start anyway. Then I play with those lines and phrases until I’ve found the right vehicle for them.
With “Inside,” I had been thinking about the fact that we have no forms in English in which a predictable pattern of duple and triple feet occurs within a line. It’s always either a duple-foot line with a rare triple-foot substitution or vice versa. So I thought “why not?” and tried to imagine the sound of a line that would have regular interplay of the two types of poetic foot. I literally started hearing just the sounds of this line: anapest / iamb / iamb / anapest / iamb. When I started hearing that rhythm, I found the poems “Inside” and “Outside.”
“Aphelion & Aphasia” was a much different process where the content had a more primary role. I began writing it at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in July of 2012, a few weeks after a super derecho rolled through the area, ripping up trees and causing widespread damage and power outage. At the same time, I was trying to come to terms with my mother’s death, my estrangement from my family, and the insufficiency of words. I guess this poem would be categorized as “meditative,” and there’s certain a discursive, free-verse feel to it. But it’s also pretty strictly decasyllabic. In recent years, I’ve found that I almost can’t write poetry without applying at least a syllabic regimen. I hope some of this answer has made a shred of sense; whenever I talk about my own writing process, I feel like it’s just a bunch of babble.
MT: Millennial Teeth is a very cohesive book thanks to the sonnets and ghazals we’ve discussed, which appear throughout the book, but also thanks to paired poems like “Neither” and “Nor,” which bookend the collection,” and “Inside” and “Outside,” which do something similar in the book’s third section. Thematic lines run through the poems too – faith and loss of faith, family strife – to create connections between poems. Could you talk about the process of putting the book manuscript together? Did you have an idea in mind of how it would look from the start, or at some point as you were writing, or did that come later?
DA: I usually don’t think about a book’s structure when writing individual poems. I just write to my obsessions and assemble the manuscript later. With that said, though, I certainly write small groups of poems that are related, and that makes it easier to put together a book that can make clear those “thematic lines” you mention. Placing individual poems of such small groups throughout the manuscript makes it easier for me to see how other poems might be talking to each other too. If I were to have put “Neither” and “Nor” together in the manuscript (or “Inside” and “Outside,” or the 9/11 ghazals), I don’t think the book would make nearly as much sense. Now I’m not sure I could articulate why that is the case….
MT: On a related note, I’m a big fan of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. What was your experience like working with the series editor and with Southern Illinois University Press?
DA: Heaven. Seriously, working with series editor Jon Tribble and the amazing people at Southern Illinois University Press has been a complete delight. Like you, I had been a big fan of the series before my book was chosen, so I was thrilled when I learned I’d won the open competition and had very high expectations of what the experience would be like. But it has exceeded all of them. The editors, the design and production team, the marketing department—they’re just all fantastic.
MT: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
DA: I’m still writing Albergonnets and playing with form (including others in another sonnet variation that you can see in “For Forgetting” and “Some Other Day” in Millennial Teeth), as well as writing more discursive, exploratory poems in the style of “Aphelion & Aphasia” and “Splinter & Sneeze.” Still writing to the same thematic obsessions and probably always will be. Natasha Trethewey always says that a poet should “honor his or her obsessions” rather than self-consciously trying to tamp them down. I trust her on that one. I have no idea when the poems I’m writing now will be brought together in another manuscript; I just hope to have good judgment in determining when they should be.
My interview with the wonderful poet Dan Albergotti is up today at the Ploughshares blog.
Dan talks about his second book, Millennial Teeth, and shares his insights on writing sonnets, Albergonnets and ghazals, as well as the challenges of reading (and writing) a good 9/11 poem.
He also shares a summer's worth of reading recommendations, so get your pencil and paper ready, then head over to the Ploughshares blog!
(And keep an eye out for part 2 of our interview on this site in the next week or so....)
"My writing process is all about BIC (butt in chair)" -- An interview with Sandy Longhorn, author of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Sandy Longhorn for Ploughshares. Sandy is the author of three collections of poems, Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press, 2013) and The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (Trio House, 2015). She teaches at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-edits Heron Tree, “a journal of online poetry, bound annually.”
From the importance of a sense of place, to thoughts on how one book leads to the next, to the practicalities of being a working writer (for example, getting your butt in your chair every day, so you can write), our interview covered a lot of ground. Here’s the second part of our conversation (and be sure to check out part one as well):
MT: A sense of place and being in a landscape seems very important to your work. Could you talk about how place influences your work? Do you feel that you write from a particular place?
SL: I have to credit my time at the University of Arkansas, where I earned my MFA, as the place and time where regionalism came into focus for me. The program at Arkansas is four years, which was instrumental for me, as I didn’t find my voice until midway through my third year when I began writing poems of place set in the Midwest. As a Southern program, most of the writers teaching at Fayetteville at the time were steeped in place (Miller Williams and Davis McCombs, for example). However, it was fiction writer Skip Hays who once said to me that there could be no Faulkner, no Garcia Marquez from the Midwest since we were all “just a bunch of tight-lipped Methodists.” Having loved the highly imagined worlds of Garcia Marquez for years, I took that as a personal challenge and began to write poems from the Midwest that would use the type of gorgeous language and imagination that I associated with some of my favorite Southern writers.
I will confess that as soon as I moved away from the prairie of the Midwest (eastern Iowa to be exact) and lived in Colorado first, then Massachusetts, I became a stalwart booster of the area. In fact, I never realized how strongly I identified with the place until I lived elsewhere.
Regardless of all of this, my first two books contain poems that could not have been written without my trips back home. In these trips I consciously tried to absorb that sense of place, even taking notes on the landscape and the ways of the people to bring back to Arkansas and use when I sat down to write. In this way, place becomes a character itself in many of my poems.
MT: After reading and enjoying your first book, Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2005), I was curious to see what you’d do next. I think it’s interesting to look at how a poet’s second book builds off of, responds to, or may be completely different from the first. Could you talk about how The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths and Blood Almanac relate to one another?
SL: I’ve hinted at some of this earlier, so I’ll try not to be too repetitive. Needless to say, there is a fallow period, for me, between books. Yet, some of the oldest poems in The Girlhood Book answer directly back to Blood Almanac. For example, “Having Been Begotten,” is a direct descendant of “Labor Day on the Bremer Blacktop,” although I seriously didn’t see the connection until the first time I read “Having Been Begotten” for an audience.
The Girlhood Book had a bit of a long history, and I’m indebted to Jacar Press for publishing it. The poems included changed many times over the six or seven years of its writing, with the tales and saints being some of the “youngest” poems in the book. At some point, I knew I needed to go beyond the self and find out what more there was to discover about the Midwest. You may notice that the last section of The Girlhood Book seems the most autobiographical, even down to titles such as “Autobiography as Cartography.” This section probably could have been included in Blood Almanac, had I written the poems early enough to include them. The other sections, I do see as distinctly their own.
MT: How does a poem start for you? Specifically, could you talk about “The Interior Weather of Tree-Clinging Birds” and “Cautionary Tale of Girls and Birds of Prey”? How did each of these poems start, and what was the writing and revising process like?
SL: First, my writing process is all about BIC (butt in chair). I don’t wait for the muse to strike. Instead, I’m at the desk at the same time on the same days (as best I can), trying to write. So most of my poems begin from some form of daily prompts. My favorite is the word bank. For this, I grab the books closest to me and skim for great nouns, verbs, and sometimes adjectives. I put these down randomly in my journal, being messy on the page. Soon links begin to form and words spark off of each other, so that I draw circles and arrows and stars on the page of jumbled, “stolen” words. Usually, a line suggests itself and I go from there.
