Our ongoing Interview Series gives poets and writers a forum to speak about their work, process, approach to craft, and anything that may or may not fall under the subject of "the writer's obligation." Interviews are posted on a weekly or biweekly basis, and we are always seeking new writers with whom to speak. Send a note if you or a colleague may be interested in an interview.
I first spoke with Todd Boss during the spring/summer of 2010, around the time his first full-length collection, YELLOWROCKET (2008, Norton) was about to come out in paperback. Previously, I’d come upon an article he’d written in Poets & Writers (“The Audio Revolution: How to Amplify Your Poems,” Sept/Oct 2009) where Todd shared his thoughts on poetry as a spoken/auditory experience. (Unfortunately, this article is no longer available online, or else I’d link to it here.)
I enjoyed the humor and musicality Todd infused into his work, in addition to his thoughts on the spoken aspect of poetry, not to mention his willingness to self-promote and live life as a “working poet.” Needless to say, I was stoked to talk with him. And, for any number of reasons, his interview fell into a hole I’ve come to refer to as “the lost interview series”, and took two years to make it to the site. BUT – it’s here, and I’m grateful to be sharing Todd’s words below.
Special thanks to friend and fellow poet Mirand Parker for her excellent transcription work.
DJ: I’d like to ask you about the idea of “being available” as a poet and as a professional, and what it all means to you. Just from what I found on the web, you’re definitely taking a very open and different approach than what I see a lot of professional poets take. What does it mean for you to be “out there?”
TB: That’s a really good question. I think it has multiple components. I think part of it is not being risk adverse, being what the opposite of risk adverse is—risk available?
One time I had a lousy job on the fourth floor of an office building. Everyday I’d go by the third floor and look out to this cool looking office through the window glass where people were having fun. I liked the atmosphere of the place, which was called something or other Communications. I was like, “Well, I can communicate, so maybe that’s the place for me.”
One day they were out to lunch and I slipped my resume under the door. It happened to be at the same moment when they were taking a co-worker out for a farewell lunch. I was putting myself out there. I was taking a risk. I wasn’t waiting for the job to be posted. I was saying this looks cool and I want to be here. There wasn’t much risk in slipping my resume under the door, so this might not be the right example of that component, but maybe that illustrates something else.
DJ: It seems like you have a sort of lightness toward the ability to say “Why not?” vs. just sitting back on your heels and waiting.
TB: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think it had a little something to do with visualization. Like being able to say, “Here’s what I want to do. I want to work with a composer.” Well then, put that out there. If you want to do commissions and have people pay you money to work on private projects, then get into people’s minds by putting that out there. Maybe that sounds like some kind of Seven Habits for Highly Effective People kind of thing, and maybe it is one, I don’t know.
DJ: I live in Portland, so I’m more than familiar with the language you’re using. So, did you get the job?
TB: I did get the job, and just about every job I’ve ever had has come to me through something like that. If I lived on the West Coast, I might say something like “the universe takes care of people.” Maybe I’m a little too Midwestern to go there, but I do think you make your own luck.
DJ: That’s how a Minnesotan would say it?
TB: Maybe so.
DJ: Tell me about your commissioned work, which you promote on your site. When did the idea strike you as viable, or something that was similar to, “What if I started commissioning my poetry the same way people commission art?”
TB: I was working full time at the Playwright Center, in Minneapolis. I was the development director there, so my job was to raise money for the organization, write all the grants, marketing, etc. I noticed that playwrights were getting commissions. We started a program where we would actually auction them off at our fundraisers. People would get a short, short play commissioned for fun, usually something silly. I noticed how much fun it was for the writers and for the commissioners, and how much more engaged commissioners became in the work of their writers.
I thought, why not engage the art directly with the consumer of the art, the reader, in a way that obligates them to one another? I just hung the shingle out on my website. That interface was one of the first things I built. I think within about 17 days after I launched my website, I got an email from a woman in Berkeley who wanted to commission a poem, asking me how much it would be and what it would entail. Because I already worked at the Playwright Center, I already had a contract agreement that we had used for playwrights, so I was able to walk her through what the expectations would be. She was comfortable with it, signed on, and we embarked.
Since then, I’ve done six or seven commissioned projects, ranging from sort of small projects to the most recent where I wrote a poem for the mother of five children. I had to interview all five children, who were scattered in different parts of the country…trying to write a tribute to someone I’ve never met through five people I’ve never met.
In the end, I think it puts poetry into the service of my community, into the service of people. It illustrates to those people what poetry is capable of doing. They may know it already since they’re coming to me, so they’re clearly aware of poetry’s power. It’s interesting to me that poetry can do things for people that no other therapy, no other medicine, no other religion can do. Bringing closure to situations, healing relationships, celebrating really powerful people in their lives—I haven’t even tapped the range of possibilities. That thrills me that poetry has a direct role to play that’s bigger than just being a great art form.
