Interviews

‘It was by living out the theory that we enraged so many others’: An Interview with Michael Gottlieb

Gottlieb_Michael_Photo1In What We Do: Essays for Poets (Chax Press 2016) Michael Gottlieb addresses poetry, poetry-making, and what it means to live among a community of poets. It’s a sequel of sorts to Memoir and Essay, Gottlieb’s 2011 account of his early days as a member of the Language poets, which remains a must-read for those considering a life of poetry. His affecting 9/11 poem, “The Dust,” hailed by Ron Silliman as one of the “Five greatest Language poems,” was staged by Fiona Templeton and company at the Poetry Project at St. Marks on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. We sent questions about What We Do: Essays for Poets, and Gottlieb was generous with his responses.

First off, what got you thinking about writing the material for this book?

Well, this is the kind of thing I sit around talking about with friends: how are we supposed to live our lives?  As poets? Or, maybe just …as people? How do I deal with this, or this, or this? How do I deal with having to make money? How do I deal with being responsible to myself, as a writer, and what do I do when my other responsibilities—like to my family—seem to conflict? What do I do as I get older?

In What We Do, you talk a lot about the poet in comparison to the artist. Why do you make this distinction?

There’s one section in particular when I compare poets and artists. In that section, I tried to compare poets, poets who are my age specifically, my generation, to our age peers among the painters and artists. What I was interested in discussing was how similar these two groups are. What we have always been interested in, the features and elements in our work, where we lived and went to school—all of those things are so similar. So many of us knew each other, know each other now.  And yet: the painters we’re talking about are spotted sporting the Légion d’Honneur to openings of their touring retrospectives, while the poets are enjoying solitary ramen specials at… well, I describe them dining at what is now a closed lunch mill called Dojo, near NYU. I used to go there a lot. There were two of them, in fact. I never liked them. Very depressing joints.

And the reason why comparing these two groups is so interesting to me is that, I guess it’s obvious what differentiates us, what sets us apart from each other is the economic value that the world attaches to, and applies to our respective work. Otherwise, we are essentially identical: background, interest, what we think about, what we focus on. All of that, all the same.

A lot of your commentary centers on New York City, particularly the growth and transformation of it. It seems you correlate New York City to the life of the poet?

I have been writing about New York City forever. My first book, published in the ’70s, was made from lists of words that I found walking around in New York, and illustrated with photos of New York and collages made up of stuff found on the street in New York. I mean, New York has been so central to me as a writer that back in the ’90s, I published a book that was simply titled New York. And it consists of two long poems: “The Great Pavement” and “The Ulterior Parkways.” They are about, and from, built up out of the language of that city. What else could they be about, with titles like that?  I guess it’s hard for me to get away from thinking about the city. And then there’s “The Dust,” a poem I wrote about 9/11. That’s a long list poem, and an elegy and I guess it’s also a New York poem too—it’s a list of what was in the dust that day, everything in the towers that was turned into dust, from the building to the people to their files and furniture to the fire trucks, too, in New York City.

I guess it’s been a focus in every thing I’ve written, all my poetry, my memoir work and these essays too, as Rae Armantrout commented. Why? Why has New York been the focus, the subject, the ground that my writing lives in, or sits on or stands upon?

Gottlieb_Michael book cover WWDFirst, because it’s New York. This is where I spent my youth. This is where I became a poet. While these essays try and surface issues, topics, questions, like I sketched out above, that I’ve been talking about with friends, with other poets, been trying to answer myself, since then, New York is where I started thinking about this stuff. And, I guess as I wrote those essays, and felt compelled to turn some of those questions into dramatic presentations—here is a person trying to figure this or that out, in a bar, at a reading, on the street, it’s natural that that street should be in New York—the New York of today or maybe the New York in the day when I for one started thinking about those things.

And because of where we lived then, when we were young, and the kind of place New York was then, thirty, forty years ago, it’s easy to describe it now as a kind of fabulously dangerous place. Not that it wasn’t. But just walking down the streets in the empty quarters where we lived, there was so much—from the street names, to the fading signs half-hanging off the buildings, to the history of the building itself—this was the first location of that brand, that chain, that now girdles the globe. How could you not write about this place?

But you asked specifically about the growth and transformation of New York. I’ve always been interested in how New York changes, how one of its defining characteristics, what it is famous for, is its unrelenting embrace of transformation. For so long that was what New York was famous for: tearing itself down and building something bigger, taller, fancier. While when we first came to New York, there seemed to be an eerie pause in that—which many took to be a sign that the city was over, done with, one of many signs. Of course, that was only a pause. Not an end point. And that constant tearing-down and rebuilding has again become a constant.

The fact is: every New York that we ‘know,’ or think we know, is itself a product of one or another wave of ‘transformation,’ of tearing down and rebuilding, of one wave another of new people, new money, coming in and pushing out the old. Since the Dutch, we’ve been doing that. The Native Americans were the first victims of gentrification in New York. We’ve been throwing people out of their houses ever since.  Watching the city get changed, watching who does it, what happens to the people who get tossed, that’s important to do, someone has to. And it’s instructive, too.

Then there’s the possibility that one might have had a role, however insignificant, in all this. When we walk those same streets these days, me with friends of mine from those older days, and we remember running in these streets in our youth, when the streets were empty, and dirty and dangerous, but mostly empty, we do ask ourselves if perhaps we had some role, however tiny, in turning these neighborhoods into what they are now. After all, it was people like us, and us among them, who first ‘found’ these neighborhoods—as if they had been lost. As if, in many cases, there weren’t people already living there. People who had to leave, had to move their homes or their businesses, when enough of us showed up, in the same way that we in turn have been moved out of the neighborhood because we in turn cannot afford to live here. All we can do is visit now, though there’s less and less reason to. God, just look what they’ve turned this place into…that’s what we say to each other now. Look, there’s a CVS where that bar used to be. There’s an Apple Store where the post office used to be… And so it goes, on and on…

You also address poetic life across the generations and over a span of many decades, the generational aspect of poetic life.

I think the generational aspect of poetic “life” is central. Don’t all poets identify themselves as belonging to one generation or another? How much of how we define ourselves is based on what generation we are part of? How much is based on what generation we are decidedly not part of? That generational “for and against” thing is so very important, isn’t it? As poets, to what degree to we define ourselves by who we are against? And how often is that a generation? I think this is entirely common, and not particularly troubling. This is just the way it is. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a boomer, and generation-related issues, challenges, boasts and curses have been associated with my generation all its life. And, concomitantly, I am part of a poetry generation that decidedly defined itself in opposition to a whole roster of generations.

But, on the other hand, it also seems to me—and I think this is even more to the point, when it comes to answering your question—that poetry communities are often much more multi-generational in their demographic make-up than, say, other kinds of communities of writers or artists. I think so, but I’m not sure. When I go to a poetry reading I’m used to seeing several generations of poets, friends and friends of friends, in one room. At a opening in a gallery I don’t often see that.

And, when it comes to the issues these essays try to deal with…how those issues are variously, differently, or similarly faced by different generations of poets—that is a fascinating subject for me. Are things different for you? Better? Worse? Are these issues, challenges, dilemmas, cul de sacs, dead ends, the ones I came across when I was your age…are they the same for you? Is the world a worse place for the poets? Better? The same?

Have things gotten better since it became possible to poet and an academic? I guess, that’s one of the questions this book tries to address. Have things gotten better even if you, you poet you, did get to be an academic, but you’re still working as a waitress to make ends meet? That’s another question this book tries to address.

There’s that area of the life of the poet that you talk about a lot regarding disappointment. At one point, you ask whether the things that are going wrong in the poet’s life are “something we’ve been ‘asking for.’” Do you think this is always part of the poet’s struggle?

Do I really talk about disappointment that much? Yikes. I don’t—or, I hope I don’t—spend more time on the topic of disappointment than one should. Disappointment, or accepting it, from time to time, or all the time, or sometime…is something that seems worthy of attention. No?  I think that’s worth writing about. But is it the poet’s lot to experience more disappointment than others? I don’t want to suggest that.

I think there certainly are a range of factors that could tend a poet, could bend her or him, towards behaviors that will, yes, result, perhaps quickly, perhaps only eventually, in all manner of disappointment. Those behavioral factors are to be found in all kinds of folks though, not just poets. Having said that, I have an opinion as to whether poets sometimes brandish their vocation like a badge—justifying certain behaviors. But that’s another topic.

So, no. I don’t think poets are fated to meet disappointment more than others.

You evoke a lot of self-questioning and self-evaluation in this book, which is amazing. Did you intend for the book to be an interactive piece in this sense?

You are right! This book is all about self-questioning and self-evaluation. It is made up of questions. There are three long essays. Each essay has about thirty sections. Each section starts with a question, a question about what it means to be a poet, how to live one’s life as a poet, questions about all that. What then follows are possible answers to that question, or more questions, based on that question. And these are questions, like we’ve been saying, that I think all poets ask themselves, or will, sooner or later. These are questions I ask myself and I know others do too, because some of them come from them, from other poets. As I say, these essays are built out of those conversations. I list their names, there’s several dozen, at the back of the book. They were all so generous with their thoughts and their time.

My hope, my fondest hope, is that someone will come across this book, and see all of these questions, and find them, find them, somehow, helpful. I would not presume that the text which comes after those initial questions—the ones that start each section of each essay—are answers. They are not meant to be answers. I wouldn’t venture to claim that this book has answers.

I notice you call a lot of emotions into question, particularly those of the poet. Is that the part of the life of the poet that most engages you?

No, no, no. Of course not. It is the life of the mind that calls out to me. Am I not just like you, or you, or you? It is the theory, and then the praxis, and the iterations and the adumbrations which occupy my waking thoughts. It is how we, as Language poets, construed a complex, compound systematic complex of theory, that is what engages me, night and day. And how that theory has been instantiated in this writer and this writer, this writer, and from this group of writers and this type of writer to that and that and that.

Actually, no. All that was a lie. I don’t think about theory that much any more at all. When I was young, yes. It was by living out the theory that we claimed to uphold that we enraged so many others, those who were older than us and those who we saw as beholden to those older ones. Nowadays, I do pay attention to the theory and the theorizing of those who’ve come after me, but I don’t need to spend all day on topics like that.

Do I spend more of my day on things like emotions? Yes. And if, as you put it, I ‘call a lot of emotions into question,’ it is because I look back at my life and see how much of it, in particular my life as a poet, was in fact driven by emotions—like, ambition, envy, anger, jealousy, and yes, occasionally, joy. That’s an emotion too, isn’t it? And in that way, to that extent, I don’t think that I was, or am, any more ambitious, envious, angry, jealous or, all in all, venal than any of my friends. Or, maybe, not too much more.

You do bring up academia, specifically the creative writing aspect of academia. Do you think there is a schism between the classic academic, the literary scholars that generally comes to mind, and the creative writing academic?

What a great question! This is a topic that I get close to discussing in the book. But there my full focus, every time the subject of the academic life came up, was all about the academic life for poets—compared to other poets, poets who weren’t, aren’t, can’t be poets…Specifically, what does it mean to make the choices we are obliged to make? Choices which lead us to that kind of life, this academic one or that “non-academic” one?

But that’s not the comparison you’re interested in…and is it indeed a “schism?” I’m not sure. While I know lots of academics who are poets and lots who aren’t I’m not sure I see them as oppositional in any particular way, at least not constitutionally as it were. I don’t see them as particularly at each other’s throats. But then, I don’t see them together, in the sense that I don’t sit in their offices or in their meetings—maybe just that interaction model, those sets of relationships, that’s enough to prompt a question like this.

Was it your goal to address everything regarding the poet you could think of, or did you not have any particular plan for writing the book?

It’s funny. I was just finishing my response to the last question and I found myself asking myself a question just like this one. I was asking myself if I find the poets I know as the as more apt to toss off aperçu any more frequently than any other group of people I know, or, for example, than a hypothetical control group of New York cabbies. And, further to that general question, I found myself asking myself if I am more or less likely to have a conversation with my poet friends that is more focused on those big question matters, about the world, discussed above, or whether any of them, any one of us, is more or less likely to toss off one of those aforementioned aperçu. And the answer is, I’m not sure.

And when I tell you the reason why, you’ll see that that’s also my answer to this last question. I can’t say that when I hang out with my poet friends, we talk any more about these big question topics than I do with other people, because I have to say that a great deal of the time when I do get together with other poets we end up talking about the topics that this book attempts to address: how do we live our lives as poets, what happens to us, what’s to become of us. Those are very different topics. At their most abstract, they don’t rise above the level of ethics. There is so much else that we could talk about, that art—for example—can be, or indeed should be.

But this book doesn’t address any of that. This book does not ask questions like: What is a poem about? Nor does it focus at all on topics like: How do I write a poem? This book doesn’t care about any of that. This book only focuses on: how do I live my life as a poet?