My revision process is largely one based on sound. I read out loud as I draft, and I read out loud, over and over again, as I revise. Sometimes, it comes down to changing one word and then re-reading a poem from the beginning until I hit another sonic glitch. Word choice, punctuation, and line breaks all come into play, and all are questioned in the revision process.
Going back through my journals (yes, I date every new day of writing), I found the sparks for “The Interior Weather of Tree-Clinging Birds” on January 16, 2009. I did not use the word bank for this poem, so I only have the barest of clues. I have written the phrase “oracle of ice & snow” and I’ve scribbled these lines: “On the coldest day of winter / consult the interior weather / of tree-clinging birds.” I suspect two things. First, I was using an Audubon bird guide a lot in my writing at the time, and Audubon uses “tree-clinging” as one of its categories for types of birds. Second, if we could access the weather report from the 15th, I’d bet that the meteorologist on Channel 7 said something about the 16th as a possibility for the “coldest day of winter” that year. There are more lines scribbled on the page that tease out phrases like “my oracle of icicle and snow” and “ a future told in cast of seeds / and feathers tipped with pitch.” In my process, as soon as enough lines come together to gain critical mass, I switch to the computer to draft. At some point, I must have seen “the interior weather of tree-clinging birds” as more of a title than a line, and I expanded on the idea of oracles. I do remember switching “oracles of ice and snow” to “oracles of icicles and snow” because of the “ck” sounds within the words. I also remember revising “a future told in cast off seeds” to “cast off hulls” for the sound, and accuracy, as well.
*One side note, if you’ll permit me. I was so in love with the sounds of this poem, that I kept putting it at the front of the collection. It took a very astute reader of the book as draft to explain to me that it had to go later because I was rushing the audience and they weren’t prepared for the themes in the poem yet. Sometimes, we are too close to our work to see it clearly.
It looks like “The Cautionary Tale of Girls and Birds of Prey” was written on June 10, 2011. Let me be clear, by “was written,” I mean the first draft. I usually continue to tinker with a draft over several weeks, and sometimes months, after I’ve gotten a sense of it as a whole. I do have to get the “whole” of it down in one sitting, though, or I tend to let a draft wither away.
So, this cautionary tale was written at a time when I was “in the groove” of writing the “tales” in the book. I didn’t need much prompting at this point and very little word gathering. Instead, I had a strong sense of my “girl” and the struggles she faced. My notes do say that I used a list of “Midwestern notes” that I’d brought back from a trip up home, with “hawk” being the kickoff for this poem. While I won’t say that the tale drafts came “easily” at any point, I will say that there wasn’t as much groping for the drafts. There was, however, much more tinkering at a later point, as I tried to blend my focus on sound with the straight-forward narratives.
Recently I had the chance to interview Angela Pelster, author of the essay collection Limber (Sarabande Books, 2014), over at the Ploughshares blog. Limber is strange, surprising, unforgettable – one of those books I find I keep working into conversations and telling my friends they should read. You should too.
Our conversation ranged well beyond the word limit for a Ploughshares interview—there’s just too much to ask a writer—so I’m pleased to share the rest of our interview here:
As I said in our conversation on the Ploughshares blog, to me you write from the crossroads of essay, poem, memoir, fable, short story, meditation and prayer, bringing together elements of all those different kinds of writing to create something that is very original and compelling. How did you develop your approach to essay writing?
I wrote a lot of poems and stories as a kid all throughout elementary school, until the desire to write creatively was squashed out of me from the writing we learned to do in class. It never occurred to me to take a creative writing course in college – I don’t think I even knew there was such a thing – but after I graduated with a Drama degree in Education, my life fell apart in a variety of awful and painful ways, and what had been a journaling practice became my coping mechanism. I found out that I liked writing and that I liked to think things through with my writing. I had just discovered Annie Dillard and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek blew my mind. I had no idea that people wrote like she did, and without meaning to, I started to imitate her in my own writing.
I took a night course from the faculty of extension at the University of Alberta, and I wrote the first chapter of a children’s novel for a class assignment. The professor liked it, and since he had a publishing company, he offered to publish the book if I wrote the rest of it. It was a strange experience – personally, I was a disaster, but I had agreed to write this magical children’s book. So every day, I would wake up and cry for a while, and then journal, and then I would sit down and write for hours at a time. I’d leave behind all the real things that were going on, and drown myself in the adventures of a nine-year-old girl and her tiger on Salt Spring Island. I had no idea what I was doing, and I figured out how to write as I went along.
What I really learned from that experience, though, was that I wanted to write. So I started taking more writing classes, I discovered the essay, and then I decided to get an MFA from Iowa in nonfiction writing. The first time I read a lyric essay I pretty much died of happiness. It was the kind of writing I had been doing all along, naturally, trying to blend fact and mythology and memoir and poetry without knowing that other people were doing the same thing. I found my writing home in the lyric essay and have been experimenting with it ever since.
I was struck by how your book opens with “Les Oiseaux” and closes with “Cardinal,” two brief, beautiful pieces that might easily fit into a collection of prose poems. Likewise, two of the most haunting pieces in the book—“Saskatoons,” a numbered sequence of scenes from a group home, and “Inosculation,” written in the voice of a man born in the 1880s—would be at home in a book of short stories. I’m curious if you ever write in these other genres. And more specifically, could you talk about your seemingly unusual (for essays) approach to narrative in “Saskatoons” and “Inosculation”?
I don’t really think of myself as anything other than an essayist since the lyric essay lets me do whatever I want to do and not worry about how to categorize it. I know it’s not standard practice, and it makes it difficult to know where to put my book on the shelf, and my department doesn’t know what to call the classes I teach, but I actually like that. Life is so strange and unpredictable; it feels disingenuous to pretend everything can be divided up into such tidy genre categories. I’m interested in writing about the world and how to understand my place in it. I’m not out to trick anyone with what I write, but I also want to be free to use whatever writing tools I need in order to best think about the things I’m interested in. So sometimes I draw on facts, sometimes I turn to fiction, I try to always write with the attention of a poet, and often, all of these things will come together in a single essay. Those are my favorites.
Both “Saskatoons” and “Inosculation” are factual stories written in fictional voices. I also created scenes in the essays that were based on fact but that I had very little information on and so mostly made them up. With both of these essays, I experimented with different kinds of voices until these ones appeared out of nowhere. Especially “Saskatoons.” It’s pretty vulgar to begin with, but also very truthful to the experience of life in a group home, and so as I wrote it I kept laughing, embarrassed about what I was writing, but knowing that to tame it would be to make it less true. When I showed a draft to my thesis advisor, he stopped halfway through the opening paragraph and nervously said, “What am I reading?” I told him to just keep going, and he did, and he agreed that it worked and was necessary.
What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
I recently moved to Baltimore while also discovering the twelfth-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen. So now I’m working on a manuscript that tries to discuss the violence, racism and poverty of Baltimore while thinking about Hildegard’s mysticism and how to respond to the city in a way that reflects my beliefs about equality and justice. It’s a lot to hold together at once, and I don’t really know where I’m going with it, but I guess that means I am at least doing it the way I should be.
What have you read recently that moved you?
Right now I’m reading Life on Mars by Tracy Smith and rereading The Meadow by James Galvin. I love both of these books for the same reason, which is their uncompromising compassion. There is such kindness in the writing, and the kindness never becomes sentimental or soft, but somehow maintains a brilliant sharpness. I have to put the books down sometimes and take a deep breath because they are so beautiful that it’s hard to bear it.
Read “Saskatoons,” an essay from Angela Pelster’s Limber.
Jason Koo is the author of two collections of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers' Workshop Members' Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. He has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including the Yale Review, North American Review and Missouri Review, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. An assistant professor of English at Quinnipiac University, he is also the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets, a nonprofit organization celebrating and cultivating the poets, poetry and literary heritage of Brooklyn, where he lives.
