Interview with David Biespiel
David Biespiel is widely recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation, a liberal commentator on national politics, and an expert in teaching writing. He currently divides his teaching among three universities: in the fall as the Visiting Poet at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the spring as an Adjunct Professor at Oregon State University, and n the summer on the faculty of the low-residency M.F.A. Program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.
In 1999, looking to create an independent writing studio, Biespiel founded the Attic in Portland, Oregon’s historic Hawthorne district.
His publications include Shattering Air, Pilgrims & Beggars, Wild Civility, and most recently, The Book of Men and Women, which was among the Poetry Foundation’s selections of top poetry of 2009. In addition, he has been honored with a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, a Lannan Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature.
We met recently to discuss his latest collection, his method, and a little baseball for good measure.
DJ: You mentioned at a reading that the first half of the book was based off the Old Testament, or that the Bible informed some of the writing?
DB: Some poems in the book are riffs on Old Testament verses. The poem that introduces the book, “Evening Watch,” sets the tone for the agitation. The first poem of the book is “Genesis 12.” The word I use is “covering.” I “cover” Genesis: 12, the way a band on the corner covers “House of the Rising Sun.” There’s also one on Genesis: 27.
DJ: There are a few that feel like they’re from that same historical period, or at least feel tied to an older world. The poem, “The Husband’s Tale,” for instance.
DB: Yes. That’s a play on Chaucer.
DJ: What is it like to “cover” something like Genesis?
DB: With “Genesis 12,” I was trying to write my own version and interpretive dramatization of the chapter. There’s another poem later that fits the same category, “Old Adam Outside the Wall of Eden.”
The Biblical Genesis: 12 is the point where Abraham leaves his homeland and heads to Canaan. It’s a transitional chapter. If he doesn’t leave Ur, or wherever, and go to Canaan, a lot of things don’t happen. He’s a fanatic, and his leaving is tied to his fanaticism.
My take on fanatics is, they’re so far around the bend in their fanaticism, that they come right around to the edge of doubt. If you could flip them, you could flip them easily, and they would not know what they’re doing. People who come out of fanaticism are often like, “Wow, it was like a bad dream.” Or an addiction.
I wanted to tell the story from this awareness. The poem ends with the sentence, “I’m certain I’ve lost my mind.” Of course that’s what the fanatic has done: he’s lost his old mind to take on a new mind.
It’s trying to look at Abraham as a prophet, but one who’s just not sure. It’s just not that pleasurable for him.
DJ: Was it something about the crucial aspect of that chapter that attracted you to it or was it more casual than that?
DB: The poem doesn’t address that larger, transitional moment in Biblical history, or whether it’s even factual. It addresses the emotional state. That’s what’s interesting to me. Being both lost and found — and that’s not a Jewish tradition, per se. It’s a more Evangelical tradition.
Abraham knows what he’s doing, but he also knows that by doing it, he’s wandering. It initiates this type of wandering motif throughout the book.
DJ: Your book?
DJ: Because the Bible has something of a wandering motif as well.
DB: Which has been misplayed through the centuries.
The book begins in the scorching desert with the certainty of being lost. It’s a paradox. I’ve tried to give a contemporary take on the whole tale.
DJ: Do you think someone needs to be knowledgeable of this particular chapter to appreciate the poem? There’s a lot at stake in doing that.
DB: It’s written under the assumption that you’ve googled “Genesis 12.”
DJ: A spot that really jumps out is at the end of the second line, “I settled in and slept like a seed.” What does it mean to sleep like a seed?
DB: I pinched language from Genesis: 12 to create something of a foundation of diction for the poem. I think “seed” is a word that shows up in the King James version. For me, that word is resonant because Abraham plants the seed for the Jews, and the covenant he makes with Yahweh is, “Go here and I will make a great nation out of your seed.” This is the post-covenant chapter. That’s where the word “seed” comes from in the poem.
DJ: There’s also the notion that a seed knows, in its own way, what it will become. The information’s imbedded in the seed. You can literally envision a seed in the ground. The story of that seed is already in the kernel.