DJ: Do you think that is an opinion that is shared by many poets?
TB: I sure would suspect so. I feel like that’s probably why we’re writing anyway. To heal the world, to open the world, to bring power and excitement to the world in different ways. I think that’s why we’re all writing. We just don’t have a client who needs it specifically for some reason. We hope that the reader will find it. It’s kind of like we’re doing this already, we’re just doing it from the other end of the pipeline.
DJ: So this is almost allowing you to come directly into contact with those people who may be seeking it out.
TB: It’s an interesting thing because you meet the reader before the poem. That’s really unusual, I think, in any art form. What I always try to explain to people who commission me is that ultimately the poem is mine. They can go through the work of helping me create it, and they can pay for being able to use it the way they want to use it, but ultimately, no matter much I learn about their lives, or whatever it is they want me to write about, I can only write from what I know. I can only bring my gloss on it. It’s interesting, because a commissioned poem is destined to simultaneously thrill and disappoint.
My first experiences with commissions taught me some of this stuff, and I am still learning the nuances. The poem they get back doesn’t sound like them talking to me over the telephone. It doesn’t sound like their thoughts of their loved one. It doesn’t sound like what they had in their heads. It may have an image that came completely out of my own experience, and may have metaphors that aren’t theirs. So, there’s something jarring about seeing your ideas and thoughts in someone else’s poem. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. That’s why they come to me.
I’m a little bit like a shaman in that I tell them what their dream means, or I give them the deeper meaning of the things they’re telling me about. It’s not necessarily going to jive right away with what they think it means. Speaking from a completely selfish standpoint, these commissions help me think about the things I might write about anyway.
DJ: How do you charge?
TB: It depends on how much research and legwork is required. It’s pretty modest, but it’s significant enough that people have walked away from the idea. I’m very flexible with the costs.
DJ: I’m sure you earn about $2 an hour once it’s all said and done.
TB: Probably less. But you know, the work that it inspires—that’s the thing. At the end of this, the commissioner thinks I come out with one poem and I present them with one poem, but in truth, there’s pre-writing, all kinds of ideas, sketches, drafts and stuff they never see. In terms of it being a great creative workout for me, it pays all kinds of creative dividends.
If poetry is partly about seeing things from a different perspective, changing your perspective and trying to see something in a new way, then what could you want better than to have a client relationship with someone who is telling you their most intimate thoughts about something so that you can totally, hopefully, see it from their perspective. It’s a really amazing workout.
DJ: You mentioned how commissioned work will simultaneously disappoint and excite. What’s the disappointment about?
TB: There are lots of different ways a poem can disappoint. One way a poem can disappoint a client has to do with the fact that people aren’t always ready to hear their ideas in metaphor, or hear their ideas reduced or expanded with the use of an image that wasn’t theirs. These can be seen almost as authorial intrusions into their consciousness, and they’re not ready for that.
There are also practical things. The first commission I did turned out to be a birthday present a woman was giving to a lifelong friend. She wanted it to be a surprise for her, so we worked in secret, and it probably ranged over about nine months and three or four hour-long phone conversations. When it was done, it brought tears to the eyes of the commissioner, the person who paid and worked with me on it. When she turned around to give it to the beloved, it backfired. And the backfire happened for a number of reasons. One was that the poem came loaded with very personal, private information. The recipient felt betrayed at the fact her friend had shared this information with a third party. Who would have ever foreseen that situation?
DJ: What about times when the commissioner has to yield creative control, knowing that in the end, though the memories and images belong to them, they’ll come through in your voice?
TB: Some of it is intuitive. I’ve had really good luck and really good experiences with everyone who has commissioned a poem from me. At the same time, and maybe it’s creative self-doubt, I feel a little uncertain as to whether my imposition serves them well. It’s a risky thing. In several cases, I’ve written for folks who were on the brink of death. Not only are these tribute poems, but they’re also farewells.
DJ: You mentioned earlier that you’ve never been averse to taking risks. What do you think the potential is for a poet to really get out there and connect with as many people, in as many ways, as possible? When you try to balance the scales between time allotted to sitting down with the craft, and time allotted to promoting and trying something new, how do things balance out for you?
TB: There are times when I curse myself for how deep I’ve gotten into collaborative projects and other things I have to promote. No doubt about that. For the last few years, I was working full time and I would curse that too. I think there’s a degree to which we will curse anything that isn’t the art, but we have to do those things. It’s just the way it goes. I think the more public you become, the more you have a responsibility to that public, and to tending to that public presence in some way—unless it scares the shit out of you, which I can respect. If you want to be a public poet, it can be a funny thing. Just sending your work to a magazine is an act of publicity, and yet, wanting publicity is somehow frowned upon as selling out or something. I don’t think we can have it both ways. I see it as an occupation and I’m willing to take the inartistic work along with the artistic work.