Matthew Thorburn: As Walt Whitman would say, your poems contain multitudes—including the famous and the infamous, from Marky Mark and LeBron James to Tony Leung and Wong Kar Wai, to Tommy Flanagan and Oscar Peterson, to Kim Jong Il and, appropriately enough, two poets associated with Brooklyn, Hart Crane and Whitman himself. Your cat Django even makes an appearance or two. I’m not someone who says certain subjects or people are or aren’t appropriate for poems, but this cast of characters definitely includes some surprises. Is this something you’re conscious of? Do you try to expand the frame in your poems to include less obviously “poetic” individuals or subjects? Is there anyone you think couldn’t appear in a poem?
Jason Koo: Yes, I’m definitely conscious of this, but less so than I used to be. I remember when I was starting out and fearing the wrath of T. S. Eliot if I included any mention of pop culture in my poems. The liberation came, of course, when I started reading the New York School poets and seeing how they swerved past all the Eliotic rules, not just writing about figures from pop culture but each other and their friends. They made everyone “famous.” And probably more than any other “school” of poetry they expanded our sense of what poetry could do—what poetry could be. I’m always in favor of a poetry that is more and more inclusive of what’s out there—especially things like sports, which are strangely left out of most contemporary poems. We live in the age of pop culture–infused poetry, so it’s no surprise, I think, to see movie stars and musicians and superheroes appear in poems, but very rarely do you see contemporary poets mention sports—probably because so few of them watch sports. I’d say this is unhealthy, but of course watching sports is far unhealthier.
Not sure if there’s anyone I think who couldn’t appear in a poem—if I ever thought this I’d probably immediately want to try to write a poem with that person in it. Like once I was told by a famous poet in a one-day workshop that I could never use the word “phone” in a poem (I had that word in the poem being workshopped), and my attitude was like, Now I’m going to use that shit all the time. Come to think of it, though, I’m not sure how often I’ve used the word “phone” after that.
MT: Recently I’ve been thinking through the structure and sequence for a new manuscript, so I’m especially curious to hear how you put this book together. It seems like each of us figures out how to do this in a different way—and I’ve found (so far, at least) that it’s different each time, based on each manuscript’s particular set of poems. Could you talk about how you approached this with America’s Favorite Poem? Did you have an idea of how this book would come together as you were writing, or did that come later? And was it different from your experience with your first book, Man on Extremely Small Island?
JK: The structure of both books came together as I wrote the poems and started putting them together. It would be very odd, I think, to think of a structure first and then write the poems. Well, maybe not odd, but almost certainly leading to crappy poems. With Man, I always had long poems in sections II and IV, though those ended up changing, which made me want to balance them with collections of “shorter” (that’s in quotes because you know my poems are almost never short) poems in sections I and III. In the first versions of Man, sections I and II were fairly affirmative and inclusive about the world—a lot of the poems came from my time in grad school at Houston, when I was so excited about possibilities. The long poem in Section II was called “Open Sky,” a poem about driving under the huge skies in Houston listening to jazz. But then I moved to Missouri for my PhD and started writing a lot of poems about loneliness and alienation, and these changed the tenor of the book. I thought of Section III as the darkest, loneliest section, so I tried to put all these poems in there, but my friends kept telling me to put them up front, because they were stronger than the poems there.
Eventually I relented when I wrote “2046 Love Songs of Wong Wai,” because I thought that was the best thing I’d written and wanted it in the book somewhere. I replaced “Open Sky” with that poem and then the whole first section suddenly seemed unrelated. So I very quickly wrote a bunch of sad, lonely poems that went into the first section—this is making my process sound ridiculous, I realize—and then the book, I felt finally, was very coherent. That was the summer before it won C&R Press’s first book prize in the fall. I should add that I also wrote the last long poem of the book about my dad in Missouri, which replaced an even longer letter poem I’d written to James Schuyler—I loved that poem but it was 17 pages in ms. and created a huge imbalance in the book. So you might say the history of assembling my first book was a history of me taking out my loves and affirmations and replacing them with more loneliness and despair. Good times.
For America’s Favorite Poem, I knew I didn’t want to write any long poems on par with “2046 Love Songs” and “Bon Chul Koo and the Hall of Fame.” I was conscious of wanting to write “shorter” poems—or at least build the book differently. I didn’t want a four-part structure with two long poems in sections II and IV again. That was pretty much all that went into my opening thinking about the structure of the book. But of course then you have to write the poems. And I didn’t really write many “shorter” poems—even the two sonnets in the book actually came from a summer workshop I’d taken with Henri Cole before my first book came out. I saw that I was writing a lot of longish but not “long” poems—at least not how I’d define a long poem. Poems like “Giant Steps” and “Model Minority” and “Sometime Sweep” and “Struck from the Float” and “Work” that were 3-5 pages in manuscript. One nice thing about writing longish (and long) poems is that pretty soon you have enough material to put together a book. So within about a year and a half of my first book coming out, I had something like a first draft of America’s Favorite Poem—that would’ve been the end of summer in 2011.
I sent it to my readers and revised poems and shifted poems around and eventually added a poem or two—I think “Lunch Special” was the last one to go in there. I did end up writing one long poem, “Close Embrace,” that I was worried I’d have to put into its own section, but I liked how it worked in the middle of Section II so I left it there. I again went with a proem to the collection, like I did in Man with the Effingham poem, and this time added a coda poem: “Work.” The first section of the book includes what you might call poems of ego, poems in which I’m both reveling in and detesting big projections of the self—maybe we should call this the Yeezy self. Boy am I sounding ridiculous now (which is incidentally a good description of the first section). The second section is more introspective, a little lonelier—more like the poems in Man. In these poems I’m investigating the fallout of all those projections of the self on my personal relationships. Okay, I think I’ve done enough harm to myself with all these descriptions of what I’m doing as a poet, so I’ll stop.
MT: This book opens with “American Dream,” a villanelle in dialogue with one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and ends with “Work,” a more sprawling (formally and narratively speaking) poem that brings together different ideas about work, from Django the cat’s work (sleeping, mainly) to your work as a professor, to Andy Warhol and his Factory, to your father working to send you to school, and finally (as I read it) to the finished “work” that is this poem and ultimately this book. These seem like fitting bookends to a collection that is wide-ranging in terms of formal approaches (that villanelle, an erasure poem, a variety of stanza forms) and full of language that thinks about and is sometimes self-conscious about language, yet also often very personal and intimate. Would you talk a little about how these different strands come together in your work?
JK: First of all, that is a damn good reading of the book! Affirms my faith in the reader actually noticing what I am trying to do. I was happy with the formal variety of the book, something I’m always going after, though I think there’s a little more of that in America’s Favorite Poem than Man on Extremely Small Island. For me, American poetry has always been and always will be about inclusiveness, and that should start with a poet’s approach to form. We’re the inheritors of two great formal traditions seemingly opposed to each other in Whitman’s long free-verse lines and Dickinson’s incredibly compressed ballad meter. I love both poets. And what’s great about American poetry, as my old teacher Sandy McClatchy used to say, is that it operates between these two frequencies. I think it’s because of Whitman and Dickinson in the 19th century that American poetry flourished in the 20th century: there was so much room for poets to innovate formally between those two frequencies.