Overall, the language in the book is at times evocative, and at times elusive. Coming from these two places, what are you going for? You seem to be asking the reader to dig a little.
DB: My way of making poems begins with words . . . literally creating a word palette. This is especially true in the first two-thirds of this book, except for a poem here and there. To go off your word “evocative,” I might create a different framework for it, which is “expressionistic,” or “impressionistic,” as opposed to “representational.”
I’m willing to go with a lot of color, a lot of drip — Jackson Pollockish — a lot of texture, excess and exuberance, even if it gives up a little in the narrative, or you have to find the narrative inside the texture.
I try to accentuate the dramatic voice. To me, these poems really feel like spoken, staged monologues. A lot of them are flat-out dramatic monologues, such as “Genesis 12.”
I conceived them as more Kandinsky-esc, rather than Norman Rockwell-esc.
DJ: A reader has to get through the texture first to arrive at the narrative.
DB: Yes. And I think once you get the last part of the book, it’s a matter of weights and measures. Let’s stay with “Genesis 12.” You asked, “Do you have to know Genesis?” Yes. You’ve got to know the narrative to access the monologue. But later on in the book, the narrative becomes more overt, and you don’t need to have any other apparatus to follow the poems.
DJ: I’ve read very few poetry books from cover to cover, starting with the first poem and continuing through to the last. Your book seems to call out for a reader to do so. I’m not sure if this is from how you structured the book, or that I simply found a narrative . . .
DB: What did you see the narrative as?
DJ: There’s a steamroll to it that kept calling me back. Like a snowball gaining speed on a downhill. Was this a conscious thing?
DB: The book begins in that sort of scorching desert. The representation for that is the prophet Abraham. But the poems in the first section are also self-portraits, in a way, ones in which my face doesn’t appear. Emblematic self-portraits. I’m not sure they’re symbolic — I think that might require too much strategizing — but they’re definitely emblematic.
Then the second-half expands into a larger historical context for this consciousness . . . the anxiety and pressure of being lost. There’s a bit of self-laceration thrown in. It’s a post-September 11th world in the second section.
The third section turns back, starting with the poem “Bad Marriages,” at the end of part two, to the relationship things being hinted at in the beginning.
By the end of the book, it’s all about relationships. It ends with a couple sitting on a porch, not in the scorching sunlight, but just a mild sun. They’re warmed by it, instead of turning to madness. It’s a large arc that exists in a context. At the reading you mentioned earlier, I started with a couple of political poems. These were all written with our current air hovering over.
DJ: They don’t stretch back earlier than 2002?
DB: That’s about right. “Old Adam” is one of the oldest poems in the collection, and next to it, “Overcast” is another old one.
DJ: In “The Husband’s Tale,” returning to your mention of these being emblematic, are you the husband?
DB: I could be the husband. But again, it’s an emblem. I’m the conduit. When you write dramatic monologues, it’s hard to know which mask goes on whom.
Say you write a dramatic monologue in the voice of the husband. Is the husband holding the mask of the self, or the self holding the mask of the husband? I don’t know the answer to that. That’s depth psychology right there. But it is a veiling.
In Wild Civility, I wrote some poems in the voice of poets . . . William Stafford, Robinson Jeffers, Xerxes. Xerxes is a warrior. I’m not a warrior. If I could speak like a warrior, or if Xerxes could speak through me as a conduit, what would he say? So if the husband can tell his tale through me as the facilitator for the husband to speak, at that point, by my reckoning, that’s what he would say.
DJ: Do you go looking for poems? Did you come looking for Xerxes?
DB: It usually comes out of the word palettes I mentioned earlier.
DJ: Tell me more about them.
DB: I should show you this book I’m writing. It’s my method — I call it the Attic method, since it happens here.
So, let’s say I need to start working on something. I start writing down words. They might be words in my view, they might be words I’ve run into. And I begin thinking, “I’m going to start collecting some words.” Words, phrases, pieces of writing, snap things, etc.