DJ: Did you ever think that you would step away from full-time employment and just focus on your own life as a solo artist?
TB: I did. When the first book deal came through with Norton, I told the folks at the Playwright Center that I wanted to go half time or part time and we tried to work that out, but in the end, I ended up leaving. Up until the last few years, I’ve been running solo. I’m just trying to do my own thing. I’ve gotten a few grants and just enough paying gigs. I’m not making a living with my poetry, by any means. I did have to step away from my sort of full-time job because the book deal was too big. If it had happened with a university press or something smaller, I probably would have been able to take it in stride. This was too public too soon, and I had to take measures to get it out.
DJ: You also do a great job of making your poems available via audio on your website. Do you have any interest in putting out an album of poetry?
TB: I do. When I sold the book to Norton, one of our first conversations was about whether we could include a CD with the book. Norton has done that in the past. We didn’t do it with the first book, which would have been sort of my ultimate dream come true. I’ll keep pushing for that with each book I do.
When I do a reading a lot of my audiences ask me if I have a CD, and I think they would be interested in buying a CD sometimes before buying a book, which is interesting to me.
DJ: What do you think it that prompts people to buy a CD before a book?
TB: So much of what we are doing in poetry is music. People relate to that. I also think it might be that people are pressed for time, and they want to be able to take things in their cars with them or to the gym. Not that I make great workout music.
DJ: Do you think poets overlook the audio and performing aspect of their work?
TB: I have strong feelings about that. I think the truth of the matter is that the literary arts are the storytelling arts. Poetry’s heritage is in storytelling and song. That impulse slowly diverged over time. When the printing press came along, it changed everything. I think the printing press turned poetry from an oral art into a printed art.
Music is on the other side. It has maintained the performing and musical aspect. Theatre also maintains that original impulse. I think what we have now are these different pockets of the same impulse that are governed by experts. Experts only know what they’re expert at. I think we have an expert community of expert poets who are very good, but are too expert at creating this printed art form. They would do well to remember their roots. They would do well to reclaim the primary impulse.
DJ: People can be spellbound by the words and the music, but also by the individual performer. A lot of poets in performances seem so focused on the words that they tend to overlook the fact that people want to see them as well. Do you get this sense?
TB: I do, and I think it’s a tricky subject. When I perform, I think audiences respond to me and to the work. Whether I can prescribe that for other poets, I’m not sure. What works for me may not work for other poets.
What’s Todd Boss up to these days? Check out his site, and also check out Motionpoems, a collaborative project with animator/producer Angella Kassube that combines the creative gifts of video artists and poets for an amazing multi-sensory experience around images, sounds and words.
Entering the world of Mari L’Esperance’s first full-length collection, The Darkened Temple (© 2008, University of Nebraska Press), feels akin to slipping into the dark matter that engulfs our dream state. There’s a summoning taking place: images come into full resolution; memories dangle off hooks just beyond our grasp. While many of the poems arrive from a place of deep personal meaning to the poet herself, they nevertheless evoke our own senses of longing, memory and loss. I was fortunate to speak with L’Esperance a short time ago, to discuss the collection — winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry — her process, and the source of her work. We began by talking about her thoughts around building the collection and preparing her manuscript for publication.
DJ: The entire collection follows a narrative thread throughout. Was that always your intent when building this collection, or did that come more organically?
ML: I wrote poems that appear in the book over a pretty broad span of time — maybe a 12 or 13 year period. When I was writing the poems I wasn’t thinking in terms of structure or a manuscript, but when I reached the point where I thought I had enough for a manuscript, I started thinking very consciously about having something of a narrative arc, or a shape to the manuscript. I wanted the book to move in a particular direction, but I didn’t write the poems themselves with that in mind.
DJ: So it came about after you’d been in the process of writing?
ML: That’s right.
DJ: Did you have to return to any poems after arriving at that conclusion? Fill in any blanks where you wanted to build up the arc?
ML: After I submitted the manuscript to contests and Prairie Schooner picked it up, their editor, Hilda Raz, asked me to write, or at least add several more poems to the manuscript. I didn’t have any existing poems that I felt were appropriate or would fit the book, so I did have to write four or five new poems after the book was accepted. Then I placed them in the sequence where I thought they would fit.
DJ: Did the editor offer any insight into why she wanted the additional poems?
ML: I think it was more about length, and not that the manuscript felt lacking. She wanted to fill it out a little more. I was happy to do that.
DJ: Where did those poems slot in?
ML: Mostly in the second section. “Beyond It,” “To Her Body,” and “The Book of Ash” are three poems I added. They’re near the middle.
DJ: As I was reading the collection, there were four poems specifically that felt to me to be a part of a sequence — as it happens, “Beyond It” and “To Her Body” bookend this sequence, with “Finding My Mother” and “Forgetting” in between. In looking at your arc, they do sit right at that peak, if you will — if this were a novel, these poems would be the middle chapters. Were you trying to build the feeling of a pinnacle moment with these poems?