When it came to writing this book, I wrote it essay by essay. There are three principal essays in the book. Each one focuses on one of these how-do-I-live-my-life topics. Each one arose out of conversations with poets. Those conversations I mention above. We sit around, and this is what we talk about, at least a lot of the time, at least these are the conversations that I’m particularly interested in. I’m interested in having them with my oldest friends and all my other friends, the ones who are ten, twenty, more years younger. How do we live our lives?  And those people are listed in the book. There are a couple dozen folks. And, after writing three of these essays, which came out originally in different magazines, or appeared in books, I came to believe that maybe they could go together.

I don’t think I think about these kind of questions more than anyone else. I’m interested in talking about them, which is why I’m so appreciative of all those people who talked about them with me. I have also been writing about them in one way or another for a long time. I can remember the poem where these topics, these questions, first appeared. It was also about taxi cabs, taxi cabs in New York City. This was still in the 1970s. The poem was made up of quotes overheard in taxi cabs, and lists of the names of taxi cab companies, which used to be painted on the back door of every New York City cab. Also included were other kinds of language and dialogue, including overheard questions about career and an individual’s choices and personal integrity.

So this is not everything I can think to talk “regarding the poet,” as you put it. There are a lot of other  things to talk and think about, a whole lot of other things going on. At least I hope so. And now that I’ve written this, I’m wondering if I have to write about any of these topics anymore. Maybe I’m done. Although I have to admit that I have found myself asking theses kind of leading questions about a new topic, asking them to myself …questions of the sort I end up asking friends. A new set of questions. They are about “late.” What is “late?” Is there a “late style”? What does it mean to be in a “late stage”? What comes towards the end? Are there artists or writers who, when they were late, when they were in their late-styles, had special going that something we can learn from? So, maybe there is yet another essay coming. We’ll see.

—Interview by Mackenzie Johnson

 

Interviews

‘The first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds’: An Interview with Kathryn Nuernberger

Nuernberger Kathryn Photo2

Poet and lyric essayist Kathryn Nuernberger won the 2015 James Laughlin award, joining the company of poets like fellow BOA Editions pressmates, Li-Young Lee, Jillian Weise, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Having been familiar with her 2010 Antivenom Poetry Award–winning Rag & Bone, The End of Pink fascinated me with its deftness of language and unique influences. Nuernberger is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where is also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. We recently discussed over email about the role of research in her poetry, and how her directorship plays a role in her reading and writing.

You and I share a bond in that we both live in the state of Missouri these days. Considering you now teach and live in Missouri after doing your doctoral studies in Ohio, did you make a conscious choice to return to your home state? What do you appreciate about the Show-Me State?

I never really expected I’d wind up back in Missouri—like a lot of nerdy art types in the Midwest, I think I had my eye on the coasts as final destination point. But after living in Louisiana, Montana, Washington, and Ohio, I was fortunate to find a great job at University of Central Missouri. I know MO isn’t as sexy as a lot of other places in our union, but I’ve found that are an awful lot of brilliant, creative, wonderfully eccentric people here. And my goodness we do have some weird, wild geological formations and excellent spelunking made possible by our spectacularly karst topography. I’ve got some relations in the Ozarks who have also helped me appreciate the terroir of fried morrel mushrooms with squirrel meat and blackberry wine. And, bless their hearts, they didn’t even throw me out of the house when I started going like the most insufferable elitist you’ve ever met about how all this good food gathered locally in season reminds me of the French notion of terroir. They just said, “Well, ain’t that something.”

Current Missouri Poet Laureate Aliki Barnstone states that “Writing is not just about your individual selfhood but also being empathic with other people.” What’s your opinion regarding empathy, writing, and artistic expression?

I think Aliki said it beautifully. I also like what Frank O’Hara said, very cheekily, in his “Personism Manifesto” about this subject. He wrote, “I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” I like the idea of the poem providing a space where there can be a profound sort-of psychic intimacy between the author and the reader that isn’t possible in the real world because basic manners and eye contact and itchy noses and stuff like that make it so tricky and weird to really talk to each other. And I also like the idea of that space being a little casual, a little crass, and maybe with a little room for us to fall in love with each other across time and space.

A mentor of mine once told me that it’s not enough to write about what you know, you have to write about what you want to know. I am thinking of one of my favorite poems of yours is “Translations” from your first collection, Rag & Bone, in which the speaker states:

Color is an illusion, a response to the vibrating universe
of electrons. Light strikes a leaf and there’s an explosion
where it lands. When colors change, electromagnetic fields
are colliding. The wind is not the only thing moving the trees
.

Nuernberger Kathryn Book CoverCan you explain how research plays a role in your writing?

Research is often how my poems begin. I start my writing time every day reading poems by other people. By which I mean I start my writing time every day wallowing in profound feelings of self-doubt and inferiority. This may or may not be the best way to do things, but it’s how I do it. And then I try to get my head back on straight so I start reading in other rhetorical modes that don’t make me so keenly aware of my limitations as a poet. I love Public Domain Review and Cabinet a lot, but also art criticism, Wikipedia stubs, and super-dense literary theory.

Sometimes I’ll get on a jag with a particular subject—I went through a women-in-hot-air-balloons phase a couple years back. Spoiler alert: women in hot air balloons for the first hundred years of ballooning were pretty much all prostitutes or opera singers, because everyone thought it was such a scandal to experiment with the effects of the stratosphere on your lady parts. Second spoiler alert: it was very popular to experiment in all sorts of ways with the rocking baskets and also very popular to just chuck your wine bottles out the side into whatever field you were passing. Which was not super-appreciated by the peasants below.

But to get back to your question—once you know the first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds, how can you not write a poem?

Can you explain how The End of Pink came to be a full-length collection? Did you reach out to BOA Editions or did they reach out to you?

I submitted The End of Pink to BOA during their annual open reading period. And then Peter Connors, the director at BOA, called me up and said he wanted it. I like Peter very much, in part because he calls me up very rarely and every time it’s just to say the thing I most want to hear.

As director of Pleiades Press, I’m curious as to how your experience as an editor informs your poetry and vice versa.

I really love how my work as an editor requires/allows me to read hundreds of poetry manuscripts every year. It’s such a great way to encounter a huge range of new poetry—I don’t think I’d read that many books of poetry if “the job” wasn’t breathing down my neck, but I think I’m a better and happier writer for all that reading. Reading influences our work in ways that are so hard to pin down—mostly I’m inspired by what I read, but sometimes I do encounter the cautionary tale. I find it beneficial to be so constantly steeped in this grand ongoing conversation about poetry and through poetry.

Your poetry involves some interesting characters (Benjamin Franklin, Derrida, Bat Boy), how does their presence influence your poetic psyche? Is there a particular historical or cultural individual that you’d like to write about that you haven’t?

I’ve been writing a series of poems about plants historically used for birth control and my research led me to Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first woman ecologist who traveled to South America in the 1700s to research the plants there. She wrote about the Bird of Paradise, which was a plant that could be used to induce a miscarriage, and while I am fascinated by her, I’m also troubled and disappointed in her, because she did her research in a slave colony and used slave labor to gather her specimens. And though she expressed ambivalence about slavery in her journals, it would be a pathetic stretch to suggest she was any sort of ally. But I keep reading about her because I want to try to find a way to see through the unwritten parts of her story and history more generally to the lives of the women who told her about the uses of this plant.

Those women said that they used the plant for birth control in part to prevent their children from being born into the horrors of slavery and in part to resist their own bodies being used as a commodity by the masters. I’d really like to be able to hear the story of their lives, their struggle, and their resistance in their words. But one of the cruel things about history is the way the voices we most need to hear are the ones that so often are the most aggressively erased.

Can you talk about the role of the Saint Girl persona?

I was raised in a Catholic community that placed a lot of emphasis on morality and social justice. This is a training I appreciated, but there was also a celebration of self-abnegation and insistence on nurturing feelings of guilt and shame that made me feel really messed up.

The Saint Girl persona was born of that tension between feeling a strong desire to do and be good and the contrary notion that happiness might be a necessary part of goodness. Or, to put it more bluntly, I wrote these poems during the years when I was turning away from my work as an activist (among other things, I taught high school in under-resourced schools for a while, and then had a job in the foster care system) and turning towards poetry.

Poetry made me really happy, but I also felt a lot of guilt and uncertainty about the ethics of that choice. So I guess the Saint Girl recipe is something like: (Guilt+Shame) × (Conscience) ÷ Happiness to the power of Poetry = Saint Girl.

One thing I noticed is that you received research grants at the American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.

These two awesome libraries are kind enough to open their collections to creative writers and artists as well as to historians and other more conventional researchers. I love libraries and I also love auctions and abandoned cabins and oddball museums. These sorts of research libraries are the perfect combination of such wonderful places. The collections at these libraries include rare books, but they can also bring you collections of stereo cards from the 1904 World’s Fair, so you can see the Pike in 3-D by using this rickety old mahogany contraption. Or broadsides used to advertise P. T. Barnum’s huckster operations. Or pamphlets advertising Dr. Kilger’s quack elixirs and tonics.

At the Bakken you can actually crank a felt wheel until static makes your hair stand on end as Benjamin Franklin used to do as a party trick. (Although he’d have ladies of ill repute there so you could kiss them and get a little blue spark between your lips amongst all that frizziness.) These research libraries are wonderful because you get to interact with physical objects and have physical experiences, which all have the potential to become settings and images in poems about historical material.

You also have a collection of lyric essays coming out (Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, Ohio State University Press 2017), how does the fluidity of genres (poetry/lyric essay) play a role in your writing? What draws you to the lyric essay?

I love the way genre-blur writing breaks the rules or just forges ahead, as if there are no rules to even contend with. Sometimes, when I’m rambling about history or science or other experiences, I feel the need to provide a fair amount of context so readers can appreciate the landscape where the facts are unfolding. In these cases an essay is born. Other times when I’m rambling I realize that what readers need are moments of silence so they can really process the images or the factoids as they spring forth. In those cases, line breaks prove very useful. I always think some silence is necessary to create the sense of a phone call across the void, so that’s why I haven’t written prose that doesn’t have the adjective “lyric” attached to it.

Stephen King often states that a writer who writes more than he or she reads is not a writer. So, who and what are you currently reading?  

Right now I’m reading (copy editing and laying out, to be precise) EJ Koh’s forthcoming book of poems, A Lesser Love, for Pleiades Press. It’s going to blow all your minds when it comes out next fall. And I keep rereading Nance Van Winckel’s Book of No Ledge, which contains collage and erasure poems made out of an old Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has been keeping me feeling sane and hopeful about human goodness and the beauty of supportive communities in these grim times; while Adrian C. Louis’s poems have been keeping me as pissed off and riled up as I think we also all need to be.

Last question: What is the greatest piece of advice you received from an instructor or mentor?

Maya Jewell Zeller always tells me to try writing it backwards and with more plants in it. Ellen Welcker tells me to quit giving those dead white guys the benefit of the doubt. Laura Read says to start with a song and a great longing. And Jaswinder Bolina once told me to quit whining, in a less blunt and more gentle way. That might be the best advice I ever got.

 

Furlong Stephen Author PhotoStephen Furlong is a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, MO. His poetry, reviews, and/or interviews have previously appeared in or are forthcoming from Chariton Review, Big Muddy, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Additionally, he has a poem in the forthcoming anthology A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault, edited by Joanna C. Valente.

Interviews

‘Mythmaking, second-hand information, and outright lies’: An Interview with Sarah Sweeney

Sweeney_Sarah_photoNonfiction writer Sarah Sweeney was new to me, but as soon as I read an essay’s opening line of “I never planned to throw my tampon on a stranger’s car,” I knew that her writing was something that I would enjoy immensely. Her most recent collection, Tell Me If You’re Lying, adds up to a modern-day coming-of-age story, and all that entails: music, actors, skipping class, and pulling pranks. Sweeney writes about such topics in a genuine way that isn’t afraid of getting too personal. Rather, her writing speaks for itself and invites the reader along for the ride.

Sarah Sweeney writes both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has also appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, Rattle, The Pinch, and others. We recently emailed about her new book, creating themes, and the dangers of dyeing your own hair.

Nearly all of the essays in this collection have a thread of pop culture through them, though the essays aren’t purely about pop culture. Instead, the essays straddle a thin line between discussing the lightness of pop culture figures—Madonna, Rod Stewart, Adrien Grenier—and deeply telling, personal narratives. What was the experience of writing in this way like? Do you think the pop culture is more characteristic of our time, or does it function as a vessel to tell other details?

I’m obsessed with pop culture, but more specifically, music. At nearly all points during my day—if I can—I’m listening to music. So I have very specific musical attachments and rituals, and I associate periods of my life, places, and people with songs or musicians or albums, especially the classic rock of my parents that more or less defined my childhood.