Just to do one in the room here, I might do “lampshade,” “Eskimo,” “tundra,” “little cowboy,” “windowsill,” “interview.” And I’ll just put them in a list. There’s nothing special about it. And from there I’ll just start making associations. I tend to do it by sound.
With “Eskimo,” I might do, “skidoo,” “snow cone,” “moccasin,” “sycamore.” I’ll get anagrammatic, or perhaps echo-grammatical is a better word for it.
Also, I love proverbs. I’m always looking for them. I might hear some scrap of old stuff or something obscure. “Kills bugs dead.” That sort of thing. So I’ll put that on a list.
DJ: Do you know who wrote that?
DB: Kenneth Koch.
DJ: I thought it was Lew Welch.
DB: Was it Lew Welch? I think it was Kenneth Koch.
DJ: I think Welch wrote it.
DB: You might be right. I think it was Kenneth Koch. Who knows why it popped in my head, but “Kills bugs dead,” would go with “eskimo.” It has the echo thing.
Then I just put them on a line and begin making these things. From this I’ll develop a title. I might have “carcass,” and out of that I might have gotten to “Xerxes.” It’s an associative thing.
DJ: So “Xerxes” would have come from a different word?
DB: Oh yeah. It’s the echoing.
DJ: It’s this process of riffing. Like a palette.
DB: Sort of like a palette. Or like tuning up, or stretching before you work out. When I go to compose, I have a title, and I have these words that have begun to well up. Or perhaps an experience might have happened.
My latest poems are in the form of letters. I want to write one to a friend about his mother dying. I already wrote one to him that anticipates his mother dying. I wrote it about a year ago. This is a companion piece. So now I’m starting to think about language that associates — where he’s from, things others may not know about him. It all starts with words.
Right now he looks sort of Hemingway-esc. So “Hemingway” is on the list. He has a little place on the Yucatan, so some of that language is there. Then I associate. “Hemingway,” “whale hunter,” “hawk eye,” and so on. I’m just making this stuff up as we talk. Then I try to find combinations that this voice would say. Once I start getting a riff, I begin to cross-reference. I don’t have to use all the words, nor do I try to. Instead, I try to write myself into a place where new words arrive. That’s when I discover what it all is. Then I make my draft, which usually comes very fast.
I just did an interview, and the girl asked, “Does a poem ever just come on you and you have to sit down and write it?” And I said, “No, I don’t work that way anymore. I start building it from a list.”
Think of an architect. If a building idea comes on to them, they don’t run out and start building it. They plan it out.
I get to live with the emotion longer. As I begin developing it, I also develop the emotion. By the time I start to compose, a draft will come really quickly. It’s different than how I used to work, and different than how a lot of people work, which is to sit down and start, “On the bus today…” You kind of chicken scratch it out until you find the thing, then you start editing, drafting and revising.
DJ: You’re building from the other way around.
DB: Totally from the other way around. I’ll try to nail it.
DJ: Your first drafts are often close?
DB: Yeah. Or if I don’t like it after a few weeks or months, I have my list. I just go back and make something else out of it.
I call them versions. I might make multiple versions out of a single list. And I don’t care which one I decide to keep. There are no consequences to which one matters or doesn’t matter. My parents won’t come out of the sky and judge me if I don’t have version or the other (laughter). I won’t explode.
In my method, I’m not just working on one draft. They’re multiple drafts and multiple lists. I might take the words I didn’t use and use them for something else.
When I’m really working, then I’m building all the time. It begins with language, but the language comes right into me and my experiences. And I have to have a title first. I need to know who’s speaking.
DJ: And the title comes from the list?
DB: At some point I’ll commit. I’ll go, “I can do it out of this voice or that consciousness.”
I was more slavish to this in Wild Civility. Almost all of those are one-word titles, except for the ones that are people. I would pick a word, “mushrooms,” for instance, and speak from the experience of taking hallucinogens.
DJ: And “The Attic Method,” as you call it, is a book in process?