ML: I don’t think I was consciously trying to build or amplify what you refer to as a pinnacle moment. It’s possible I was attached in some way to that section of the book. There’s a lot of energy concentrated there. But I don’t think there was anything conscious about why I decided to add the poems there.
When I was looking at the manuscript, that area looked like the best place where they would fit in. It’s interesting that you saw them as a sequence. I think there’s something to your observation, though I wasn’t thinking about that at all.
DJ: So you were just writing them without thinking about where they’d go?
ML: Yes. I wasn’t thinking about the sequence at all.
DJ: What is your process, then, when you compare the art and craft of writing an individual poem vs. the art of compiling 30 or 50 poems into what you’d like to be an intentional sequence? I think that for a lot of poets, especially as it relates to first books, the idea of putting together a manuscript is foreign, or at least it’s not discussed all that much.
ML: My experience with first books, when I look at others, is that the books tend to be more of a general amalgam of poems written over time. Then the poet may arrange them so they read like more of a self-contained project.
I think it’s important for poets to just write poems, then figure out the sequencing after the poems are written. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad to have something of a book-length project or entity in mind before writing the poems. Then again, that can be somewhat suffocating to the writing process.
Looking at this book, there’s a central theme and/or central themes that reoccur. I think a lot of poets . . . we tend to be obsessive types. From book to book, we tend to write the same poem over and over — meaning those same obsessive themes show up in our poems again and again. With that in mind, it felt like an organic process to have isolated poems, then put them together in a book. I do agree, though, that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of attention on or talk around how to arrange first books in a shape that carries the reader through from beginning to end.
DJ: Do you expect that the reader would or even should read this collection in a cover-to-cover manner?
ML: I think that’s the best way to read it. I like to read anyone’s collection, unless it’s an anthology, from beginning to end in a linear fashion, because I do think that a lot of poets are holding that ideal in various degrees of consciousness, sensing the book’s movement from beginning to end. I think reading the poems in the order they’re arranged gives more meaning to the reading experience. Of course there are specific poems you go back to because you’re compelled by them for whatever reason, but I think with the first read, it’s important to read from beginning to end. But that’s just me.
DJ: In your collection, we know there’s this very intense middle section, where things really build up to it. There are some of the poems toward the back of the third section — “The Night Garden,” “How It Happens,” and especially “As Told By Three Rivers” — my reading is that they’re coming from a different voice. “As Told By Three Rivers” — and maybe this is just my sensibility from having grown up in Pennsylvania and having lived for a time in southeastern Ohio — something about the language has an iron ore quality to it, as if you’ve gotten the land from that part of the country into this poem. Do you feel this shift in voice might be related to when you wrote certain poems?
ML: I think that’s true. “As Told By Three Rivers” is probably one of the oldest poems in the collection. The other ones you mentioned, those are all a little more recent. Again, I was just going by my intuition and my ear, and when I was arranging the poems, I wasn’t thinking about which were older, which were newer — I just wanted the manuscript to work as a coherent whole.
There’s a more relaxed tone . . . a tone of release to the poems in the last section. This might lend itself to the voice you’re referring to.
DJ: I do want to share that the book, as a whole, was difficult for me at first. I kept coming back to it then putting it down, then coming back to it. The poem that really first pulled me in — and one that I think is both difficult yet inviting — is “White Hydrangeas as a Way Back to Self.”
ML: I can still remember sitting in my old office back in Oakland and really struggling with it, wanting to make it right.
I tend to write about experiences that have happened in the past, or states of mind that I’m more removed from in the present day, and are therefore a little easier to approach from the distance of art. And I do warn people that some of the poems can be hard to read. I swear — and I don’t say this in a self-aggrandizing sense — that at almost every reading, there is at least one person crying in the audience. I have a mixture of, “Oh my goodness, I really traumatized this listener,” while another part of me is grateful that they’re being touched in such a deep way.
DJ: Ideally, you recognize your role in providing them an opportunity to release something.
Could you tell me a little more about the process of writing “White Hydrangeas”? It’s this lovely poem broken up in small segments — does this reflect the way you wrote it, with parts coming here and there?
ML: I started writing it with the intention of having it be a sequence of sections. I was initially inspired by Jane Mead, a wonderful poet who was also a teacher of mine. In her second book, she has at least one or two long poems written in these short fragments or sections that are then strung together to form the long poem.
Then I just started writing it. I had a vague image in my mind of a Wallace Stevens poem — I can’t remember the title, but it starts out with him envisioning white flowers in a bowl or vase. (Editor’s note: my guess is it’s “The Poems of Our Climate.”) It was such a meditative, pure image, and I knew that I wanted that to be the central theme.
These two things — the idea of the short, strung-together sections, and the white flowers — are really how it started.