I’m also very particular about what I listen to while I’m writing because music is definitely a vessel for me, a means to channel a mood or an era and then infuse that into my work.

In writing this book, though, I never set out to write about pop culture, but because pop culture is very much essential to my personal history and identity. Those connections came naturally. I was so pleased to take stock of them all when I looked at the book as a whole. Funny how that happens.

Many of the essays tell one story while hinting at other personal details. For instance, the brief mention of the “troubled teens” workshop while discussing pulling pranks with Evie. Does the larger story take precedence, or do little moments like this reveal information without having to construct an entire narrative around certain life aspects?

I knew I was being a tease with that troubled teens line, and I’m glad it didn’t sail by unnoticed. Without delving into something that ultimately would detract from the larger story of Adrian Grenier and my friendship with Evie, I wanted to make clear that our pranks weren’t one-time occurrences, but rather one of many symptoms of a very particular kind of teenage psychosis stemming from ambition, boredom, parental neglect, and desperation. And showing that school officials had taken note of our behavior underscores that idea without tackling it explicitly.

Hair dyeing comes up in many essays, and I think that’s something we’ve all done in response to something at one point or another. I remember dyeing my hair a particularly unpleasant shade of blonde after a particularly bad breakup. Most of the hair dyeing in the collection, however, results in something unpleasant. Is this poor advertising on behalf of boxed dyes? Or does it capture the essence of a semi-rebellious teen figure?

Both. In college my hair stylist best friend got me a job as a receptionist at her salon where I learned so much about hair coloring. I could go on and on about it, but I’ll just say this: unless you’re going darker, it’s best to avoid those drugstore kits! For many people they’re economical, because salons are so expensive, but you’re playing with fire, in my experience.

But sometimes you’re just that desperate and I was. Hair dyeing became my way of asserting my identity as a young person, making a statement about nonconformity. Standard teen angst. Remember in that first episode of My So-Called Life, how Angela Chase (Claire Danes) dyes her hair red? I could write 10 more hair-dyeing essays, at least. I had white hair; pink hair; half-blue, half-red hair; lilac hair; green hair. When you’re young and essentially powerless, changing up your appearance can be a pretty satisfying way of claiming something for yourself.

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Why did you pick “Tell Me If You’re Lying” as the titular essay?

All the essays have something to do with mythmaking, second-hand information, deception, deducing the truth for oneself, and outright lies. And because my father is an overwhelming presence in these stories, and someone who definitely understood the power of storytelling and self-mythologizing, the essay that most encapsulates him—and the theme—seemed like a no-brainer.

Music comes up again and again, as well as the inclusion of lyrics to several great songs. Were there any other musicians or songs that you wanted to write about that didn’t make it into this collection?

So many. Bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney or The Clash all pretty much gave me life as a kid. One of my freelance jobs is researching and writing liner notes for Light In The Attic Records, and last year I was doing a big project for them and got to connect with an obscure musician named Robb Kunkel. In one afternoon phone call, he basically changed my life and encouraged me to take some big risks—and I was supposed to be interviewing him. A short while later, I learned he was in the hospital, and we had this amazing end of life conversation that was basically the conversation I never got to have with my dad before he passed. So I’m currently trying to write something about Robb, too.

Who are the writers or essayists that inspire you?

I seek out and read a lot of women writers: Roxane Gay, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Melissa Febos are a few of my current favorites. I love Emily Nussbaum’s and Jia Tolentino’s work in The New Yorker (and her prior stuff at Jezebel). I also loved Abigail Ulman’s short story debut Hot Little Hands—talk about troubled girls!—and I am currently trying to ride the Elena Ferrante wave.

In one word, what would you say is the central theme to these essays?

Love.

Do you have any words of wisdom for fellow nonfiction writers?

My advice for nonfiction writers is: Write fearlessly. Write truthfully. Roadblocks are inevitable. Fear is inevitable. Push through that. Maybe you’re worried about hurting someone; maybe you’re worried about exposing yourself. When I was getting my MFA, a lot of fellow students fretted over what their parents would think, what so-and-so’s brother would think. We don’t want to hurt anyone, but the bottom line is this: If you’re serious about your craft and your story is bursting to be told (and the best ones do burst), you owe it to yourself to pursue it. Everything else will fall into place, or it won’t. That’s something you have to reconcile with yourself. (Or a good therapist, which is a highly effective life hack.)

 

FullSizeRenderAlyssa Cohorn is the Managing Editor of Pine Hills Review and an MFA student at The College of Saint Rose. She writes nonfiction and poetry while avoiding the cold weather of Albany, NY.

 

Interviews

“Poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood”: An Interview with Sage Cohen

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Sage Cohen brings the fierceness. I learned this first-hand, when she and I met when we were both greenhorns in Manhattan, studying for M.F.A. in poetry at New York University under the tutelage of heavy-hitter teachers like Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. It was plain to me then that Sage was mindful of what she was doing, both in poetry and in life. She was, in other words, pretty freaking fierce. (As for this writer, that is another story.) In the years since, she’s blossomed as a poet, writing instructor, and author of books focused on helping writers do what they do, first in Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books 2009), then in The Productive Writer: Tips & Tooks to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success (Writer’s Digest Books 2010). In straightforward, empathetic prose, Cohen helps writers tackle the challenges usually faced alone in a dark room. She continues this project with Fierce on The Page: Become the Writer You Were Meant to Be and Succeed on Your Own Terms, just out from Writer’s Digest Books. I had a chance to talk to Sage over email, where from her home in Portland, Oregon, she discussed being fierce, as well as teaching, workshops, and our common ancestral homeland of South Jersey.

This is your third book about writing and the writing process. What motivated you to write this one? 

My first two writing books were how-to’s: one for poets, and one for writers striving to increase productivity. What I discovered in writing those books, and in the decade of blogging about writing along the way, is that I am more interested in exploring possibilities than offering prescriptions. Because there is no one-strategy-fits-all in the writing life. There’s only what works for you.

Maybe five years ago on my blog, I stumbled into writing personal essays, in which I explored various writing themes through the lens of my own life experience. And readers really responded. Eventually, I came to understand that what I was offering people (and what they were seeking me out for) was not advice, but permission. To come closer to who they are, to notice what’s working and what needs recalibration, and to find their own true way forward in service to their craft.

I got so excited about this more intimate and spacious way of accompanying writers that I wrote a proposal in the hopes of writing a book-length treatise exploring this form. And then I sat on the proposal for three years until I had come far enough through divorce and single parenting a very young child to believe I had the stamina to write a book in parallel with my full-time business and life.

Fierce On The PageIt’s plain to me you enjoy motivating writers to write, to go places they haven’t gone, to be fierce. Was there a time you didn’t think of yourself as a fierce writer?

I don’t really think of myself as a fierce writer—more like a writer who practices ferocity. And for me, that means relentless self-responsibility. The truth is, what I think of myself as a writer has never been of much interest to me. What I have devoted myself to as if my life depended on it—and it turns out, it does—is my writing practice. I’m not sure how it happened, but I have always loved and tended my writing, absolutely dedicating to helping it reach its potential, without much concern about who liked it, or what it would do for me. It may be the purest relationship I have. A devotional practice, of sorts. I just want to serve my writing. I just want to help it grow and flourish. I just want to exist in that liminal space where words are taking shape.

What do you get out of teaching that fuels or informs your writing? Or is it a different relationship altogether?

I love being with people. I love watching them wake up to their own possibilities and discoveries. Teaching and lecturing has given me deep insight into what writers are struggling with, hoping for, and moving toward—and this helps me serve them better.

How about readings?

I also have spent a few decades overcoming a terror of public speaking. And putting myself in front of students and audiences as much as possible—as a practice of overcoming this fear—has fortified me as a person and a writer. I know I can count on myself to get up at a podium, even if I’m fairly certain it will kill me, and do it anyway. This is an important thing to know about myself.

What I have learned through this is that writers are seeking permission to be themselves, assurances that they’re welcome in the writing mosh pit, and trust that they have everything they need to do the work they are called to do. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to write and publish books that offer this kind of guidance, along with all the practical and technical stuff.

I love how your advice in FOTP is both nourishing and straight-shooting. You write early on how you “have simply committed to showing up and writing down what wants to come through,” and that that’s the “single most important thing we can do as writers.” At the risk of sounding mystical, how does the writer find what wants to come through?

I think that process is unique for each writer. Here’s how it works for me: I find what wants to come through when I practice paying attention: leaning into discomfort, softening into vulnerability, listening to the conversations of strangers, taking in the natural world. The more curious I am about the world, other humans, and myself, the more “what wants to come through” is revealed to me.

For me, free writing was my way in. I started this foundational practice in my early 20’s, inviting language to move through me without forethought or effort. After many years of writing blind to find that there was an endless supply of language, image, metaphor and insight pouring through me, I came to think of myself of more as a channel, and my writing practice as a kind of cosmic weight lifting. My goal has been to train myself to be agile, strong, and receptive enough to tap into currents of language that I might otherwise not know how to be listening for.  So I could ready myself for writing, whenever it might happen to ask something of me.

Practically speaking, I am never out of arm’s reach from an index card. When a thought, image, or phrase strikes me, I write it down, no matter what else is happening. By being accountable to my own creativity and curiosity in this way, I think I maximize my receptivity to “what wants to come through.”

What are your thoughts on the traditional workshop these days—by traditional I mean a group in the room, copies of a draft, everyone talks about it, marks it up, perhaps the author stays silent. 

I think the value of workshops is largely in the eye of the beholder! What I value most from my own education through traditional workshops is how I’ve learned to evaluate and use (or ignore) feedback. I have also gained valuable insight about my tendencies and vulnerabilities, and I have cultivated skills in thinking and speaking critically about poetry. I take it for granted now, but workshops have really helped me grow up as a writer.

For people like you and I, who have a few decades of writing practice under our belts, I think the value of a workshop becomes highly dependent on who is around the table. I didn’t workshop for years and didn’t miss it. But I did attend lots of readings and gather with many writers in those years and fill my cup that way. These days I have a group of poets I meet with here in Portland intermittently. Because I have great admiration for their work, just clearing three hours to step in and collectively contemplate their poems (plus see my poems reflected through their lenses) is invaluable for me.

Whether it’s a workshop, conference, reading, or lecture, I think there is huge value in writers coming together in person to remember that we are not alone, that we are a part of a larger conversation, and that we can always learn from each other, at any stage of our evolution.

I am especially gratified in those chapters where you talk about being a mother, a co-parent, who has found kindred souls online and in person for support as people and as writers. That didn’t come without a struggle, I’d imagine. As a father, I can’t help but rely on cliché when I encounter expectant writer-slash-parents. Do you have any advice or say anything when speaking with soon-to-be parents who are concerned about their identity as writers?

What comes immediately to mind are the first two years of my son’s life during which neither of us slept more than two hours at a time. I’d sit in the rocker in the middle of the night with my magnificent child in my arms, at the brink of my earthly sanity and patience, and I’d tell myself: This is my poetry practice.

I’d lean in to my discomfort and mine it for the ecstasies of attention. I’d study the exquisite smell of his fuzzy head. I’d notice the arc of warmth where our bodies were now only temporarily joined. And I’d know that there were women all over the world awake with their children, that my son and I were a speck of a wave in the endless ocean of humanity.

What I am saying is, poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood. And in return, motherhood became a potent poetry practice. I didn’t write many poems in my son’s early years. Yet, I would argue that my entire life became a poem—a study of sound and image, a resonance with the exquisite beauty of impermanence. Which is to say, nothing was lost. And so much was gained.

Parenting and poetry are both love practices. They ask of me similar things: to be patient, to show up at the most inconvenient, awkward and downright humiliating times, and to be willing to take myself apart and reassemble myself at a moment’s notice in pursuit of what is true and just and loving and beautiful. I have been seasoned and humbled by marriage, C-section, miscarriage, divorce, single parenting, co-parenting, and finding my way toward a collaborative little blended family. Through all of these incarnations, my identity as a writer stretched, severed, scarred, and grew stronger at its new, more inclusive seams.

I believe that when we love what we are doing and we love the lives we have chosen, there is room enough for everything we want, throughout many fluctuating seasons. What we may compromise in time at the page we gain in wisdom and authority when we return to the page. If that’s how we choose to hold it. And I believe we can all choose to hold it that way.

Lastly: we’re both from South Jersey. Is there anything about our childhood home, the place, that sticks with you in your writing life, now that you’re living in Portland, Oregon, for nearly 14 years? 

Yes! You stick with me. Seriously. Even though we met for the first time in graduate school in New York City a decade post-South-Jersey, the fact that I had a friend with similar roots whose trajectory through the territory of poem paralleled mine was a huge gift—and a kind of welcome I’d never felt before.