DB: I’m almost done. The draft of it is called, The Writer Has a Thousand Faces. It’s really about how I write, or, more precisely, how I avoid writing. With this method, I’m not writing anything. I’m living with the language as a way to figure out what I might discover.
I have full faith that whatever someone writes down on paper, as soon as you begin to draft and revise it, the doors and windows of perception begin opening and shutting faster than you can perceive them. The writing, then, begins steering you in a direction.
Revision is about trying going back where you can get other thresholds to open and close. Almost like, “Oh, I’m trying to say this,” or, “I missed that exit two miles back. I want to go there.”
DJ: In talking about how you used to write vs. how you write now, you mentioned that now you get to live with the experience longer.
DB: Yes, before I make a first draft.
DJ: Taking this architectural idea, do you think that the desire to run and write down an idea the moment it happens comes from fear of losing the idea? And perhaps overtime you’ve grown patient and gained the awareness that there is no fear of losing it?
DB: I can accept that interpretation. I also believe . . . have you ever seen the movie called, The Gumball Rally? It’s about a cross-country race. The scene I remember — and this may be my own version of the scene at this point — the two Italian guys get in the car, the young Italian who’s super excited to do the cross-country race, and the old aging veteran. The young guy has modeled his whole look after the old guy. They’re about to drive out of the lot when the old guy reaches up to the rearview mirror and snaps it off. The young guy looks and asks, “Why did you do that?” And the old guy says, “What’s behind us is in the past.”
I don’t worry about what gets lost. Once you start going, you find things anyway. For me, what insists on being retained is going to continue to insist. I don’t keep journals . . . for starters, I don’t have the organizational capacity to do so. If something doesn’t want to stick around, you fill up with a new thing.
DJ: Do you keep your lists?
DB: I’ve not been very good at keeping them. I just threw a ton away. But I have a few around, and I’m going to reproduce some for the book.
DJ: How do you envision the book?
DB: I see it as very slender, probably Letter to Young Poet size. I think the manuscript right now is about 50-60 pages.
I had started a similar book earlier. It was more of a, “Here’s the mindset you need to have as a writer,” sort of thing. I lost interest. It was exciting for a while, but it just stopped yielding. You know a thing is done when it stops yielding the same excitement it once did for the person who’s creating it.
Then I gave a talk on this method, and it was really well received. Do you follow baseball?
DJ: I was a pitcher in college.
DB: My talk was like Pujols’ home run off Brad Lidge. The one that’s still flying around up there from the Astros-Cardinals series. The speech was like that — I got a pitch to hit.
And I don’t know why they pitched to Pujols in that situation. Do you remember this?
DJ: It was 3-2 in the series, right? Houston won the series anyway.
DB: It was phenomenal. I was watching it with my son. We were both saying, “Why are you pitching to this guy?” We were pulling for Houston. Who pitches to Albert Pujols in the ninth inning with two runners on and a one-run lead?
DJ: He tanked for a couple of years after that. It took him a while to come back from that.
DB: The funniest part of it was, they had a shot of Andy Pettite in the dugout, and you can see his mouth go, “Oh My God!” It was a rocket.
DJ: How did we get onto baseball?
DB: I gave a craft talk about my method, and even the prose writers came up to me afterwards and said, “That makes so much sense, I’ve never thought about it this way.” For me, it was a light bulb flipping on.
Last month, I got a long letter from someone on how the talk affected him to the point where he changed everything in his novel, and then his novel got accepted.
I went back, reframed the book I’d started and made the lecture the core of it. I pinched a few things from the other manuscript to flesh it out. There are still some parts to fill in.
One thing that’s missing in the book is that I don’t really address other genres clearly. I’m going to circulate it to other people and ask them what comes to mind for their genres. Fiction, non-fiction, so on. Right now it’s written as, “You do this with poems, you do that with poems.” I want it to be a bit broader.
DJ: Otherwise it would be called The Poet has a Thousand Faces.
DB: That’s what everyone already believes.
An excerpt of our conversation previously appeared on Read Write Poem.