Then I played with it for quite a while. I started out with four or five then kept adding, then started thinking it was too long . . . ultimately it became what it is. In the end, I think the poem is a journey in itself.
DJ: It definitely has that quality, especially beginning with the line, “To enter the mind is a dangerous act.” Then you come back to that thought with, “To begin is a dangerous act.”
Structurally, how the entire book is built, it shows up right at the end of Act Two, if you will, which is the perfect place for what you wanted it to be.
ML: There’s this quality when you start to write something — you have an idea of what you want, but you really aren’t sure. Often, a poem sort of says, “I want to go this way,” or, “No, I don’t want to go that way no matter what you do.” And that happens with almost every poem.
I’ve had different responses to the first section, the line “To enter the mind . . .” Some people have said they found it gutsy to only have one line on a page. Hilda, when we first started talking about the manuscript, felt there was too much white space on the page. She was wondering if we could just take it out. I gave it some thought and told her I really felt I needed to have just that standalone line. She was fine with it. And other people have had a whole range of responses.
I think it’s necessary for a writer to heed those inner voices that say, “This is really important” — as long as it’s helping and not hindering the work.
DJ: And as long as the inner debate is healthy, and isn’t just being driven from a place that says, “No, I want to do it my way just because.” And I don’t get the sense you have that challenge.
ML: Just lots of other problems. (Laughter)
DJ: The book has a lot of Jungian qualities to it . . . the shadow self, and deep unconscious. Do dreams often weave their way into your work, whether in a literal sense or as an exercise of delving into the unconscious?
ML: There’s one example in the book, “Finding My Mother,” where the images of a dream actually made their way into the book. The mother’s body lying in a field, for instance. Of course I had associations as I was writing the poem, but the dream material is woven in.
Dreams are a rich source not just for writing but for teaching us things about our lives and selves. I think the unconscious is always with us, even in our waking life, and especially when we sit down to write. I feel an important aspect to the writing process is getting into that sort of dream space, the in-between reverie space where one has access to both conscious thought as well as whatever might be coming up from the subconscious. Then we mix them together in that middle realm. Obviously, I have no idea how any of this happens, but I believe it’s an important part of the process for me and a lot of other poets and writers as well.
DJ: I feel that being connected to the dream life is to yield a conscious construct of the subconscious images that come, and to actually step away from as much as we can from the conscious world when trying to translate the subconscious message.
I’d like to talk a little about the autobiographical component to the book, especially with the work delving into the mother relationship. Is that something you’re comfortable discussing?
ML: What I’m willing to say is that my mother did go missing in 1995, and it’s an unresolved disappearance. The rest I’d like to leave to art and whatever associations readers would like to make.
One of my concerns with discussing a particular poem’s theme is to be sure not to collapse the space that exists between the reader and the poem. If we give too much information about a poem, then it collapses that mystical, alchemical process that happens in the in-between.
DJ: To stay there for another minute, when entering into these types of deeply personal poems, do you find it difficult to give so much to the poems, then turn them over and put them in the world? Is it a process of healing for you?
ML: I think psychic distance is important, especially when writing about difficult or painful material. By the time I started getting into writing about certain things, I’d had enough distance and the necessary psychic detachment. Of course, grief has its own agenda and its own timetable. Feelings can come up at any time.
Putting the poems out into the world was not as hard as sometimes reading the poems to an audience, depending on my state of mind. I will consciously not read certain poems because they feel too difficult to read. And that seems to have dissipated as time goes by, especially as the book begins to feel more and more like its own entity, and not so much a part of me.
I think there was a time — not so much now — where I really feared that unleashing the book onto the world would be like committing a trauma onto my readers. “Oh no, here’s this dark, heavy, painful material . . .” There was a part of me that almost felt guilty or responsible for the reader’s experience in a way. I don’t feel that so much now. It’s art. People can take from it whatever they need to, including nothing if that’s the case.
I first met Penelope Schott in November of 2008, shortly after her collection, A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, won the Oregon Book Award for poetry. Schott has two new collections out: a chapbook, Under Taos Mountain: The Terrible Quarrel of Magpie and Tia, (© 2009, Rain Mountain Press, winner of the 2009 Ronald Wardall Poetry Prize), and a full-length collection, Six Lips, (© 2009, Mayapple Press). Together, the two collections illustrate Schott’s range as a poet and storyteller — from the playfully dark interchange between the narrator and magpie in Under Taos Mountain, to the deep reflections and ghost-like images found in Six Lips. She’s constantly working, and leaves herself open and available to the world of poetry around her. We started our conversation on the topic of work, and eventually wove our way around to process.
PS: I really think I work too much. I would like to have my dog Lily be my guru and teach me to lie around and steal.
DJ: Have your written Lily poems?
PS: In her voice? No.
DJ: When you say “working too much,” is it a balance thing? Too much mental work? Because I know you’re a walker and a swimmer.