South Jersey was a terribly lonely place for me. I didn’t understand who I was, what I needed, or how to get it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t know how people survived the anguish of being people. So I wrote poems secretly—and kept writing them—through which I revealed myself incrementally to myself over the course of a lifetime.

My desire to see clearly, to make sense of feeling and experience and context, and to keep evolving as a person and a student, were nurtured by the generosity and support of my parents, the epic discomforts of adolescence, and my English teacher, Mr. Carr, who dared me to be better than I believed I could be.

I learned when I was pregnant that when butterflies are assisted out of their cocoon, they die. Fighting their way out is what activates their wings and gives them what they need to survive. South Jersey was my cocoon. Fighting my way out of the binding old ideas of self, I came to inherit and inhabit my wings.

I am incredibly grateful for all that shaped me, held me back, and ultimately set me free.

—interview by Daniel Nester

Interviews

“Hope and Anchor”: An Interview with Joshua Corey

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Poetry can inspire us, confuse us, and excite neurons in the human brain to produces new thoughts and ideas. Joshua Corey’s newest collection of poems, The Barons, does all of these things and more, addressing the turmoil in America since 9/11: war, fear, and political upheaval both in the United States and abroad. Dark, complex, and unabashed, The Barons seeks truth where there may be none to find. Corey’s literary journey through this uncertain time takes many forms. John Ashbery writes: “Joshua Corey has reinvented the good old-fashioned American avant-garde epic poem and thrust it, kicking if not screaming, into the early 21st century.” Corey is an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, where he co-directs Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books. On “a sort of grey, fall day” from his home in Evanston, Illinois, he answered some of my questions about his new book, writing, and the inspiration of curiosity.

I’ll start at the beginning. Why did you choose Robert Duncan’s quote, “I write poems for the fucking stars,” as the opening?

I found that quote in Lisa Jarnot’s biography. I’m a pretty big Duncan fan. He’s a poet I resisted for many years because he’s so mystical. I sometimes call him the “Dungeon Master of American Poetry” but he has grown on me and become irreplaceable. Anyway, that’s something he said when he was giving a reading. I think someone raised the reasonable question “What are you doing this for?” Duncan was very much a coterie writer. He did have some fame, but poetry has always been a pretty marginal American activity. So, he came out with that and I love the insouciance of it. I love that, on the one hand, it acknowledges the reality of poetry’s audience and it also goes big. It’s very romantic. It echoes, maybe deliberately, maybe not, Emmanuel Kant, one of his famous remarks: “Two things fill me with awe: the moral law within me and the stars above me.” I guess I’m always trying to imagine the connection between cosmology, on the one hand, and everyday life and also the political life on the other. The book is sort of trying to think those worlds simultaneously.

Would you say your book is successful in doing that?

I don’t think that’s for me to say. It definitely represents, for me, a bit of a departure. The other books I had published up to that point were much more unified projects in some ways. They had a kind of a narrative. This book, I think, is more of a multi-pronged attack or negotiation, depending on my mood, with some of the forces I feel overwhelmed by. I think many of us feel overwhelmed by, here, in the early 21st century. Mostly capitalism run amok and environmental degradation.

CoreyJoshuaBookCoverIn The Barons, the poems in the section “Hope and Anchor” struck me as different from poems in the other sections. Other than the change to a more prose form, what makes these poems stand out from the rest?

That’s one of the sections that began its life as a chapbook. There’s another prose section in the book, “Complete Adventures,” where I allow myself to be a little more whimsical and humorous. There is material in those poems that connects to childhood. They’re more inward than other poems. They’re dipping in to this well of interior monologue that prose seems to enable to me. The verse in the book is much more surgical. They’re investigations of things outside the self.

In an interview with Stephen Ross, you called your writing “a re-engagement with traditional forms toward broadly ‘avant’ or innovative ends.” I wonder if you could expand on that idea. Does that still hold true with The Barons?

Yeah. I think that must have been my way of trying to reconcile the fact that I have long been interested in what you might broadly call traditions of innovative writing, innovative narrative, language poetry, and post-language poetry. At the same time, I have this very traditional background. I read a lot of straight up British classics when I was an undergrad. I can find a lot of value in traditional forms and traditional registers of writing. I seem to be obsessed with mid-century writers and thinkers, some of whom have been very fashionable and some of whom are less fashionable like Delmore Schwartz. There’s something about the New York ‘30s through 1960 literary imagination that really captivates me for some reason. I think a lot about what a post-modern epic might look like. Certainly the previous book, Severance Song—that was about the sonnet—is very much a traditional form. I guess I’m not even thinking in those terms now. I’m not finding that very useful for me. I find that the poems I’m writing are almost like a monologue. I think that might be a side effect of writing fiction as I’ve gotten more interested in playing with voice and different subtle shadings of persona.

You used the artwork of Joseph Beuys for the covers of both Beautiful Soul and The Barons. What connection his art has with yours?

I’d known about his work for a while, but I was in Berlin in 2011 and I saw an exhibition of his work at a museum there, the Hamburger Bahnhof I believe. I was really blown away by his use of sculptural elements that are so the opposite of brass or bronze or marble. Felt, animal fat. The organicism of it. Then as I began to delve more deeply into him, I discovered his performances, which just struck me as truly remarkably and profound. There are two performances that really struck me and I used images from each of them on the two books’ covers. The novel is from a performance he did in New York called “I like America. America likes me.” He locked himself up in this gallery in New York for six days with a coyote named America and gave it copies of the Wall Street Journal to pee on. The picture that’s on The Barons is from a piece he did called Iphigenia/Titus Andronicus, where he’s on a stage and he’s reading along with pre-recorded excerpts from these two plays, one of which I believe is Goethe’s translation of the Greek drama Iphigenia. Iphigenia, of course, was the daughter who Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods so he could go to war with the Trojans. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s fantastic, bloody mess of a tragedy, which also has a central figure in it: a violated and sacrificed young woman. That was fascinating. I also love what he does with animals. There’s a horse on the cover, just grazing quietly. Some of his statements are very provocative. In one of his artworks, he says “Show your wound.” It sounds confessional, but it connects with the democratic idea about art that he had. “Everyone is an artist,” he liked to say. So on the one hand I was really engaged by his organicism, his diffidence about America. At the same time he is an interestingly compromised figure. He was a pilot or gunner who flew for the Luftwaffe during World War II and was shot down. There’s a legendary story about how he was rescued by these tribesmen who covered him in animal fat and felt and saved his life. It’s almost certainly not true but it’s part of his legend. The fact that this guy who, for all intents and purposes, a fighter for the Nazis, turned himself into a democratic, artistic shaman/saint with very progressive environmental values just fascinates me. I’m drawn to figures like Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger, whose work opens ground for thought and creativity but who are, themselves, profoundly morally compromised. That makes Beuys a very generative figure. I’m not doing anything with him consciously right now but he’s probably in the back of my mind.

The Barons is kind of a culmination of a lot of work, basically stemming from 9/11 onward. What’s it like to work with such an expansive timeframe of work that you’re working with?

It’s interesting. Two of the book sections first saw the light of day as chapbooks. It’s pretty normal for someone to publish individual poems or even sequences of poems in magazines. I’ve been accumulating this work. In some ways I wanted to stand up for the old-fashioned idea of the collection because I do think it’s out of fashion now. I do think that most younger poets are writing thematically-unified books, like the ones I’ve published before. I like that. I like the book as a kind of unified gesture, but I also think there should be room for something that is more about investigating different processes, coming at the same subject matter from different angles, using different forms. There’s a pretty playful and self-conscious attempt at epic in this book. Also, very self-conscious lyric poems. Prose poems. It was kind of a smorgasbord but I do think there is a kind of an uneasy tone that’s pretty consistent throughout.

Clearly, your poems have a very diverse range, as you just said. What freedoms do you take and what restrictions do you impose on yourself?

Good question. I went through a period when I was really interested in various kinds of form. More or less closed form. My previous book is a book of sonnets, though many of the individual poems stretch the limits of the sonnet. I really can enjoy those kinds of constraints and rules. But I’ve become less interested in what you might call the “well-made poem.” I’m less interested in poems that are perfect little artifacts. I used to really enjoy these cunning little toys of language and now, this is something that I’ve really been influenced by my reading of Duncan in, I’m more interested in poems as documents of the process of life, experience, and thought. It’s okay with me if they’re a little more raw, a little more ragged. I’ve moved toward a longer line in many of my poems.

Your previous book, the one before The Barons, was a novel, and your next one is going to be a novel as well, correct?

Well, I had a sabbatical last year and I wrote a lot. I have another novel that I am shopping around. I have another poetry collection which I am not quite ready to send to a press. I have this weird hybrid book that I’m publishing pieces of online and in magazines. I also have a translation of some French prose poetry. So I’ve been very, very busy.

It certainly sounds like it. I was going to ask how it was to transition back from fiction to poetry or from poetry to fiction or if everything just kind of comes out when it comes out.

I like working on multiple projects at once. That seems to suit my mind. I can wake up and if I’m not in a poetry mood, I can work on some fiction. And in this one text, the hybrid one—I don’t really know what to call it—I don’t think I could have written that way if I hadn’t written straight poetry and then straight fiction. I’ve had a lot of academic training, probably too much, so the terrain I have to navigate at this point in my life is I have to unlearn and overcome a lot of rules and ideas that were implanted in me from getting too many degrees, that are not necessarily helpful now.

When you’re writing, either fiction or poetry, do you have a different mindset?

It’s definitely a different process. I’m still, in some ways, teaching myself how to write fiction. I had to give myself permission that was not easy to take to write fiction because we live in these professional castes. I have another fiction project I’m working on that feels like the most straightforward and natural fiction I’ve ever written. It’s the first book I’ve written or tried to write that reads like other books. It reads like the fiction I grew up reading, and that’s partly because it has a little bit of a sci-fi element to it. I feel like it uses a completely different territory than my poetry had, whereas the first novel I wrote is very much a poet’s novel. It’s got that kind of self-reflexive engagement with language that wants to double-back on itself. I’m gradually teaching myself to separate genres. I’m able to explore more. If I’m going to write a poem, I want to do something that only a poem can do.

In a self-interview you did with The Nervous Breakdown, you mention the “pervasive influence of MFA programs.” As someone who has an MFA, could you go into more detail about your feelings about them?

I had a great experience at my MFA. I made poet friends who are my closest and dearest poet friends. What I think we miss is some of the opportunity self-invention and the truly novel. Not so much in writing as in the social forms and the means of production of writing. What I mean by that is, in the early ‘90s, when the MFA industry was just getting going, even relatives who had no connection to art or writing were saying “Oh, you want to be a writer. You should go to school for that.” The very notion of there being a school for becoming a writer is odd. It’s a historically new idea. I just wonder, is it possible that there are other ways writers can come together, discover things, create things, that they simply aren’t doing until after the MFA.

As an Associate Professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois, you teach many different courses, from English 101 Intro to Lit to English 440 Advanced Writing Seminar. What do you try to impart to your students? What would you say is a unifying theme among the courses you teach?

I think those are two separate questions. If there’s one thing I try to impart, it’s something that I think cannot be imparted directly, and that’s curiosity. I really would hope to, if I had the power, to light a flame under my students’ asses and get them reading and investigating and writing on their own. I try to construct assignments that force them to do that. I’m teaching an Environmental Writing course right now where I’m trying to disable or detour their tendency to write expressively about the self and instead learn how to use the self, including their own body, to investigate other places, other spaces. For example, having them write a poem that has to have some research behind it. Ways to get them out of themselves and out of being a passive receptor or transmitter of media. I find there’s no way to teach that. I can only do my best to model it. There’s a great quote, by someone like John Cage: “The only difference between me and my students is I’m better at not knowing at what I’m doing.” I try to model for my students not knowing what I’m doing, that that’s okay and that it’s a productive place to stand from. Maybe that does answer both questions.

What kind of curiosity or creativity are you trying to explore with The Barons, in yourself or in others? Or what kind of creativity are you trying to inspire?

I feel like writing begets writing. I was fortunate to have at about fifteen years old, an “Aha” moment. I was taking a summer poetry class. The rather insane teacher, God bless him, gave us all the massive Norton Anthology of Poetry. I just read around in that thing. Instead of being intimidated, as by all rights I should have been, I thought it was fantastic. There were so many different kinds of writing and they were all poetry. All these different registers of language. That made me think that this was something that I want to do. I certainly hope, that at the minimum, if someone reads my book, that they get a little of that feeling for themselves. I hope they think “Here’s a person trying to figure out how to live in a very difficult and confusing time, negotiating with these forces much larger than himself. Maybe I could do that, too.”

Who you were reading now?