One of the reasons I love Hart Crane (aside from his growing up in Cleveland) is that he was the first American poet who seemed to try to fuse Whitman and Dickinson together, to have both expansiveness and intensity in his lines. I think this is why he loved the Brooklyn Bridge so much, because it seemed to wed expansiveness and intensity. I too am always trying to have it both ways: a poetry that can be expansive as well as intense. I love writing long, overlapping lines a la Whitman but also blank verse, villanelles, sestinas, poems in syllabics, and other more contemporary forms (or perhaps anti-forms) such as erasures and found poems (the GQ poem is basically a found poem) and mashups (the Van Gogh poem). The whole point of America, or what should be the whole point, is that it is inclusive, that we are free and open to everything—and as a poet I want to reflect this and celebrate it. To that end I’m a little mystified by American poets who feel they have to pick between free verse and “traditional” verse or never try anything new formally.
MT: How does a poem start for you? Specifically, could you talk about “Self-Installation” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About”? How did each of these poems start, and what was the writing and revising process like?
JK: Like a lot of poets, usually a poem starts for me with a phrase or line I have in my head. There’s something that catches in the auditory imagination—you feel there’s more there for you to explore in the phrase or line, a whole world for you to open up. And actually both of the poems you mention started this way: “Self-Installation” began with a sentence straight out of Van Gogh’s letters—“It seemed less and less like eating strawberries in spring”—and “What We Talk About” began with a funny message I’d received on Facebook from my girlfriend at the time—“I thought I should write this down, since your ear / is a vagina and you might not hear it if I said it out loud.” Obviously when you hear those two sentences side by side you can hear two different worlds possible in each of them, two different tonal avenues. The Van Gogh sentence seemed destined to lead to a devastating love poem, what I think of as Ben Webster mode, and the line about the ear/vagina seemed to be leading to a wacky, laugh-out-loud kind of poem. In some ways I think of myself as operating between those two tonal extremes, sometimes within the same poem.
It’s interesting that you picked these two poems, and that they appear back-to-back in America’s Favorite Poem. The writing process for each of them differed a bit in that the Van Gogh poem used a lot of other phrases and sentences from Van Gogh’s letters in addition to the first one; I started riffing off repetitions of less/more and returning to Van Gogh’s words to push my own words further. I’d never actually written a poem that way before; more riffing/associative than narrative/dramatic, as most of the work in my first book is. More disjunctive and language-centric. I remember debuting this poem at a reading at Lewis University, where my friend Simone Muench had invited me to read, and her ecstatic response to it, I think because stylistically it was closer to her style and she could feel the breakthrough from my usual style.
“What We Talk About” is more like my other poems, mixing funny and weird and sad and essentially telling a little story; I wrote this at the Vermont Studio Center in January of 2010, the month after my first book came out. I believe it was the second poem I wrote. Hence the similarity in style, tone and subject matter to the poems of my first book. I can’t remember much about the revision process; I think it came out mostly all at once, but I do remember having a little trouble with the ending. The original ending I believe went a little further than just “You’re covering your vaginas”; then I realized that I couldn’t really go past that line. I mean, how do you go past “You’re covering your vaginas”? That’s tough. I also remember having a little trouble with the title, eventually settling on what I thought might be a too cute play on the famous Raymond Carver story title “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Obviously the idea here was that “love” was not talked about in my poem; and I liked the play on “about,” how there was a talking “about” going on in the sense of talking around or all over the place, i.e. “walk about.”
The Van Gogh poem came out very quickly and went through only minimal revision, mostly just cutting/changing a few words. And I think for that poem too I changed the title; I think the original title was “The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh,” but that didn’t seem to do enough work so I did another possibly too-cute title thing with “Self-Installation.” I have a series of possibly too-cute titles for poems that are essentially self-portraits but which I see as not being traditional in the sense of something painted: “Self-Reproduction with Scream Pillow,” “Self-Montage with Noodles,” “Self-Installation.” I saw the self in “Self-Installation” as just an empty room with things in it, kind of like many installations (yawn), rather than like one of the electric self-portraits in oil paint that Van Gogh used to make.
MT: It’s kind of sad to say, but you are one of the relatively few poets I know who published both his first and second books with the same press. What has your experience been like working with C&R Press? What advice would you give to someone seeking out a publisher for a poetry book manuscript?
JK: My experience has been good and bad, as probably most poets’ experiences with presses have been, whether that press is a major house or university press or an indie press. The problem, of course, is that poetry doesn’t really sell, so most presses don’t allocate a lot of resources to it. The presses I think that are good, i.e. with taste in what they publish and strong design and editing and savvy promotion of their catalog, usually have a boatload of funding they can throw at their poetry titles, whether that be from private resources or nonprofit grants and contributions.
C&R has been good to me in that they allow me a lot of flexibility in choosing my own designer to design my book covers and let me be as OCD as I want when it comes to that design and the editing of my text; the downside is that they don’t do a lot of promotion of my books and rely on a business model whereby I, the author, do a lot of the buying (40% off) and selling of my own book, as well as the promotion via readings and social media, etc. They like me because I’m good at those things and have a ridiculous amount of energy. In many ways the second book felt more like a partnership than the first book. I’d shopped the book to a few of those aforementioned “good” presses that I thought have more reach than C&R and entered it in some contests, and it got close but wasn’t taken; and I didn’t want to wait more than a year to land a book contract because of the pressures of the job market, my thinking being that entering the job market with two books to my name would be stronger than just having one. C&R kept asking for the manuscript so eventually I gave it to them and we worked out a deal that was beneficial to both parties.
Knowing what I know now about the business side of the poetry world and how to promote work and set up events, I might be better off just publishing my own books and selling them on my own—in the sense that I’d probably make more money. But from a credentials standpoint obviously that wouldn’t be the case, as all academic jobs frown upon self-publication. You need the cultural imprint of a press to make your work legitimate, but what’s funny is most academics who aren’t poets don’t know the difference between C&R Press and Wave Books and Copper Canyon. If it ain’t Knopf or Penguin or Norton, etc, it’s all the same to most academics.
My advice to someone seeking out a publisher is to make sure you like what that press is doing. You should like what they’re doing from all angles: the kinds of books they publish, the design, the promo. That said, there aren’t many presses that will do all of those things well, and the reality is that as a poet you don’t have a lot of time to wait while you’re trying to land a teaching job (if that’s the line of work you’re in). So you’re probably going to have to compromise a bit. And that would be my second piece of advice: be prepared to compromise, but do so in a way that you feel still maintains your artistic integrity. I think we all have a little wiggle room with our integrity, but there’s a line we feel we can’t cross without feeling eternally shitty about ourselves. So if I was ever with a press where they wanted to publish some horrible cover for my book that I absolutely hated, or if they wanted to edit my lines in a way that felt like a violation, I would probably withdraw the book.
I think if you ever get to a place in your career where you can afford to wait for a press to publish your book that you really like, you should do that. I think also as you get older you start to have a better idea of what presses would be good for your work at that particular stage of your career—and you start to cut out other presses that you know would not serve you anymore. You might even meet some of the publishers/editors of those presses and have more of an “in.” For the new manuscript I’m working on, I have an idea of the presses I’d like to publish it who might be interested in it; but we’ll have to see how things work out. In my experience, poetry publishing does not generally work out the way I want it to.
MT: In addition to writing and teaching, you are also the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and cultivates poets and poetry in Brooklyn. That seems like a full-time job in itself, so I’m curious to hear how you balance these different roles—and find time for all three. And does your work with Brooklyn Poets influence your own writing? What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
JK: Directing Brooklyn Poets is indeed a full-time job. Sometimes I wonder myself how I balance all three roles of directing BKP, teaching full-time at Quinnipiac and writing. Somehow, some way, the work gets done. It helps that the “full-time” job at Quinnipiac entails teaching two or three times a week, depending on the semester, and that I have fully paid summers and winter vacations, etc. I write mostly in the summer months and winter break. I’ve found as I get older that I can write a lot of poems during my breaks—this summer I wrote essentially a whole new book, longer in manuscript form than either of my first two books. I wasn’t expecting to do that but wham, it happened.