PS: I’ve always had too much to do, and have always been organized enough to get everything done. Going to graduate school while working while raising kids . . . I was just always doing everything at once.
DJ: Coming out with two books . . . was it accidental that they both came out?
PS: Yes. I would not have chosen that. I actually wrote Under Taos Mountain quite a while ago. It kept being a finalist in chapbook contests. It was always the one where they’d print the other guy but wish they could print me. Finally it just won one. The poems are from about four or five years ago.
DJ: And what about Six Lips?
PS: They’re since, May the Generations Die in the Right Order, probably in the last three years.
DJ: Then with regards to A is for Anne, were you writing any of these around the same time that you were going in and out of the Hutchinson persona?
PS: Rarely. When I start doing the historical narratives, it’s like writing a novel. As you can imagine, it’s totally engrossing.
Sometimes I feel funny being interviewed, because I feel everything I have to say I put into the poems.
DJ: Well, let me ask you the following, and maybe you can get an idea of where I’m coming from. Regarding the poem, “Heart Failure” — and I’ve seen a number of poems about your relationship with your mother — was there ever a point where the poem ended at the end of part one?
PS: Yes. They were two separate poems. I put them together.
DJ: What changed?
PS: I didn’t want to be as harsh a person as I sounded. That’s the honest answer. And if my sister ever read it and it ended at the end of part one, she would have never spoken to me again.
DJ: Is that a challenge for you, or a concern?
PS: As it happens in many families, my sister got along better with my mother, I got along better with my father. My mother died last April, and my sister is still in heavy mourning.
I talked to my sister this morning, and she just found out her son and his wife are having a baby girl. She said, “Mother would have been so happy.”
DJ: And that thought doesn’t cross your mind?
PS: The only time I think “my mother would have liked this” is when I go shopping. She loved to shop. I was always busy working and had no money. She would approve of me if I ever spent money.
DJ: I have two brothers. My mother used to say when we were kids that she was glad she had sons. Her relationship with my grandmother was always distant.
PS: I think there’s not enough separation between mothers and daughters. My mother was kind of anorexic, and also insufficiently separated from me. In her mind, I was obese.
DJ: Did she communicate that type of language to you?
PS: Absolutely. When I’d visit she’d come up and do the calipers, pinch my side, that sort of thing. I would say, “Gee, thanks Mom.”
DJ: Does your sister write?
PS: She’s a lawyer. We’re completely different.
DJ: Do you think being a poet helps you in the grieving process?
PS: I think people like you and me, because we’re attuned to different things, we’re just thinner skinned, and everything gets to us easier.
When something hits you, it hits you more intensely. When they start talking about torture on the radio, for instance, I have to turn the radio off.
Were you ever told as a child that you were over-sensitive?
DJ: Yes. I was told to stop being so sensitive, and to stop talking so much.
PS: When I was a little kid and started learning about history, I was overwhelmed about how much history there was. I thought about how it becomes harder and harder to know about the past because you keep getting further away from it.
My sister was never struck by history until she went to Israel. Suddenly it was in her face. I just think writers and people of the ilk are more imaginative. You can get into something completely. And writing is a way to deal with stuff.
I grew up having poetry read to me. My grandmother would sit on the porch and read poems to us, have us memorize different things. I started writing when I was very young, and for years wrote very skillful — albeit bad — imitations of other people.
DJ: I only read box scores. And I would read them over and over and over.
PS: And visualize the game?
DJ: Remember the game from the night before, or imagine the games I didn’t see.
PS: When I was a kid I thought baseball was a show. It was always on the radio. Like a serial.
I worried about how you could have the top-half of an inning before you could have the bottom-half. When you built blocks, you know, you’d start from the bottom and go up. Finally someone took me to the Polo Grounds and pointed it out on the scoreboard.
DJ: Going back to the books, there are instances when you come upon the topic of death from a place of starting over or rebirth, rather than a place of ending. Having watched what your mother went through, was there anything that spurred these types of thoughts or poems?
PS: My mother spent three years dying hard. She lived in New York. I flew from Portland to New York once a month. That was my life for three years.
Somebody asked me recently if my work has changed. I said, “I think so. I’ve raised my children, paid for my house and buried my parents.” Those are major life chores. Anything can happen now.
DJ: Is that a topic, death, that’s become more immediate for you now?
PS: I have time to think, catch my breath.
My mother had a live-in aide. She couldn’t take care of herself. Whenever I would come, the aide would take a vacation.
It was hard work and a hard death. At the end they gave her morphine, but they weren’t allowed to do it so I had to give it to her.
DJ: Are there certain parts of it you don’t care to access in the realm of writing? A compartmentalization where certain things are memory, and that’s where they’ll stay?
PS: I worked for five years as a home health aide. When it became necessary, I could be quite clinical.