In terms of poetry, I’m reading older things. Some French poetry. I mentioned the translation project. I’m translating the first major book of Francis Ponge, “Le parti pris des choses,” which I’m calling “A Partisan of Things.” That’s going to come out from a little press called Kenning next year. Reading him got me interested in that mid-twentieth century. I found myself reading René Char seriously for the first time. I found myself rereading Paul Celan, who was very important to me early in my writing career. He’s somebody who is really testing language and himself in almost impossible conditions and producing haunting, strange, beautiful work. More contemporary work, there’s a Canadian poet named Ken Babstock, whose work I just love. He can be really vicious and funny and sad. He’s got a new book that is very different from anything he’s done before. In general, I’m a fan of the Canadians. I’m also reading a lot of fiction these days because I’m writing a lot of fiction. I just picked up Rachel Cusk’s book, Outline. The main character spends a lot of time listening to other people talk, so you get this negative space of her. I’m really interested in that. I could go on. I read a lot.

—interview by Lee Geiselmann

Interviews

“To blossom or diverge or dissipate or redirect”: An Interview with Brian Clements

ClementsBrianphotoTo some, prose poetry may seem foreign and hard to pin down. The form walks the murky waters between reading surrealist poetry. To make matters more confusing, there is no consensus on exactly what defines the form. But Brian Clements’ new collection helps to clarify matters. A Book of Common Rituals relates readers to day-to-day activities they are sure to understand: working, eating, and sleeping among those. I still find myself flipping through its pages, hoping to absorb some of its magic.

Brian Clements seems to be something of an enigma, albeit a prolific one. He’s published nine poetry collections, founded Firewheel Editions press and the prose poetry journal Sentence, and coordinates the low-residency MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. Clements’ poems seem to document our everyday routine in the morning, afternoon, and evening. I corresponded with Clements through email, what he calls a “digital space.” In an essay written for American Poetry Review, he explains that “there is no studio” with the invention of the Internet, and how his writing—including the answering of these questions—can be done from various locations. From these different locales, we discussed prose poetry, appropriation, and how to join the literary community.

I’ve often felt like an outsider to prose poetry, maybe because of how differently it can appear on the page from writer to writer. To me, ‘prose’ makes me think of long chunky pieces of text, and I have a hard time translating that into a poetic idea.

I do not think of prose poetry as a “form.” There are no “rules” for the prose poem as there are for sonnets, villanelles, etc. I think of prose poetry as simply a subgenre of poetry, just as free verse and verse are subgenres of poetry. As Michael Benedikt put it, the prose poem can use every device available to free verse except the line break. That’s really the only thing absent in prose poetry that you’ll find in free verse. Where free verse uses the tension between line and sentence, the prose poem must rely upon the sentence itself as the unit of progression and find other sources of tension.

I always find it fascinating that despite the fact that “prose poetry” and “free verse” have been around for pretty much exactly the same amount of time (more than 150 years), most people are shocked to find out that there is such a thing as “prose poetry.” “How is that possible?” they demand—“Poetry cannot be prose!” Yet they are perfectly willing to accept that “verse” can be “free.” Why? I am convinced it is because much early free verse was adaptable to ways of teaching poetry as literature using New Critical methodologies, while prose poetry, on the surface, seemed not to be adaptable in that way. Prose poetry, for a long time, also was the province of rebellious troublemakers like Rimbaud and the Surrealists and Gertrude Stein, whereas free verse pretty quickly made it into the mainstream on the heels of Eliot, Williams, Marianne Moore, and Stevens.

In colloquial usage, “verse” has come to be synonymous with “poetry.” Technically, of course, verse refers to language that features regularly measurable patterns, whether of syllables, of beats, or both. But, also colloquially, when folks refer to something—say an athletic move or the design of an automobile—as “poetic,” they mean nothing having to do with regularity or measurability; they usually mean something like “graceful” or “beautiful.” Not all poems, of course, are graceful, beautiful, or in verse.

So, then, there are no real measures for what makes a poem a poem?

This talk all begs the question that there is something common to all poetry, that there is a definition of poetry that satisfies all examples. I tend to think that there probably is no such definition and that “poetry” is a culturally contextual discourse. There are indicators in prose poems that invite readers to think of the texts as poems—foregrounding of sound and music of the language, parataxis and associative logic, figuration, strategies of closure, for some non-ubiquitous examples—as well as the contexts in which prose poems are experienced—literary journals, poetry readings, volumes of poems, poetry classes, anthologies, etc.—that offer the claim “this thing is a poem.” Readers are welcome to accept or reject that invitation or claim as they see fit, but to argue that these things cannot possibly be poems is to deny that genre is fluid and changing. One might as well argue that lyric poetry is only that which is performed to the accompaniment of a lyre.

So my advice, then, is to think liberally about genre, not to worry so much about whether a text is or isn’t a poem, and write in the way that seems best for the goals you want to accomplish with the effect you want to create. Of course, one can’t possibly know what effects are available without experimentation.

In A Book of Common Rituals, you write commands, such as the “Ritual for Beginning” which tells the reader to “Pull the drapes or close the blinds. Shut off the light.” I can see myself following the rituals for drinking coffee or doing my office work. Are the rituals in the book meant to apply to the reader? Do your rituals apply to one specific type of person?

My hope is that while reading or listening to the poems, the reader/listener will imagine herself performing the ritual, or, at least, will imagine someone else performing the ritual.

The rituals are divided on the page: on the left, the poem, and on the right, either text or an image that, in some way, corresponds. Sometimes these are abstract, “Tree Ritual I,I” for example, faces a Johnny Appleseed-themed crossword puzzle. Are these pairings meant to tell two different kinds of daily rituals?

I wanted to play with the possibility in the book that the effects of poems don’t have to end at the last line. This phenomenon actually can be seen in many books in the use of repeated lines or refrains in multiple poems or other kinds of reflections or conversation among the poems. I like some poems that have neat closure, but I think I am more interested in poems that open up or blossom or diverge or dissipate or redirect. So I saw the accompanying texts and images as ways to do those things, with the hope that the texts and images would help to make the poems something a little more, with tendrils that move out beyond the imaginative world of the poems in into the political, physical, religious, commercial world outside the text. So the accompanying texts and images can be both amplifications of and commentary on the poems.

In an interview with Cheryl Pallant, you described yourself as “all for interesting ways ofClementsBook_pic using appropriation; all of our language … is borrowed from elsewhere.” Is this where the idea of borrowing recipes or news clips on business transactions came from for A Book of Common Rituals? Do you begin with appropriation and then write about it, or are you more interested in writing something and then pairing it with another piece for contrast?

Our identities are composed of collections of experience (“I contain multitudes.”). We are constantly collecting memories, words, phrases, sensations, embarrassments, failures, images, desires, calculations, and so on. We don’t “create” any of this material—our brains collect, synthesize, re-arrange. I think the same way about writing—all writers are collectors and re-arrangers. I wanted to play with those facts in this collection and wanted to feel free to wander beyond the borders of what would be considered “poetry” or even “prose poetry,” so that the poems were just among the many things being collected and presented. In some cases, the ritual poems came first and I selected accompanying material later, and in other cases the material inspired the poems.

In the 2009 anthology An Introduction to the Prose Poem, you wrote “prose poets tend to look for wide varieties of cultural discourse as models for their poems.” I can see all of the different cultural influences in A Book of Common Rituals through the very distinct cultural activities that become rituals, from the ways we eat to the ways we dance. Can you discuss this discourse and its importance a little further?

The poet and critic Jonathan Holden wrote a book, back in the 80s, I think, that had an argument I didn’t buy entirely, but I liked part of it. If I remember it correctly, he argued that postmodernity in American poetry was founded on the borrowing of cultural forms—the confession, the grocery list, the editorial, the letter, the newspaper article, the joke, etc. I’m not sure I buy that it’s a hallmark of postmodernism or even that what Holden calls postmodernism is what I call postmodernism, but there is no doubt that this borrowing of cultural forms that Holden saw was active in American poetry. I simply used that paradigm as a way of organizing An Introduction to the Prose Poem because it was a useful way to get at a number of tendencies in prose poetry that were illustrative to students interested in exploring prose poetry and trying their own hands at writing prose poems. You mentioned in one of your first questions that you had a hard time working your way into the idea of prose poetry, and I think a lot of students have that problem because it’s a proposition that is simply contrary to their (mis)educations about poetry. So one of the functions of the anthology is to help students overcome that obstacle by providing some easily relatable types of prose poems—many of which happen to be borrowed cultural forms: the anecdote, aphorism, fable, rant, essay, letters, postcards, and scripts, for example.

So does this idea come through in A Book of Common Rituals?

I’m playing on the idea of ritual in general as the cultural form borrowed, and religious ritual in particular. All religions have rituals, and the purpose of ritual is to mark or create some kind of transformation—from childhood to adulthood, from individual to part of a married couple, from unordained to ordained, etc. I wanted to explore the ways that poems can be personally transformative, so I both take that as the subject of many of the poems and try to find ways in the poems to enact small moments of transformation.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem has been described by N2 Poetry as helping to demystify the genre by explaining “what makes a prose poem a poem rather than simply short prose.” This is a common misconception, at the very least for me. What compels you to celebrate prose poetry as opposed to other forms?

Well, as I mentioned before, there was a time when I was writing prose poems, as a kind of obsession, I suppose. Around that time, an important journal called The Prose Poem: an International Journal (which was run by Peter Johnson and named after the very influential and important anthology edited by Michael Benedikt, The Prose Poem: an International Anthology) ceased publication. It was an opportune time to start a new journal on the heels of The Prose Poem, so that’s when I launched Sentence. After several years of editing Sentence, writing about prose poems, and teaching the prose poem in writing courses, it occurred to me that there wasn’t an anthology on the market that was designed as a classroom tool for students interested in the prose poem; so that’s how An Introduction to the Prose Poem was conceived. It’s intended to be a model of possibilities in the subgenre, as opposed to a canon-making project.

Many prose poems that I have read are inspired by the surreal. One of the most well-known that comes to mind is Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” which is less about supermarkets and more about an imagined conversation with Walt Whitman. Does the surreal come easily to prose poetry because the form lends itself to it, or is it completely up to the writer? How do you balance the surreal and the everyday in your poetry?

The surreal/Surrealist tendency in prose poetry probably is a matter of tradition. Poets such as Max Jacob, Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, and Antonin Artaud were adapters of the prose poem to the absurdist tradition, following in the path of Rimbaud. Ginsberg’s poem brings a little bit of Surrealist silliness to his celebratory, Whitmanic voice. It’s a fun poem, as are many surrealist poems and many prose poems. Fun seems to be an important part of the prose poetry tradition, though certainly not all prose poems grow on the “fun” branch.

I don’t think the prose poem is any more open to the surreal or absurdism than any other form of writing, though. One thing the prose poem can do is put all of the language in the poem on an even level so that there are no hierarchies of attention (line breaks, spacing, beginnings of lines), and the poet can slip in little surprises unexpectedly.

As a current MFA student, I still feel as though I must break into the literary community, and with differing opinions on the usefulness of MFAs, this can sometimes seem like a hindrance. How does an MFA student connect with the writing community as a whole?

One of the things that I discovered in Dallas, where I helped to found a nonprofit literary center called The Writer’s Garret, as editor and publisher of Sentence and Firewheel Editions, and as Coordinator of the MFA program here at Western Connecticut State, is that it is probably more efficient to build a community among writers and readers than it is to try to break into a pre-existing community. Of course, the publishing world is a pre-existing community, and that’s the community that many of us want to enter most.

However, building other, smaller communities—starting literary journals, starting a small press, starting a reading series out in the community, starting a writer’s group, offering literary programming to the public, submitting work to literary journals and presses, attending conferences and book festivals, reading widely among multiple literary journals so that you know what is being done now—is a good way to become what it is in vogue now to call a “literary citizen.” Rarely does anyone everyone make it into the “published” club without first building that citizenship.

—interview by Alyssa Cohorn

Interviews

“What I am is a militant translator”: An Interview Mitchell Abidor

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Emmanuel Bove’s harrowing 1932 novella, A Raskolnikoff, was released to the American public late this year. With Mitchell Abidor’s stunning translation—for which he has won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant— comes a new hope for one of literature’s forgotten sons.

Abidor is the right translator for the job. A contributing writer at Jewish Currents and a translator of French, Portuguese, and Italian for the Marxist Internet Archive, Abidor has translated hundreds of texts and published numerous collections from a myriad of radical political writers, from 17th Century France to Revolutionary Russia. Abidor’s most recent translation, however, is a departure from the radical political essays. Emmanuel Bove (1898-1945) was a prolific French writer who published over thirty books in his lifetime and garnered praise from Albert Camus, John Ashbery, and Samuel Beckett. Abidor’s translation of A Raskolnikoff, which Bove wrote in 1932 as “a continuation” of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is a logical extension of his other works in translation as well as an optimistic new phase for the literary legacy of Emmanuel Bove. I reached out to Abidor by phone to hear his take on Bove’s legacy, the state of revolutionary writers and their works, and the art of translation. He spoke to me just days after returning from Vienna, from the dining room table of his home in Brooklyn, surrounded by books—Cortazar, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Bove, Borges, Beckett, Philip Roth, Jean-Patrick Manchette—and “watched by framed portraits of Kafka, Robert Bresson, Ataturk, Eva Peron, Joseph Roth, Jean Jaures, and my favorite baseball player when I was ten years old, Roman Mejias of the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros) as well as a 1962 team picture of the Colts and a still from the greatest film ever made, La Jetee.”  