Probably that torrent had something to do with the fact that the two years before that I barely wrote any poems. Those were the years in which I founded and developed Brooklyn Poets; I could “excuse” myself from writing new poems without feeling too guilty about it because America’s Favorite Poem was in line for publication and individual poems from it were appearing in journals during that time. And I was also writing and publishing prose. So it’s not like I wasn’t working. I have a pretty good sense of my process now and don’t have much anxiety about not writing new poems; I know any down time is good time, because I’m storing up material and building up an internal pressure that will eventually release itself into poems.
But doing the Indiegogo campaign last fall for The Bridge was very difficult; that was one time in my life where I reached a point that I wasn’t sure if I could balance all three roles. I found myself nodding off a couple of times during workshops last fall—crazy. Absolutely offensive; I remember how furious I was in grad school when I noticed one of my older professors falling asleep during someone’s presentation. I was getting about three hours of sleep a night during November (the last month of the campaign), but that was no excuse. You’ve got to be there for your students. But I got through the campaign, we funded the development of The Bridge, and now, a year later, things are much better, more balanced. Brooklyn Poets is to the point where I’ve got a handle on how all our programs run; we’ve got routines, templates (even literal templates for things like our newsletters and posters). The next big thing will be The Bridge, which is in its final development stages; once that launches, my life might change for good, and I’ll have to see how I can manage the new role of managing what’s essentially a social network for poets. But honestly, this kind of work-juggling is what I love to do; I love work. I love my work.
The different roles I play now all fulfill a different kind of work that I love to do, whether it’s the private, deeply interior work of writing a poem or the social work of putting on a poetry event. I’m both an extrovert and an introvert. As for what I’m working on now—this interview. Aside from that, as I’ve said: The Bridge; this new manuscript of poems, which includes one mammoth 39-page poem; essays about Asian American masculinity, mostly in embryo (i.e. not on the page). Not sure how much influence my work with Brooklyn Poets has had on my writing, but I am writing more about Brooklyn and my life here than I was my first two years. I think it takes a good 3-4 years in a place for it to sink into your bloodstream to the extent that you feel comfortable writing about it as home.
MT: And lastly: what are you reading—or what have you read recently—that moved you?
JK: Like a lot of people I’ve been reading Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle. This summer I finished volume two, so I’m one volume behind a lot of other people I know, including my former landlord, who’s Norwegian. This book had a big influence on the new manuscript I put together this past summer, specifically on that 39-page poem. For better or for worse, we shall see.
During the summer I also read through the entirety of Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, so I could get a sense of the whole span of his career. Amazing experience reading through all of Gilbert, how steady and monumental his gaze. Great to read Gilbert, too, in the summer light; in July I moved to Williamsburg, and my new apartment has a private roof deck, so all July and August I was up there in the blazing summer light with my shirt off reading Gilbert. Like my own private Greece.
Something I just read recently was Frank Guan’s essay “Green House: A Brief History of ‘American Poetry’” that leads off the first issue of Prelude, a new journal he co-edits; that’s an electrifying piece of criticism, maybe the best essay on poetry I’ve read in the last decade. Or, well, decade? I can’t even remember the last time I read poetry criticism I liked.
Some books of poetry I loved recently: Cynthia Cruz’s Wunderkammer; Jericho Brown’s The New Testament; Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke; Sampson Starkweather’s The Flowers of Rad (which I just got)…and others I’m forgetting. And something that made me cry in my car just a couple of days ago, my best friend Gunny’s email about taking care of his dying father, a great man. I shouldn’t have been reading this in my car, but there I was with one hand on the wheel and the other scrolling through the email on my phone, reading these huge words.
My interview with poet David J. Daniels, author of Clean, is up now on the Ploughshares blog. Please check out the interview -- and better yet, check out his book. I think you'll be glad you read both.
Here's a sample from the interview:
"In terms of colloquial phrasing, which other readers have picked up on, I think I do that to undercut the more earnest moments in my poems. To say, well, sure, David, you’re sad that so-and-so is dead, and you’re really laying that grief on thick, just don’t forget that the guy was a jerk, too, or sometimes catty. A way to bring the poem back to the actual, I guess, linguistically and discursively."
Read the full interview here.
My first interview over at the Ploughshares blog is up today. For those of you who celebrate Christmas, think of this as a special Christmas present from me: a conversation with poet Mary Biddinger, author of four collections of poems, most recently A Sunny Place with Adequate Water.
Besides being an amazing poet, Mary is a candid and funny interviewee. Here's a sample:
" For me, it’s all about the panic. I am more productive when I am under pressure, and I have to give myself deadlines and goals. I also cheat on administrative tasks and grading by writing poems on the sly when I should be thinking about assessment and observable outcomes and counting credit hours. Several times a year, during non-peak times at work, I do a poem-a-day with a few friends. This is where I generate the bulk of my work. Taking photographs tides me over until I am able to seriously devote time to writing poetry."
You can check out the interview right here.
It's official: "season two" of the What Are You Reading? interviews will run on the Ploughshares blog as a monthly feature starting on... Christmas Day.
Look for upcoming conversations with poets Mary Biddinger and David J. Daniels, essayist Angela Pelster, and lots more.
Along with the Ploughshares interviews, I'll also continue to publish occasional conversations here, including an extended chat with poet Jason Koo, founder of Brooklyn Poets, and -- hopefully -- a feature on a wonderful poet who's also a wonderful photographer, and has published a book that brings her two arts together. More on that soon-ish...
Over the years Keith Taylor has published some fourteen volumes of poetry, short fiction, translations, and edited volumes. His most recent chapbook is The Ancient Murrelet (Alice Greene and Co., 2013), and his most recent full length collection of poetry was If the World Becomes So Bright (Wayne State University Press, 2009). In 2011 he published the anthology Ghost Writers, co-edited with Laura Kasischke (Wayne State University Press), and an extended chapbook, Marginalia for a Natural History (Black Lawrence Press). Over the last few decades his work has appeared in a couple of hundred journals, magazines, newspapers and online sites, here and in Europe, including The Los Angeles Times, Hanging Loose, The Iowa Review, The Chicago Tribune, Poetry Ireland Review, The Sunday Telegraph, Pank, The Southern Review, etc. He has had fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Council for the Arts.
After working at several occupations, some dumb, some great (like working as a bookseller in Ann Arbor for 20 years), he settled into his role as coordinator of the undergraduate writing programs at the University of Michigan, where he also works as the Director of the Bear River Writers’ Conference and, currently, as the Poetry Editor for Michigan Quarterly Review. He has had fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, and extended residencies at the International Writers’ and Translators Centre on Rhodes, Greece and at Isle Royale National Park.
You’ve published a number of chapbooks and books of poems, most recently the chapbooks Marginalia for A Natural History and now The Ancient Murrelet. Would you talk a little about the appeal of chapbooks versus books for you as a writer? Do you approach them differently when it comes to assembling your poems into larger wholes?
Right from the beginning of my publishing life, I’ve enjoyed that moment when some of the poems written in a particular moment assume a kind of coherence. They crystallize a thought, an image, an approach to the poem, or a set of experiences that seem to belong together. The group is usually small (although my chapbooks have varied in length from 10 poems to 35 poems). The little books often explain me to myself as they take shape.
But they are small moments. The same poems can assume a very different shape and feel in the context of a larger book. The sweep there is going to be over many years – a decade, a lifetime – and I don’t need to dwell on that single moment or image any longer. It has become part of an intellectual, emotional or autobiographical mosaic.
Even though the poems in my chapbooks often get other incarnations, I always make sure there is something that gets published only in that form, so those few readers who have made the effort to find the tiny books will have something that exists nowhere else, even if they don’t know it.