My sister couldn’t deal with anything about my mother’s body. At one point, I was licensed to do that stuff. In a sense, there was something I could do in the room, whether it was wash her, give her medicine, or whatever.
DJ: Were you able to approach it from a place where you said, “This is a body, this isn’t my mother, it’s just a body”?
PS: When I worked as a home health aide, whomever I was taking care of, I had to love them for the time I was with them. Although I had tremendous resentments and grudges against my mother, I felt that I could love her at least as much as I could love a stranger.
DJ: Did that possibly open up more compassion?
PS: It was generalized compassion. And my sister, in a way, is having specific grief, where for me, the only way I could be nice to her was to generalize.
But there was one point where I think I’d just come back from my mother’s, and I had to go back sooner than in a month. I was lying in bed with my husband, and I was just shaken by the whole thing. I said to him, “If she lives another six-months, I’m going to die.” I felt like a plane I’d be on would fall out of the sky . . . something was going to happen. I couldn’t keep doing it. And eventually she died.
I have a poem that’s going to be in my next book that quotes her as saying, “If I ever die.” That was her attitude. If. She was a character-and-a-half. She died with a perfect manicure, of course. Absolutely perfect.
DJ: My grandmother, when she was dying, would ask my mother how her lipstick looked. It’s interesting what we hold onto at the end.
PS: All women are vain. And also, when you go back to that generation, women were seen more as objects than they are now. They spent more time on their looks than on their educations.
DJ: So your writing of Under Taos Mountain started before your mother began dying?
PS: It started with a residency through the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. When I arrived I had some sort of minor tooth issue. I’d recently had a root canal. It eventually turned out that I had an infection deep in my jawbone. I didn’t get it taken care of until I got home. In Taos, everyone was treating it like a toothache.
I was in pretty severe pain, and I managed to get some Vicodin. I was sort of just living on the Vicodin. I’m not a real druggy person, but I needed the Vicadin to the point where I’d wake up in the middle of the night because I needed more.
There I am with this throbbing pain in something of a Vicodin cloud, and outside the casita I was in, there sat a three-trunked Aspen in the front yard, opposite where you’d put a writing desk. And the tree was full of magpies.
I don’t know if it was because of the Vicodin, or because the magpies were slightly weird, but I felt like they had an attitude about me. I would say that’s total paranoia, except other people have told me they’ve had this happen with magpies as well.
I had gone to work on something else, which I brought with me and did some work on. I was also working on the Hutchinson book, but I kept getting interrupted by the magpies. I’d have to stop and write a magpie poem. I wrote them all during my first six weeks.
DJ: So you were already in a place where you were transmuting, almost . . . connecting with the Hutchinson consciousness and allowing other voices to come in.
PS: That’s true. I was channeling Anne.
DJ: Perhaps the magpies saw an open channel.
PS: I like that theory.
DJ: And when you came home with this book of conversational magpie poems, what was your crafting process?
PS: The book was basically done. I sequenced them mostly in the order I wrote them — I swapped a couple here and there, because it seemed to flow better that way. I condensed a couple of them, especially where the conversation seemed repetitive. I didn’t write any new ones.
DJ: No “unused magpie poems” lying around anywhere?
PS: I think I threw one or two away. It was just a very strange experience. I sort of felt like Poe with the raven.
DJ: Did you think at any point you might have been going crazy?
PS: No more so than usual. Is that a good answer?
DJ: That’s a great answer.
PS: I think most writers are manic depressive. As we get older we learn how to manage it. If you get too depressive, you do something to get yourself under control.
DJ: Tell me about the voice you use when you read these poems aloud.
PS: Magpie has more authority than I do. Outside the casita, Magpie knew it all.
DJ: And she knows she knew it all.
PS : Magpie was mean.
DJ: What about the idea of Magpie as muse?
PS: I hate to blow your analogy, but almost everything I write is quite literal. I was writing to the magpie.
DJ: So when you write of rebirth, which shows up often, is that aligned with your beliefs?
PS: I was raised as a strict atheist. I’ve been very faithful.
The way I write . . . I guess there’s something about keeping keeping yourself half-asleep so you can access things.
DJ: It doesn’t sound like something you can “try to do” as much as it sounds like something that is.
PS: You can arrange your life if you want. I know all these people who say, “I go to the gym first thing in the morning.” I would never do that, because it’s such precious time. To some extent, you can make it possible to access certain things.
DJ: There’s also the idea of simply being available to seeing things.
PS: Taking Lily out first thing every morning works for both of us. I usually find myself reciting lines on the way home so as not to forget them.
When I get home, I grab my yellow pad and a pen, and jot down the stuff I thought about when I was walking, and try to get out everything I had in my head so that, even if I have to make calls or grade papers, I’ll have it when I sit down later.