BoveBookCoverWhen and how did you discover Emmanuel Bove?

That is a really good story! I’m sure you’ve never heard of Emmanuel Bove before right? He really is quite a writer. Thirty-some years ago, I went to see a film by the great German director, Wim Wenders called Reverse Angle. It is a series of films, like film essays. In one of them, he’s reading Mes Amis (My Friends, 1924), which is really Bove’s best novel. And he talks about how Peter Handke, the great Austrian writer who’s his friend, told him about Bove. And just the way he described Bove in the film, I said “You know what? The next time I’m in France, I need to pick up something by Bove.” And that was what happened. I picked up Mes Amis, and it was one of the greatest books I ever read. I couldn’t believe how brilliant it was. And it was also fascinating because Bove had been completely forgotten for decades.

Because he had been forgotten, was it difficult to find his work?

No. Because what had happened was, in the late ’70s, there was a guy named Raymond Cousse who rediscovered Bove’s books and they were starting to be republished. It was only in the late ’70s/early ’80s that Bove made a comeback. And so every time I went to France, a couple more books had come out over the course of that year, and I just bought everything that I could. So that was how I discovered Bove. And nothing was available in English for a few years so I would always tell people “when these books come out, you’ve got to get them.”  Now most of his books are available in English, or a lot of them, anyway.

Brian Evenson writes in his introduction that the works of Bove have undergone a sort of Melvillian revival in France. What do you imagine the reasons are behind this revival? Have Bove’s novels somehow become more relevant in the eyes of readers? 

Once you get people to push a writer to bring him back, it really helps. Raymond Cousse worked hard and convinced publishers to bring his stuff back. But what’s also been a huge help for Bove is the fact that Peter Handke, the Austrian writer who translated Bove into German, is one of the most respected writers in the whole world. So when you have somebody like Handke on your side, it’s a big help. And then once he comes back, once people start reading him, his best novel comes back first.

Which was My Friends?

My Friends, right. And once that happens, then this one comes out and then that one. And so you build up a head of steam. So that’s why now, at this point, books can come out of stuff that has never been published because he has an established audience.

This particular novella that you’ve translated, A Raskolnikoff, was written by Bove as a sort of sequel to—or, as Bove says, “a continuation” of—Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment. How exactly does Bove’s novella function as a continuation of Crime and Punishment, given their difference in time and place?

One of the reasons I love A Raskolnikoff is because I thought it could be the title to for almost every one of Bove’s novels. Because so many of his novels are about young people just kind of lost, living in shabby apartments. All of his main characters, in all of his books that matter, are all Raskolnikoff.

The sensibility of Crime and Punishment can be transported anywhere. Raskolnikoff could be American, could be French, could be anybody. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He considers himself better than what he’s doing. He’s unhappy. At some point in our lives, we’re all Raskolnikoff’s. I know I was.

You won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant for your translation of A Raskolnikoff. How important are grants for translators and are there many of them available?

Donald Breckenridge, the managing editor of Red Dust, knows people at the French Cultural Service in New York and thought to apply for the grant, which exclusively covers the translator’s fees. This works both for the publisher and the translator, since the grant, $2000, is a good one if you’re doing a book for a small house, which normally can only afford a fraction of that. There are a number of grants out there, but the competition is fierce, and granting agencies are hard to figure. For example, it’s all but impossible to get grants for translations of the great Victor Serge, because he was of Russian heritage and was born and grew up in Brussels. So though he lived for a time in Paris and wrote some of the most important French novels of the middle of the 20th century, he wasn’t French, so they won’t help.

In your biography page of the Marxist Internet Archive, you say: “My MIA work revolves primarily around translations from the French, Portuguese and Italian, in all of which I’m self-taught.” Where and when did you inherit your interest in translation, and in all these languages?

I specifically taught myself all of these languages. I’m not bragging, but I’m just really good at languages. I think back to some of the things that I said in French early on when I first taught myself French and I was living in Paris—I couldn’t speak a word of the language, not one word. But somehow, instinctively, I knew what to say. I knew how to construct the sentences, I even knew how to work out idiomatic expressions. And so if you’re good at languages, you’re good at languages. I can see English through these other languages somehow.

French is also one of the languages you taught yourself?

I learned French at the movies. It’s a story I tell everyone, and it’s absolutely true. I learned it going to the movies. I was a film major in college. So I used to see four films a day. And I loved French cinema.

When you go about translating something, do you just sit down with the book and go though it line-by-line? How does that work?

That’s the way to do it. I never studied translation. I just picked it up as I went along. So I do a first draft where I just get all the words on the page. And I don’t worry about style. I just make sure I have everything there. I have a framework. And then I do a second draft where I make sure that I have all the words. And I compare it to the text again, and fix it up so it reads a little bit better. And then I do a third and a fourth draft where I ignore the original because I know I have everything in the original. I just make sure it reads like good English.

In fact, the book that I’m working on now is a collaborative effort. I’m working on it with a young guy in London, and it’s clearly his first time translating. And he’s making all the same mistakes that I made when I first started translating, which is sticking too closely to the original. French—the sentence structure is completely different, and their vocabulary, they have fewer words than we do. So if you stick too closely to the French, it doesn’t read very well in English. I always thought that Bove would be really easy to translate. And it was easier than most, but it was still a challenge because you have to express the style. Just the mere fact that it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s got no style.

Most of the translations you do are not necessarily novels. Did your method change with A Raskolnikoff? Did you feel you had more room to be creative?

I’ve now translated a bunch of non-fiction—political stuff, histories, the novel, and some poetry. And it may sound kind of trite, but the challenges of all of them are so completely different. For example, when I translate the writings of some anarchist bomb throwers of the late 19th Century, clearly they’re not great stylists. So it’s just a matter of getting the ideas across so they sound well in English. With Bove, the challenge was to not make it sound stilted because his style is so simple and direct. And you also don’t want it to sound impoverished. Because they have fewer words in French than we have in English. And you don’t want to just take the first definition of a word, which is not really what a novelist would be thinking when they write it.

As a translator, your body of work—which includes the collections: Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908–1938 (PM Press, 2015); and A Socialist History of the French Revolution (Pluto Press, 2015), along with countless others— seems to focus extensively on the works of progressive revolutionaries throughout Europe, from as early as the 17th century. Could you comment on these various writers? Who are they, what sort of things are they writing about, and why is it important that we read and study these writings today?

I have a theory about this. I’m notoriously misanthropic. Despite my being on the left, I really don’t like people, and I really don’t like the human race, which is why Raskolnikoff is perfect for me. So I was sitting with a friend, and he says, “You know, I don’t see you as the kind of guy standing on street corners, handing out leaflets or marching in demonstrations or organizing the working class.” I said, “No, I do the translations that inspire other people to do the work that I’m too lazy to do.” What I am is a militant translator. And I told this story to a friend of mine in London. She so loved it that when I saw her again three days later, she handed me 500 business cards that said “Mitchell Abidor: Militant Translator.” And that’s what I am.

Here’s the reason why it’s important that we read all of these writers: when I was growing up as a Leftist, there were all kinds of people I wanted to read but I couldn’t because I couldn’t read any of these other languages. So once I got the ability—I taught myself all these languages—I wanted to first read them myself. And then I figured, if I had always wanted to read writings by these people, there must be other people who wanted to read them and can’t either. And that’s why I do the translations. It’s my way of giving voice to these people who have no voice in English. They’re the ventriloquists and I’m the dummy.

It’s all part of a revolutionary tradition. People know the names of these writers, but they don’t know really anything about them. I’m not a big fan of interpretation. So what I try to do in all of my books is present the raw document. Let the readers make their own decisions. That’s why most all of my books are anthologies. So rather than be a slave of somebody else’s interpretation, I’ll just give you what they said and you decide. Then, if you read the interpretations, you can see if they’re right or not.

Is your translation of A Raskolnikoff meant to supplement these more explicitly political writings or is it meant to be separate from or peripheral to your other work?

That’s a great question. And here’s what it is: it resonates with the other side of me. Somewhere within me is that same miserable wretch that I was at twenty. I’ve never shaken him. And actually all of my favorite writers all speak to that really cynical misanthropic me that’s still within me. That’s what A Raskolnikoff is: it’s me expressing that other side of me that doesn’t believe that politics make any difference, that thinks that people stink. So actually there’s no connection between the two except that the one is the mirror image of the other.

interview by Josh Bovee

Interviews

“I don’t believe in rules or steps”: An Interview with Lavinia Greenlaw

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Lavinia Greenlaw is a celebrated and highly accomplished author, winner of numerous awards in poetry, most recently the Whitbread Poetry Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize, her books include the poetry collection Minsk, The Casual Perfect, and the memoir The Importance of Music to Girls. Her newest, A Double Sorrow, revisits Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and offers a unique extrapolation of those tragic lovers’ actions. Set against the backdrop of the siege of Troy, Troilus is punished by the God of Love and is condemned to suffer an irresolute love for Criseyde, whom resides with the Greeks. When their plans to elope run afoul, Troilus realizes his love for Criseyde is doomed and is later killed in battle.

The poem is as complex as it is beautifully written, all the while using a corrupted form of Chaucer’s seven-line stanza. While remaining loyal to Chaucer’s tale, Greenlaw liberates the original form by providing the inner thoughts and perspectives of four characters: Troilus, Criseyde, Pandarus, and an unnamed narrator. Greenlaw is not restricted by Chaucer’s rime royal stanza form; rather, she moves beyond it to offer her reader a truth that remains unobstructed by the confines of Chaucer’s form. The result is a powerful, new perspective of the tale, one that augments the original in a way that lends itself to understanding the psychological motivations of not merely these two lovers, but of any two lovers.

I spoke with Greenlaw about A Double Sorrow. What follows comes from our email interview as we both sat and wrote the ‘dark-grey walls’ of our writing spaces.

You’ve published five collections of poetry as well as several other works ranging from short stories to novels. Is there a genre you prefer to write in?

I am primarily a poet. It’s where I started and where I end up. The other things come out of writing stuff that doesn’t fit the poetry mould, perhaps. What I mean is I didn’t decide to write a novel. I started writing something that was clearly not a poem and turned out to be fiction. I’m increasingly writing across or between forms and genres, trying to listen to the formal clues given in whatever first arises.

You have an MA in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Art. What pushed you towards writing? 

I have written since I could write—poems, stories, plays. Studying art history was a way of extending my thinking about perception, which is my fundamental preoccupation: the imperative to fix images, to map and measure ourselves and the world. Seventeenth-century northern Europe fascinates me. It was the start of empiricism, the artistic study of the natural world, the use of telescopes and microscopes.

GreenlawLaviniaBookA Double Sorrow is certainly concerned with exploring multiple perspectives. Did your academic study affect the writing of your collection?

My studies have helped me to formulate what it is I write about and to extend my thinking into the historical. A Dutch painter could climb no higher than a church tower but they produced  amazing panoramas from a bird’s-eye point of view as well as intricate studies of insects. There was an unanchoring of vision, a freshening of perception, that really speaks to me as a subject.

What does the corrupted form you chose to write in add to the piece? Why stray away from Chaucer’s form? How did this influence your writing and extrapolation of the original text?

If I had rhymed the stanzas as neatly as Chaucer, they would sound rather bland and unwieldy to the contemporary ear. I needed to bring in some tension and to have them resist expectation so they would have some of Chaucer’s rough edges and friction and the feel of wet paint rather than carved stone. The form and tone I found for A Double Sorrow is heightened, essential and timeless—like dance steps rather than a dance. This seemed apt to me in terms of this being everyone’s story.

Some titles of A Double Sorrow seem to inform the reader of an action occurring in the stanza such as “She Lets Him Sink Softly into Her Heart,” while other titles seem to fit into the poetry as a separate line, like “There is Work to be Done.” Was there some overall design to having the titles perform different jobs?

I just wanted the titles to be active rather than passively descriptive or summative. Their function depended on what I thought the stanza needed. Some required a cue, others a frame, others a sub-title or the casting of a particular light.

Is the poem intended to be read like a story? It is rather fluid, but appears as if it could also be read non-linearly as separate vignettes.

I was hoping it would work as both.

Sometimes in A Double Sorrow you present the reader with an inner thought in the form of parenthetical text, such as (why no child?) in “Slub.” Are those examples of some of the “walls” in your text that the characters are confined by?