On a related note, how does a collection come together for you? Did you know as you were writing them that these poems would fit together as a chapbook – or was that a decision made later after the poems were written?
The two recent chapbooks you mentioned came in the very different ways you describe in your question. I knew I wanted to write Marginalia for a Natural History several years before I started it, and I knew I wanted to dedicate it to my friend, Jerry Dennis, a fabulous Michigan essayist and outdoors writer who knows our lakes and streams as well as anyone. I started finding the subject for the poems when I began teaching at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station. There I hung out with field biologists and was always listening to their conversations and their research talks. I stumbled onto a very rigid little form – 8 lines long by 9 syllables per line – that seemed to work well for capturing nuggets of information, and then freed me up to put other experiences into the form. I wrote about 70 poems and picked 35 of them for that little book, trying to create a kind of arc.
The Ancient Murrelet came after, when I wanted to free myself from that unforgiving form. I went through a moment when I was rereading Jean Follain (for a review I never wrote, I’m ashamed to say) when my daughter, then about 20, was doing a lot of traveling. I was moved to do some poems, under the influence of Follain, around her traveling, and that brought up memories of my own years on the road. I had also written some poems about birds and animals who found themselves in the wrong places – and suddenly these two things seemed to be finding coherence in a loose sequence about something we might call “home.” I’m still not sure I can actually name the place I arrived at in that little book, but it feels quite clear to me.
You’re a writer of moving, beautiful, sometimes haunting poems about the natural world. But I also notice in this collection how technology is creeping into the picture – for instance, the ancient murrelet found by “following // clear directions on the internet,” and the night-vision camera and DNA testing in “In the Presence of Large Predators.” Is that something you were conscious of? And does the ever-greater role technology plays in our lives impact how you write about nature?
Oh, yeah, I’ve noticed! You can’t be a writer of my age (I’m 62 now) and put “internet” in a poem without stopping to think about it. And it’s physically harder for me to go into the woods now, so a couple of gadgets help. This changes things, completely, and not necessarily in a good way. I’ve started using a collapsible walking stick from REI to take the pressure off my knees, for instance. Oh, I hate admitting it.
So, yes, the technology we take into the wild to help us measure and understand the natural world changes our experience of it. Of course, it probably doesn’t change it as much as when we discovered the spear; certainly not as much as when the gun became portable. The scientific apparti we take with us are necessary to understand the changes we have forced on the environment and will be absolutely necessary to help us live in this changed world. I’m pretty sure there will be poems there, even if I wonder why there doesn’t seem to be many about climate change, yet. Why is that, Matt?
Speaking of technology, I want to shift away from The Ancient Murrelet for a moment to ask about your ongoing experiment with writing poems on Twitter. What has that experience been like? Any plans for those poems to have a life beyond Twitter, perhaps as a chapbook?
I’ve written 37 of those little Twitter poems in the last seven months. I really don’t know anything about Twitter and I know I’m not doing it “right,” although I’m not sure that word applies.
I’ve always liked short poems – haiku, epigram, aphorism. The 140 character constraint seemed like a useful albeit arbitrary limit to work with. I liked the fact that I could do one on my phone while I was far away from my computer. It feels kind of fun to sneak one into the technological lives of a couple of hundred people.
But I’m not sure very many of them are very interesting. Maybe 3 or 4. A couple of friends have talked about doing a technology mash-up and printing 10 or so of these twitter poems in a very limited letter-press edition. A 21st century form preserved on 19th century technology. There wouldn’t be more than 100 copies, though, so it would be a tiny life. Still, I like it.
How does a poem start for you? Specifically, could you talk about “When the Girls Arrived in Copenhagen” and “Chasing the Ancient Murrelet”? How did each of these poems start, and what was the writing and revising process like?
“When the Girls Arrived in Copenhagen” was the first of those poems written under the Follain influence. That quiet sense of distance coupled with the blurring of historical moments feels very Follain-esque to me, although that may be a completely subjective response to that great writer of small, polished gem-like poems. I was also close enough to the formally rigid poems in Marginalia that I wanted to write a very different line, free and easy. I’ve also liked Michael Dickman’s line since I started reading him – that big variation in line length, which I’ve also admired in Diane Wakoski’s poems for a long time. I know you can’t tell it, because I don’t seem to be able to rescue myself from the blocky looking poem, but that was in my mind when I was writing that poem. I still want to play with that. Oh, and yes, my daughter was out there in the world doing some very interesting traveling. I thought of her often.
“Chasing the Ancient Murrelet” was different, much more intellectually driven. There was that bird, so bizarrely out of place in the mouth of the Saint Joseph River on Lake Michigan, and I could find it only because of directions from the bird-lists. All very bizarre. Its place there, and its almost certain death in a place it didn’t belong, recalled the sense of my aging, my resignation to the limitations of desire (the beautiful young woman running on the beach – oh, yes, I know it is completely a “male-gaze” moment, and I wish it weren’t.). That river itself, which was important to a part of my life, when I went to high school in South Bend, Indiana, where the St. Joseph River turns. In my experience of that city, it was desperately post-industrial and seemed to have lost its sense of itself for a while. So all of that was coming together in that poem. It, too, ended up being controlled by an arbitrary but demanding syllable count. It was just my way to try to shuffle all of that material which seemed to go together in my mind but which might have been uncontrollable.
“In the Hard Months,” the last poem in the chapbook, confesses to a shortage of faith—or perhaps it’s more a desire for a deeper faith. You write of a wish to believe “…that the poem / will come again, confident / and supple in its moment on the page.” What a last thought to leave with the reader! For that matter, I also see the ancient murrelet – out of place in its surroundings, its future uncertain – as a symbol of the poet (as well as of course being just this particular bird you describe so wonderfully). All of which is to say: How do you keep going as a poet, and stay interested and engaged? And what do you see as the poet’s place in the world?
You’ve nailed it, Matt. How do we keep going, stay interested and engaged? It gets even easier as one ages to be overwhelmed by the fragility of poems. The way they are ignored. The way most readers would not read them the way they must be read. I think that on some days, and then on others a poem will come back to me, will sing in my imagination, will help me understand something I see or experience in the lived world. I am reminded of their resilience. Their strength.
I can get depressed by the sameness in contemporary poems. About easy unexamined attitudes. And suddenly some new poet in a first book just blows me away, is clearly writing poems to save her life, and along the way helps her readers too. A poet I wish the whole world would read. Urgent, necessary – and not in some blurby sense. Actually urgent. That excitement can be amazing when it comes again.
It’s hard sometimes being around smart young poets (say in a good MFA program, like ours at Michigan). It’s hard to bite my tongue when they are all enthused by some literary fashion that will clearly pass in five years. But I remind myself that this is what we all do, in all the arts: we enter our contemporary artistic stew and we define ourselves with or against our contemporaries, and we move past all that to our place in the bigger picture. So the young poets keep me reading, keep me exploring, even in things that puzzle me or prove ephemeral.
The poet’s place in the world? I don’t want to get too fatuous here. And there is indeed the distinct possibility that the world no longer needs what we provide. But, yes, truly, I think the poet’s effort to find an intense language that mediates between the phenomenon of the world and the exigencies of intelligence and imagination, continues to be necessary. I even think that role is still acknowledged by many people in the world, even if they don’t read poetry or find it only obliquely. But sometimes it is tough to convince myself of that.
What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
I would like to put together a little regional book, very specific to my tiny area of southeast Michigan. It would be a book of poems and prose pieces, even of journalistic things I’ve written about the Huron River. We’ll see.
I am trying another chapbook right now that I’m calling Fidelities: A Chronology. It has poems that wonder about the possibilities of our imaginations, whether we’re imagining Paleolithic times or the future, and to the things we stay faithful to. I’ll know if it’s working in a month or so.