That’s an interesting observation. Yes, one kind of wall in this is the wall we build in ourselves—for those questions and answers we need to conceal.

What is it about the enduring appeal of Troilus and Criseyde?

The way it has been tossed from one poet to another down the centuries, always changing and yet also becoming something essential; what it has to say about feeling—that we never feel one thing at a time, and argument—that we have several reasons for doing or saying what we do.

While it appears as though a knowledge of Chaucer’s text would be helpful for a reader, it does not appear to be entirely necessary. Is this an attempt to bring Chaucer to a wider audience?

I just wanted to write a book that anyone could read without needing to have read Chaucer. I kept my lanugage clean and provided the titles and an introduction to give a way in. I would like it to be read as casually and familiarly as any other love story.

Like a novel, the collection seems to gain a large amount of momentum during the climax of the story—does this reflect Chaucer’s retelling/translation, or is it something you did intentionally?

I follow Chaucer, in that everything I say you can find in the original. But I edited him down severely and conflate a hundred lines into seven or three words into several lines. The rhythm and dramatic trajectory are a truncated version of his.

What projects are you currently working on?

Fiction about love in middle age, poems about my father’s death from Alzheimer’s, writing on the problem of seeing and not seeing further. They are deeply interconnected books but I wish they’d arisen one at a time.

Was this collection a singular, focused effort or were you working on other pieces of writing in between?

No, I happily stayed in its world for a few years. It’s a particular delight to enter such a masterpiece rather than just a world you’re building from scratch.

Your website, laviniagreenlaw.org, gave me a very professional biography, but I’d like to know more about you as a person: What inspires you? What’s a typical day of writing entail? Do you have any other interests besides writing? Pets? Family?

I’m inspired by myopia, migraine, weather, absentmindedness, light, sea, sky, photography, architecture, film, music, any thing about to take shape, including an observation, any pattern about to form. A typical day involves waking up, making a pot of tea, and not talking to anyone. There is family and pets—both necessary forms of interruption.

What’s your writing space look like?

A dark-grey wall.

What types of classes do you teach?

At the moment, I’m a visiting professor at King’s College London. I’m teaching seminars in how fiction works. I don’t believe in rules or steps, just natural laws which operate differently every time.

—interview by Rob Stoddard

Interviews

“I’m not a big believer in talent”: An Interview with Rick Bursky

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As far as I can tell, Rick Bursky has done just about everything. No, really. This is a man who has almost as many scuba dives to his name as he does published poems (that would be 190 scuba dives versus 231 published poems, at last count). In case you’re feeling unaccomplished by comparison, don’t worry—he’s only been a national game show contestant five times, and he’s still only produced a single off-Broadway play.

His fourth book of poetry, I’m No Longer Troubled by the Extravagance (Boa Editions 2015), is pensive, haunting, and just a little bit disturbing. It’s funny just when you think there’s no room left for laughter. It questions the dark recesses of human consciousness, and leaves me with a burning desire to find out more about artichokes, as it appears Bursky would have me believe I’ve been underestimating this particular vegetable all along.

Recently, I reached out to Bursky to request an interview. In a brilliant move, I managed to make a typo in my own email address when providing my contact information. Despite this, he still went out of his way to connect with me through the magic of social media, where he was gracious and did not once call me an imbecile. We chatted through email (triple-checked on my part) about his latest book, the myth of natural talent, the nature of Truth, and the mating habits of vegetables.

It seems like you’ve done everything. You’re a poet, a photographer, a director, a producer, a playwright. Is there one specific genre or medium you’ve always dreamed of working in that you haven’t yet touched?

Years ago, I wrote a play, Prayers for the Invisible Men. It was performed in an off-off-Broadway theater. Once was enough for that. And the truth is, it was a poem that really go out of hand. There was also a time, years back, when I thought of writing a screenplay. Hey, I live in Los Angeles. But I came to my senses. Los Angeles doesn’t need another screenwriter.

I sometimes play with the idea of writing creative nonfiction about poetry. I have a manuscript titled Ironmongery. In that book, I explain everything in the world. For instance, I have a short piece about fog. Most people will tell you fog is a cloud touching the ground. But I tell the truth about fog—it’s unresolved poetic thought. Yeah, I better stick to poetry.

I should mention that I do figure drawing as a hobby. One day, I’m going to ask a model to pose for a poem. I have many other hobbies, though not as creative.

BurskyRickBookI love this. It’s about time someone told the truth about fog. This explains why it’s often heaviest early in the mornings—all of that unresolved poetic thought leaking out of our dreams all night long, plus the ideas you have in the middle of the night, but you don’t want to turn the light on, so you let them escape instead of writing them down. My primary genre in my MFA program is poetry, but I recently realized that creative nonfiction is probably the next closest thing to poetry. This surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have.

I always thought the term “creative nonfiction” was a strange term. It should just be “nonfiction.” We don’t have “creative fiction” or “creative poetry.” There’s simply nonfiction, and some is more interesting and better written than others.

With all of these different projects, jobs, and types of creative work that you’ve done, do you consider yourself to be a poet, first and foremost? If so, has that always been the case?

I am, first and foremost, a poet. Love to read it. Love to write it. I don’t want to take time away from that; everything else is simply a distraction. Before I became a poet, I was a photographer and thought of myself as a poet who never wrote. Instead of writing poems, I photographed them. When I started writing poetry, I just about stopped taking photos. But I began to think of myself as a photographer too lazy to go out and photograph things, so instead I wrote my photographs as poems.

Your website says you’ve read 876 books. How certain are you on that number?

That number is out of date. It should be larger. I like to read. I just bought another biography of George Custer and I can’t wait to start it. Though I’m really loving Dean Young’s new book right now.

I started tracking every book I read about a year ago, when I (belatedly) discovered there are now websites that make that sort of thing super easy. If you tell me you’ve somehow been tracking this since the first book you read as a child, I will both not entirely believe you, I’d be incredibly envious of you.

No, I didn’t start counting the number of books when I learned to read, though I wish I did. Here’s how I got that number: I read about two book each month when I was in the army, for a total of 96 books. I also had an estimate from college and my MFA program. Then I estimated 20 books a year of general reading, mostly fiction and history; lately, more history. You can guess how old I am. Oh, that number doesn’t include books of poetry, which tend to be about 80 or 90 pages.

You have 98 fountain pens. Is that all at once, or over the course of your lifetime of fountain pen ownership?

I have gotten rid of, lost, and given away fountain pens over the years. I think I have 103 fountain pens right now. They are the instrument of choice when it comes to writing poems. I don’t like to write fast and the fountain pen slows me down. I write everything longhand in a notebook. I later type my poems into the computer. Sometimes I write the same line over and over again and enjoy watching the ink dry. It gives me a chance to think about the line. I currently love stub nibs, but that changes. Sometimes I’m into super-flex. A fountain pen, cigar, and glass of good wine (or bourbon)—now that’s the way to write a poem.

The next best thing to writing with a fountain pen would be to write with a manual typewriter. While I love my Apple, computers have no souls.

You’ve taught writing for years. What has been the hardest thing to teach students about writing, and about being writers?

I’ve taught copywriting for years, both at Art Center College of Design and at USC. The first thing I try to do is dispel the idea of talent. Copywriting, writing, even poetry, is something that is learned. You study it. You read it. You write it. You learn it. I’m not a big believer in talent. I believe in passion and hard work.

I imagine it could get tricky to dispel the idea of talent, particularly where larger egos are concerned. Do you ever have people fight you on that?

Yes, many people believe in talent and want to argue the point. But they are wrong. We all come into the world the same. Obviously, no one is going to teach you how to be a great poet or a great painter, but you could be taught the craft. How passionate you are, how hard you work at it will make the difference. The primary job of a writing teacher is to inspire. Oh, there are some rules to point out, but the job is about inspiration. Students teach themselves. If we’re lucky, we’re along for the ride.

You said that same thing in a video for a series that offers advice on different aspects of writing—poetry is the art of language, and poems don’t need to have a narrative. Along those same lines, your new book is described as “a stage for language to do the unexpected.” But there’s a lot of heavy subject matter in these poems—death, fear, pervasive heartbreak—and lots of brief glimpses of people dealing with these things. Would you say that the language is still the most important part of this particular book, or do the stories of people, like the woman who winds up dating the person she tries to rob at gunpoint (“The Intimacies”), outweigh the art of language as the most important part?

The toughest specific thing about teaching poetry is that poetry is the art of language. Telling a story is the art of fiction. The two are different. If you have stories to tell, you should be writing fiction.

With that said, yes, you can tell stories in poetry. Homer did a pretty good job of that. But the story isn’t the point. Of course, we have to do something with the language in our poems. Words mean something, so a narrative often emerges in a poem.

When Monet started painting haystacks, I suspect it wasn’t out of a newly found love for haystacks. He was using them as a shill for exploring light, weather, atmosphere and perspective—painting. So in my poems, things like love, shoelaces, clouds, etc., are shills for language. I don’t start with a subject. I just start to write. How’s the old cliché go? God gives us the first line and we sweat for the rest.

I guess I write surrealist love poems. But the truth is, I’m an Eastern European Duendest. So I’m obligated to have death and strange stuff in my poems. The poet can’t escape who he or she is; something of us is going to manifest itself in the language. For the sake of conversation, let’s call that narrative. But that’s not the point. I write my poems one line at a time. I write one line, and try to think of something interesting that might follow that line. If I can’t think of anything, I sometimes go to the dictionary and find a word that I haven’t used in a while, or ever, and make that the star of the next line—and the poem gets built, written, step by step, line by line.

It seems like your poems as a whole, not just the new book, tend to be set on a background of death. It’s accurate to say death is one of the big themes in all of your books. I know you have a number of years in the military in your past, but the death in your poems usually seems much more generalized—not something that could be categorized as “war poems.” Do you consider this to be related?

No, my poems are not war poems, or related to my time in the army—though my army years shaped me quite a bit. I really liked being in the army and I’m still great friends with guys I served with. Of course, there are a couple of army poems in the books.

Someone once said there are only two things to write about: love and death—and love is simply the way we negotiate with death. I don’t choose my subject matter; it chooses me. When I try to control my subject matter too much, it turns into something else; what you would call creative nonfiction, or a play. Writing is the journey the poem takes the poet on. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

I never meant for the poems to be related, but there’s no avoiding it. All the poems are related to the poet. Perhaps we could say that people have themes, or people are themes?

You said in a recent interview that you like to make up facts and include them in your poems, and then people often believe them without checking to see if they’re true. Has there ever been a time you decided to leave out one of these “facts” because it was just too unbelievable? Is there even such a thing as too unbelievable?

Nothing is too unbelievable.

People are too caught up with truth. We’re not writing non-fiction, we’re not writing memoirs, or even fiction; we’re writing poetry. It exists in a gray area. I like the fact that people expect poems to be true. It gives poets tremendous power.

But since we’re on the subject, let me say, for the record, that everything in my poems is true. There are two types of truth. The first deals with the facts of a situation, what happened, etc. The second truth is the emotional truth. Why did it happen? What did it feel like? The emotional truth is the more honest truth. There are three sides to every story: what you said happened, what I said happened, and what really happened.  Language is honest, even when it lies.

I’m glad we settled the truth issue.

Me, too. What’s the most unbelievable thing you’ve written about that was true as far as the first type of truth is concerned—the “facts of the situation/what really happened” type of truth?

I was attacked by vampire bats while walking through some hills in Italy at night. I fought them off with an M-16—went through an entire magazine in the fight. I came close to becoming the living dead, condemned to walk the earth for eternity. The army and the Italian police didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation.  It was a harrowing experience. It’s the basis for part of the poem, “Death Obscura.”

Also, while walking through the woods in Germany, I was attacked by a rabbit. It leapt at me, bit into my left hand—it was a bloody mess. Had to get stitches. Fortunately, we were able to catch the rabbit. Cut its head off and sent it to a lab to check for rabies, which it didn’t have. It was just mean. I’ve never written about that. One day I will.

Why are artichokes the only vegetable that mates for life (“Rituals”)? I’ve dropped that delightful tidbit into a few random conversations since reading it. Mostly, people give some sort of vague confirmation and then change the subject.

I have no idea why that is. I guess I could look it up. By the way, I was disappointed to learn that strawberries are not in the least bit monogamous. They look so faithful!

Perhaps it has something to do with artichokes having hearts. Are they the only ones with hearts? Regardless, it remains a mystery. 

When I read Extravagance, I didn’t get the impression of a unifying setting that runs between poems, and many of the poems feel as if the speaker doesn’t have to be the same person from one to the next. This gives a sense of universality—the speaker could just as easily be my next-door neighbor, my brother, myself. But that makes me wonder how you decided that these particular poems go together in this particular book. What makes them a book in your mind, and not just a bunch of poems?