Then I’m taking some of the poems that have appeared in recent chapbooks and some that haven’t gone into those, and am beginning to think of a larger collection. The next full length book of poems. It is beginning to take shape in my mind.
I also have the urge to do a novella and short story collection. The stories have appeared in various places, even in books, for the last 25 years or so. The novella needs to be finished and I’m not sure I can do it. I’ve been trying this summer.
And lastly: what are you reading—or what have you read recently—that moved you?
When I was thinking of that urgency in the question above, I was thinking of Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam. Wow, what a book! What a first book! I learn so much from that book, about a history I didn’t know, about making poems, about being a more complete person. And this is by a writer who is half my age. Read that book, Matt.
I also just reviewed the new collection by John Repp, Fat Jersey Blues. It won the Akron prize last year and was just released. He is a poet of my generation who hasn’t had the attention he deserves. Intense oblique narratives about his blue collar family and his own engagement with literature.
I’m spending time with the Selected Poems of Adonis, translated by Khaled Mattawa. It’s exhilarating to move into a kind of poetry that is so different from anything being done on this continent.
Novels, collections of short stories, non-fiction, essays, popular science. I read it all. I continue to be curious enough to read it all, even if I doze off more.
Two poems from The Ancient Murrelet:
When the Girls Arrived in Copenhagen
and left the station, near midnight,
snow fell in soft piles on their hats
No cars or people passed
while they walked
down the hushed streets.
Through windows without blinds or curtains
they could see Danes bathed in blue
or quietly reading in uncluttered rooms
small novels perhaps about two girls
long ago walking through snow.
Chasing the Ancient Murrelet
Ancient… because of a grey mantel
thrown over its shoulders,
which look hunched against the weather
of the North Pacific, its real home,
too far from this place
at the edge of Lake Michigan
to be imagined, where the untouched
but beautiful young
run down the beach in summertime
longing to leave their parents who make
and claim to love the wind and winter.
The bird is lost or brave or blown here
by westerlies strong
enough to reshape its instincts,
to bring it down to the dirty mouth
of a river that drains
the abandoned car factories
of South Bend, and the ancient murrelet
bobs in these choppy
irregular fresh water swells,
diving, often, after crustaceans
that haven’t lived here
for a geologic epoch,
but taking what minnows it can find
to keep hunger off
until it dies, here, in a place
it doesn’t belong, where it can’t find
the right food or mate,
but where I find it, following
clear directions on the internet,
to catch a quick glimpse--
as it rises between waves--
of its two-toned bill, and the large head--
on its small diminished body.
Order The Ancient Murrelet from Alice Green & Co.
Al Maginnes is the author of five full-length poetry collections including Taking Up Our Daily Tools (St. Andrews College Press, 1997); The Light In Our Houses (Pleaides Press, 2000), winner of the Lena-Myles Wever Todd Award; Film History (WordTech Editions, 2005); Ghost Alphabet (White Pine Press, 2008), which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize; and Inventing Constellations (WordTech Editions, 2012). His sixth book of poems, Music from Small Towns, was selected as the winner of the Jacar Press full-length poetry book contest not long after this interview took place, and is forthcoming. He has also published four chapbooks, most recently Between States (Main Street Rag Press, 2010) and Greatest Hits 1987-2010 (Pudding House Publications, 2010). He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife and daughter and teaches composition, literature and creative writing at Wake Technical Community College.
MT: I’m always curious about titles, since the title is usually the first thing that draws my attention to a book (or fails to). How did you decide on the title of this collection, or decide that “Inventing Constellations” would be the title poem?
AM: Usually the title for anything, whether it be a single poem or a collection of them, is the last thing to come to me. In the case of Inventing Constellations, the collection had made a circuit or two of various contests and publishers under a couple of other titles. Looking back, the inability to settle on a title might have spoken to the problem I had finding an identity for the entire book. When the idea for the poem “Inventing Constellations” came, I realized more or less at the same time that the poem, if it worked at all, might make a good title for the book. There’s a lot of stargazing in the book or mindless staring into space. Since the book also deals with some of my thoughts and reactions to becoming a first-time father at the age of 49, that seems appropriate.
How did you go about organizing Inventing Constellations as a book? Did you write these poems with a particular theme or idea of the book in mind, or was this process something that started after the poems had been written?
I’ve never been good at extended projects when it comes to poems. Books for me usually happen when I realize I have a stack of poems and I start looking at how they speak to each other. Inventing Constellations was no different. I had all these poems and began shuffling them around to see how they fit. At some point I sent the manuscript to about half a dozen friends for their reactions, which was something I had never inflicted on so many people at once before. But something wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out what. What wasn’t working was that I was trying to write a very different book than I ended up with. I wanted a big sprawling collection, like the book I’d published right before that, Ghost Alphabet, and this just didn’t want to be that.
A turning point in how the book came together was when I wrote what ended up being the first poem in the book, “The Definitions.” My friend Sandy Longhorn read that poem and suggested that it should be the first poem in the book. She also made some good suggestions about tightening up the manuscript, so I ended up with a shorter, tighter manuscript than I started with. But a better one, I think.
How does a poem start for you? In particular, how did “Inventing Constellations” or “In My Good Life” start? And what was your writing and revising process like with these poems?
Poems come in all sorts of ways. Sometimes in a big rush of language that doesn’t have much aim yet. Last night, for instance, I wrote about eighty lines that didn’t really have a focus but I liked the sounds I was making. Today and tomorrow we’ll see if that amounted to anything. Other times I just have a line or two and I see if it matches up with anything else I might have in my notebook—I write longhand in spiral notebooks just like I did in grade school. Quite often a poem starts in response to something I’ve read or a poem I come across makes me want to start writing. Or just reading poems gets part of my brain thinking about that stanza that’s giving me trouble. There is a handful of poets who always make me feel like writing, and if I feel seriously stuck, I go to them. Even if I don’t start writing, I’m spending time with good poems, and that’s always valuable.
“Inventing Constellations” came about after reading one too many poems by middle aged poets rhapsodizing about the joys of parenthood (I’ve written more than a few of these myself). Parenthood, especially for those of us who thought we might have missed that boat, is a joy. But it is many other things as well and it can all be downright stressful at times. The speaker of “Inventing Constellations” is acutely aware of his shortcomings as a human being and a father. He chafes a bit at the restrictions having a family places on him while realizing that these are restrictions he has asked for. So I tried to speak to that tension that I think all parents feel at some time between wanting to do your own thing and the needs and wishes of those people who—face it—you love more than anything else. Also, I’ve long been delighted that the constellations are man-made constructs, albeit ones that have been there for a long while. But at one time they were just stars until men began seeing patterns there and applying them. So the narrator of the poem making up the names of constellations in his daughter’s room is not that different than the first men naming the Big Dipper.
Richard Hugo is an important poet for me. He was my first real hero when I started writing poems in my early to mid-20s and “In My Good Life” cops some riffs from him. This poem was unusual for me in that I started with the title and worked from there. Usually the title of a poem is the last thing to come to me, and at any given time I have a couple of poems that are sitting around finished except that I can’t find a title for them. Beyond the idea of a life as the mysterious and benevolent stranger, I liked the idea that someone had suffered for this speaker to live the sort of effortless life he did, so the man who lives outside town, who was punished for the crimes of the speaker, came into the poem. In a sense these men are the yin and the yang that make up all of us. We all have secrets we don’t want our bosses or friends learning. And by a certain point in our lives, we’ve made some conscious decisions that land us where we are. I was trying to get at all that in the poem.
I should add, lest I seem too calculating, that when I start a poem, I have very little idea of what it’s about or where it’s going. I can probably only talk as I do about these poems because I wrote them several years ago and have had a lot of time to think about them. When I’m writing I’m trying to get the next line or the next word right. I am not thinking about the narrator’s struggle to be a better father or to outrun his past. I just want to write a poem that I would want to read.
It seems like many of these poems are about family and/or about inventing or imagining other narratives or lives. Are there particular themes that you find you keep returning to in your writing?
Sure. And some of those themes or obsessions have remained fairly constant. Others, such as writing about family, are more recent. I’ve written constantly about music. I’ve been a music fan all my life and have a huge collection of CDs and bootleg recordings. I’m still cursing myself for getting rid of my vinyl records in the 90s. Part of this is probably musician envy and part of it is that I’m fascinated by the way music communicates in a way that nothing else does.
Work and my endless array of bad jobs has been another thread throughout my writing for many years. I knew all those crappy jobs would be good for something one day, and I had a lot of them. In the same vein, my years of drinking and drugs keep coming back in my writing. I’ve been sober for 25 years but I’m still coming to terms with all of that, in part because I started drinking and using right at the same time a lot of first experiences come along—first loves, first jobs, the little initiations into adulthood. And as I get older, as I get more perspective on all of that, my view of those years changes.
When I was putting Inventing Constellations together, there was a point when I realized just how many poems about family there were and after a period of resisting that, I went with it and let that idea guide me. As for inventing or imagining other lives, I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t given some thought to the idea of simply getting the hell out of Dodge at one time or another. And I’ve always been fascinated with people who actually pulled it off. And I would argue that in a sense, all of us are living lives we at least partly invented. We all have made choices that put us where we are.
At one point in my early 20s I knew a few people who managed to live under the radar like this. I worked with one guy who changed his last name every time he got a job. This was in the late 70s and it was a bit easier to do this then. At one point he and I were working in a warehouse and we used to get our checks cashed at a local grocery store. He was signing his check one day and all of a sudden exclaimed “This pen is messed up” and scratched through what he was writing. He got another pen from the cashier, signed his check and got his money. There was nothing wrong with the pen; he had started to sign the wrong name on the back of his check.
More recent ideas that crop up in my poems are my very rudimentary understanding of science. I’ve been reading a lot about physics and the universe for the last few years, and those notions work their way into poems from time to time. And I suppose family and children, my daughter in particular, will continue to show up in poems. At least until she gets embarrassed and asks me to stop.
In addition to being a poet, you’re also a father and a teacher. As a new parent myself, I’m curious to know how you balance those three roles and manage to play all three?
Balance? What’s that? Mostly I do what’s there to be done. And there is always something to do. My daughter and my wife, obviously, come first. Since my schedule is more flexible than my wife’s, I’m normally the one taking my daughter to school and picking her up, arranging play dates, all that kind of stuff. And I love doing it. Since I teach a couple of classes online, I’m home a couple of days a week, which is when most of my grading gets done. My writing sort of takes place at the edges of all these other things. Most of it is done at night, when everyone else is asleep, but I’ve learned to grab whatever moments I can. A couple of weeks ago I drafted a poem on the playground while my daughter played with friends. I’ve written in car pool lines, in doctor’s offices, during my office hours at school, literally anywhere I can when I need to. I’d love to have a set time for writing, but I seem to get more done when my schedule is this way. Times when I’ve had a lot of free time, I tend to do much less writing because I figure I can always get to it later.
What’s next for you, writing-wise? Do you have a new book in the works?
I have a new collection, Music From Small Towns, out making the rounds as we speak. It’s been a finalist or semifinalist in several places in the last year so I’m hoping it finds a home soon. I have a stack of about 140 pages I’m going to sort through this summer and see if there’s another book there. And I’m somewhere in the third draft of a novel I started a while back. I was hoping I was nearly done, but I’m getting the sad feeling that I have a long way to go. I’m hoping to get a lot done on that before fall rolls around. So as always, I have more projects than time.
And lastly, what are you reading these days?
This will take a while. I always have several books going at once. I’m rereading The Brothers Karamazov and realizing that I barely remember any of it from my last time reading it about twenty years ago. This spring has seen the publication of a lot of good books of poems. My friend Suzanne Cleary’s new book Beauty Mark is stellar, the best of her career. Some other collections I’ve just finished are In the Back Room at the Philosopher’s Club by Christopher Buckley, Structures the Wind Sings Through by George Looney, Designed for Flight by Gregory Fraser, Cadaver, Speak by Marianne Boruch, which just amazed me. I also just read her memoir The Glimpse Traveler about a hitchhiking trip she took in the early 70s. I used to hitchhike a lot too, and her observations about the whole art of hitching kindled a lot of memories and “yes, I remember what that was like.” I’ve recently discovered two poets who have been around for a while but had slipped under my radar until recently, Doug Ramspeck and Michael Hettich. Sean Thomas Dougherty’s All You Ask For Is Longing is on top of my pile of books right now. Joe Weil’s new and selected volume The Great Grandmother Light is very good. June Saraceno, one of my oldest friends in or out of poetry, has just published her second book Of Dirt and Tar, and I’m partway through that. Carl Dennis and Peter Everwine have both published strong collections recently. A friend just send me Dana Roeser’s new collection and I can’t put it down. It seems like every week I discover another poet. We are living in a fertile time for poetry, and I feel lucky to be able to spend so much time with it.
Two Poems from Inventing Constellations:
I know the moon offers no light of its own, that its glow,
like ours, is what the sun leaves behind. And I know
what wishes have been wasted on the moon. Tonight,
I wish the ones I love were with me in this small field
near our house to see earth’s shadow cross the face
of the fire-reflecting moon. But lately I’ve let burn
too many small angers, said too many things that can’t be
excused or taken back. I’ve wanted too much time in fields alone.
Still, the house is not dark behind me. A light burns,
low and constant in our daughter’s room as she sleeps.
And last night we fell asleep with the lamp burning above us
like an unfinished conversation. Tonight,
Isabel turned off the light in her room to play with a toy
that casts patterns of stars and crescent moons across
the night-blank walls. After she dropped into sleep,
I lay on her floor a while inventing constellations, giving names
to those soon-to-vanish formations: The Bad Father,
The Child Rising, The House of the Family Dreaming.
Leaving her room, I switched on the lamp by her door.
We like the idea of a light above us, proving an end
to the dark. But a flashlight cutting a pattern of tiny commas
in a neighbor’s yard pulls my gaze from the shift of light
and shadow in the sky. If it could talk, the moon might tell me
the flashlight has more to say about the transitory nature
of light than any eclipse. Everything passes. In the morning
I’ll tell my loved ones about the color of the moon
and all they missed, but morning has its own business,
and they know the moon will be there tonight to preside over
this constellation, this body of light, we made and remain.
In My Good Life
In another town, I have done
all the tasks I was assigned
and never completed in this one,
and that diligence has made me
beloved, respected for wisdom
and for a kindness that is real
but detached. When I walk downtown,
children bring questions and seem
pleased by my answers, which are
warm and vague. The angriest dogs
wag and nose my hand. Clerks wave
from behind counters; waitresses sing
the day’s specials from doorways.
I know stories are whispered about
my years before this town. Over tables
and on hushed porches, I’m a priest
who lost his calling, an inventor
whose patent was stolen. A novel
long enough to save us all lies
unpublished on my desk. I admit
and deny nothing because I know
a mile beyond the heart of town
waits the house of a man caught
and convicted for all the wrongs
I committed and got away with.
He spent years locked away and now
sits on his stoop carving figures
out of soap or soft wood. When
he sees me pass, he says nothing,
and I won’t look in his direction,
the two of us disciple
to our divergent paths,
our twinned and broken fates.
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