Your next-door neighbor, your brother and even you are all speakers in the poem. You don’t just read the poem; you experience it and become it. Poems should be universal. Great writing should bring a poem to life, and great language moves a poem into art. Not that I’ve accomplished great anything at this point, but there’s always tomorrow.

I don’t recall how I arrived at the order. I think I ordered them by voice, or something like that. Of course, I had lots of help from the people at BOA, and not just with order; some keen editorial comments as well.

I group the poems in Extravagance in three categories: surrealist love poem (I’m a romantic at heart); short, flat-footed surreal something-or-other; and the semi-journalistic, fact-based prose poem. I think everything in the book falls into one of those camps. If you find a fourth category in the book, please name it and let me know. The next time someone asks, I’ll say I group everything in four categories.

—interview by Allison Paster-Torres

 

Interviews

Poetry of Place and Making a Place for Poetry: An Interview with Matthew Thorburn

ThorburnMatthewPhotoMatthew Thorburn’s A Green River in Spring is the winner of the 2014 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize. Inspired by various classical Japanese and Chinese poets, such as Wang Wei, many of the poems offer beautiful descriptions of nature: “The birds wing their way south. They take/ the sky with them, each black scrap” (from “Birds Before Winter”). Staying rooted in the natural world, Thorburn weaves images of Chinese landscapes together with fantastical scenes, such as Taoists either becoming cranes or riding them to heaven. The author of three full-length books of poetry—This Time Tomorrow, Every Possible Blue and Subject to Change—as well as another chapbook, Disappears in the Rain, Thorburn is particularly influenced by travel—especially to Japan, China, and Iceland. He is currently at work on a book-length poem, Dear Almost, which will be published later this year. In April 2014, he started a series of author interviews called What Are You Reading? on his website. Starting in December 2014, those interviews have been regularly featured on the Ploughshares blog. When Thorburn isn’t writing, he works as a communications manager at an international law firm. He resides in New York City with his wife and son.

Thorburn and I exchanged questions over email and covered topics as diverse as what it’s like working on a collaborative poem, making time for writing, and the importance of place in poetry.

So much of your poetry seems connected to specific places. While this book seems to be rooted in China, it seems like Japan and Iceland are also important places to you. I read in an article from The Riverdale Press that a poetry project your high school class took part in with a class from Japan was an important experience for you as a poet. What inspires you to set your poetry in such different landscapes? What is it about these countries that appeals to you?

I appreciate you noticing that. You’re right: a sense of place is very important to me, as both a writer and a reader. I like to feel grounded, to know where things are happening in a poem. That’s something I’m drawn to in the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney, two of my favorites—the feeling that the emotions and events of these poems are occurring in very particular places and times. In my case, China, Iceland and Japan are three places I’ve been fortunate to get to visit—and places that I just kept thinking about after I’d come home. The poems in my most recent book, This Time Tomorrow, all take place in those three countries—and my next book, a long poem called Dear Almost that will be published later this year, returns to Japan as well.

Writing about these places is a way of getting to go back to revisit them in my memory and imagination. I guess I’m fascinated by the differences between places, whether it’s the landscape or (even more interesting to me) the culture: how people do things or what they call things in one place versus another, how something can have very different meanings in different cultures—the way white is the color of bridal dresses in the U.S., for instance, but is associated with death in China.

ThorburnMatthewBookThe acknowledgements section of A Green River in Spring credits the ideas for some of these poems to reading classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Who are some of the poets that have influenced you the most? What are some of your favorite translations and what do you think makes one translation better than another?

I’m strictly an amateur when it comes to reading Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation, since I don’t know either language, so for me the best translation is simply one that’s a compelling poem in English. I first read the Essential Haiku anthology, edited by Robert Hass, as a college student, and it’s still one of my favorite books. I love those versions of poems by Basho, Buson and Issa—their immediacy and specificity, the tenderness and humor, their attention to the changes in the seasons, and the way those poems just keep echoing outward after you read them. All those qualities keep me coming back to these poems, and are things I try to emulate in my own writing. More recently, I happily spent many hours working my way through David Hinton’s massive anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry, reading his versions of favorites of mine like Wang Wei, as well as “discovering” many wonderful poets who were new to me, like Meng Hao-jan.

Did you start reading Chinese and Japanese poems in translation before going abroad for the first time? Has visiting these places changed how you visualize and understand the poems at all?

Yes I did, but no it hasn’t. I think the first Chinese poem in translation I ever read was probably Pound’s version of “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” That was in high school. (If you’re interested, I talked about that reading experience in this essay on classical Chinese poetry.) I later learned that is not actually a very good translation, if you define “translation” at all strictly, but as a poem in English it got me hooked. The very limited time I’ve had the chance to spend in Japan and China didn’t really change my relationship with those classical poems—though it made me more interested in reading contemporary writing from or about these two countries.

I found your recurring themes of winter, snow, and whiteness, such as “Color of death,/ forgetting, of snow drifting down like sheets that cover each/ table and chair” from “Before the First Black Horse,” to be incredibly striking. I also noticed, to a lesser extent, that singing seems to be a subtler recurring theme in A Green River in Spring. In “Before the First Black Horse,” both the speaker and Lao Wen sing, and the reader is advised not to come back in their next life as a stork, since storks cannot sing. Although there’s no singing in it, you have a poem called “Song” in which the speaker requests a piano be rolled out. What was it that inspired you to include these references to song and singing? What connection do you see between singing and poetry?

I appreciate you noticing these things. I think it’s natural for me to write about singing and songs because I’m always interested in how my words and lines sound, and I try to play with all the ways phrasing and punctuation and line breaks can work together to create a certain rhythm and give a poem a song-like quality. For years, I did almost all my revising out loud—and sometimes drafted poems aloud, using a digital recorder—though lately I do much of my revising on my subway commute to and from work, or during my lunch hour, which makes it harder to do this without seeming like a crazy person.

Do you feel like editing while on the subway or during your lunch break makes the editing process more difficult or stifles it in any way?

Well, it means working in shorter bursts of time, but as I get older I tend to think I work better when time is limited. It helps me focus in a useful way. As I mentioned above, though, working in these situations also means not revising out loud—or at least revising out loud very quietly to myself. I guess if you really want to write, then you find a time and place when you can write. Mine don’t seem ideal, I know, though it’s a nice feeling to walk down Park Avenue and pass the plaza where I often sat over the past couple of years, writing and rewriting Dear Almost.

Who or what inspired you to include the character Lao Wen in A Green River in Spring? Can you tell me a bit about him?

Lao Wen is an old crazy-wise poet figure I made up. (“Lao” means old in Mandarin.) As I was working on some of these poems, I sometimes felt that a particular thought should be voiced by someone other than the speaker—that it would be interesting (to me, at least) to have this sense of overhearing part of a conversation in some of the poems. And as I was figuring out the shape and sequence of this chapbook manuscript, I realized that having him appear in several of the poems was also a way to help tie the poems together and reinforce the sense that they’re all happening in the same (imagined) time and place. Lao Wen also makes a brief appearance in Dear Almost, which quotes two of his poems.

The tagline of your website is “Mostly poems, a little prose …” I notice all of your published books are poetry, so that seems to be your favorite form. What draws you to one form over the other? Do you have any plans for any works of prose, such as a collection of essays, memoir, or novel?

Yes, poetry is my bread and butter. The little bit of prose I write is mostly in service of poetry: book reviews and the occasional essay to help spread the word about books I’ve enjoyed and think more people ought to read. I’ve contributed reviews to Pleiades for a few years now, and more recently I’ve been putting together monthly interviews for the Ploughshares blog, which give me another way to tell people about writers and books I’ve enjoyed reading.

My next book, Dear Almost, is a book-length poem that takes place over the course of a year, from one spring to the next. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to writing a novel.

You’ve published both full-length poetry books and chapbooks. How and when do you know whether what you’re working on will end up as a chapbook or full-length book of poetry?

My previous chapbook, Disappears in the Rain, was a single long poem, so A Green River in Spring is really the first time I’ve worked with a chapbook-length selection of poems, rather than a book manuscript. In fact, I originally approached these poems as one section of a book manuscript I was trying to assemble, but then decided they made more sense as their own smaller stand-alone manuscript. That’s partly because I drafted about half of them in a period of a few weeks—my last burst of new writing before my son was born.

Once I put this one together, though, I realized how much I like this format—thinking in this smaller, tighter frame of 10 or 20 poems. I like that brief, concentrated focus; the chapbook form seems fleeter, compared to the long journey of a book. I also really admire the beautiful small press production of so many of the chapbooks I read these days. In our digital world, I love that so many chapbooks are these wonderful handmade artifacts.

You went to The New School in New York after attending University of Michigan for your undergraduate studies. What drew you to The New School for your MFA? How did your time there affect your writing?

What drew me to The New School most of all is that it’s located in New York City. Thylias Moss, one of my teachers at Michigan, advised me to apply to MFA programs in places where I knew I would want to live—so that, however good or bad the MFA turned out, I would at least be in a place I liked. And more than 15 years later, I’m still right here in New York.

While at The New School, I had the chance to study with Jason Shinder, David Trinidad, David Lehman and the amazing Laurie Sheck—all wonderful teachers. I remember going to so many readings, and reading lots of books of poems—really just taking it all in during those two years, and for years after. In some ways I’m still realizing just how much I learned during that time. I think it can be harder to create a lasting sense of community when you go to an MFA program in a big city, since everyone—the teachers especially, but also the students—has a lot of other commitments and things going on beyond the MFA program, but I was lucky to make some lasting friendships there as well.

You wrote a collaborative poem with Amanda Deutch. What was the writing process like? How did it differ from your typical writing process?

Yes, Amanda and I wrote a poem together last year as part of the festivities for the Center for Book Arts’ 40th anniversary. Sharon Dolin, who directs the Center’s poetry programs, invited all of the poets who had curated readings there over the years to join in writing collaborative poems to mark the occasion, which we’d read at a series of events during the year. We were paired up, for the most part with someone we didn’t know, and turned loose to write our poems.

This was a little nerve-wracking at first. I’d really never written a poem with someone else before, had never met Amanda, and we only had a couple months to finish our poem. Plus our poem would be produced as a letterpress broadside and we had to read it to an audience—so it better be good! But when offered an opportunity like this, you should never say no. And in fact it was fun—due more than anything to the fact that Amanda was a wonderful person to collaborate with.

We met once to talk over coffee, then went to one of the first readings in the series, so we could hear how two other pairs of poets—Marcella Durand and Rachel Levitsky, and Thomas Sayers Ellis and Rodrigo Toscano—approached this challenge. After that, we wrote the poem over email. We each came up with some lines, then traded and added new lines between the original lines. Actually, we wrote several poems this way, then chose our favorite for the broadside.

You have a son and work as a communications manager for an international law firm. How do you make the time to write?

I remember the poet and translator Jonathan Mayhew once said he wouldn’t want to do a residency at a writers’ retreat because he felt poems should be written in “stolen time”—time when you’re supposed to be doing something else. That has always resonated with me, though I guess I tend to operate more in what I’d call “in-between time”: my train ride between home and work, for example, or my lunch hour between mornings and afternoons at the office. A poem is eminently portable, usually just a sheet or two of paper, and once I have something started I often carry a copy of the latest draft folded up in my pocket (and will have at least some of its lines percolating in the back of my mind)—or keep a print-out of a book manuscript, if I’m in that part of the process, always in my briefcase.

More recently, I’ve done some drafting and revising during the first hour of my day, when my wife has already headed off to work and my son is still asleep. That dark, quiet time—say, six to seven a.m.—can be the very best hour to write, if you can manage it. After that, whatever else may happen in your day, good or bad, you’ve already accomplished something meaningful.

Speaking of in-between time, I also find trains are actually great places to work. I’m a huge fan of Amtrak’s quiet car and my fellow passengers who so vigilantly preserve that quiet. I did my final read-through of the galleys of my second book, Every Possible Blue, one morning on the train from New York to Boston. More recently, I worked through edits on Dear Almost during a train ride home from Washington, D.C. I sometimes daydream about taking a day off just to ride the train to Boston and back, so I could work on poems for eight hours, with a break in the middle for lunch at Umbria Prime!

Since you run an interview series on Emerson’s Ploughshares blog called “What Are You Reading?,” I naturally want to ask––what are you reading?

I tend to spend much of my reading time keeping up with my magazine and journal subscriptions, but lately I’ve been enjoying some terrific novels. I recently read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and just this morning finished Susan Barker’s The Incarnations. Both are captivating, moving books. I was especially sorry to see Barker’s book end. It’s a vivid, whirlwind tour through China’s history and a page-turner mystery all in one. On the poetry side, those Ploughshares interviews make a good checklist of some of my favorite reading from the past year. And up next I’m reading an anthology of flash fiction I signed on to review for a journal.

—interview by Jessie Serfilipi