William Stafford referred to Carlos Reyes as a “connoisseur” of the “many strange, tangy things that happen in the Northwest.” His writing career stretches back more than 40 years; most recently, Reyes has been honored with the Heinrich Boll Fellowship (2007), which gave him two weeks to write on Achill Island, Ireland, as well as poet-in-residence at Lost Horse Ranger Station in the Joshua Tree National Park (2009). An avid traveler and translator, his knowledge of labor, the land, and the daily struggles of everyday existence inform his work. I was honored to sit down with him a few months ago in a very loud and crowded Portland coffeehouse to talk about his recently released collection of new and selected poems, The Book of Shadows (© 2009, Lost Horse Press). During our conversation, Reyes spoke candidly about his life as a poet, and how his ability to describe what he does for a living has shifted with time.
DJ: You’ve been at it for a long time. I read an interview you just did with BT Shaw, where she asked you about choosing the poems for this collection. Was that difficult?
CR: My editor really wanted to lean on some stuff that had already been in books. I was more interested in poems that hadn’t come out in book form. I’ve worked with the editor before. We’ve always had something of a tugging match. Our negotiations usually revolve around a couple of drinks of whisky . . . on his part at least — I don’t drink. So we had some pretty healthy discussions about certain selections.
DJ: Why is it important for a poet to have a person who gives another perspective when putting together a collection?
CR: In this particular instance, it’s rather unusual. When I first started publishing, I would usually just take a box of poems to an editor and say, “OK, do what you will.” As I got more mature, I realized I didn’t want all of that responsibility in someone else’s hands. I wanted a part in the selection. I had to declare my independence, say things like, “Look, I understand what you’re saying, but this particular poem has a certain meaning to me.”
Editors see a lot of stuff. They get something of an edge or bias, especially people who are used to working with writers of a certain caliber. Then they come upon someone such as myself who’s past a certain point and is willing to hunker down and say, “I know what you think, but that’s not what I’m doing here, and I don’t want to lose what I’m trying to do.”
I was very insecure for a while. I don’t have the usual background of a poet, or of someone who writes for a living. Maybe this is kind of dangerous to say, but I don’t have the formal background, the MFA . . . I didn’t go to Iowa, didn’t study writing. The only writing classes I ever took were in short fiction at the University of Oregon years and years ago.
DJ: Was there a point in your life as a poet where this sensibility of not having a certain degree stood in your way?
CR: If you write, and I think this is especially true for poets, you’re always on the edge between being sure and unsure. “What the hell am I doing? Why am I spending all this time doing something that may or may not ever amount to anything?” I used to get a little bit of that laid on me, but not so much anymore. Not necessarily from my close colleagues, but from other people.
A long time ago, I was the faculty advisor for the poetry committee at Portland State. Certain people would say things like, “You’re not even in the English department, what the hell are you doing here?”
Unfortunately, there’s a question of legitimacy about being someone who simply has written but doesn’t have a certain degree. I’ve been writing for 40 years. Maybe there’s something there that may or may not equal an MFA. Who knows? Sometime around 1976 or ’77, I thought maybe I’d go to the University of Montana and get an MFA. I talked with some people I knew, and they said, “We’d love to have you, but why?” After you’ve created a body of work, it’s kind of silly, unless you want to become a teacher. I already tried to teach. So I never got the MFA. Maybe it took me a bit longer to get where I am because I didn’t come from that world of workshops. I just tried to figure it out on my own.
DJ: Did you seek out mentors?
CR: I sort of picked them along the way, but not in the traditional sense. I’d become interested in their work.
I was interested in Robert Creeley. He was one of my models, if you will. When I really got into writing, guys like Creeley and Gary Snyder came off as really impressive. To a certain extent I’m still following Creeley’s footsteps. Looking at his later poems, he uses these really short lines, as opposed to what you see from a lot of contemporary poets using really long, Ashbery-style lines.
Other people have come and gone without me really thinking about it at the time, but looking back I can see their influence. In the ’50s, the first poetry I ever really read was W.D. Snodgrass, who’d just won the Pulitzer Prize. It turns out, Snodgrass and I . . . and I never talked to him face-to-face . . . we actually corresponded for a long while. He was a mentor, not because my writing was anything like his — he’s definitely more traditional with regards to rhyme and meter — but he impressed upon the possibilities of being a poet, the idea that you could lead your life as a poet, which is as good a way to lead your life as anything else.
A number of my influences have been rather oblique or subtle. Impressions have come from a person’s work as much as what their work was about. Here I was trying to figure out life as a poet, and I’d take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. And that’s still the case, to a degree.
DJ: It sounds like you came to an awareness around something Snodgrass said, that you could lead your life as a poet. At what point did you accept that as a truth?
CR: For the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve come to consider the fact that the focus of my life is on writing poetry. It took me a long time to get there.
I come from a family where if you literally weren’t working with your hands then it wasn’t legitimate work. For 40 or so years of being a poet, and being a lot of other things as well, when somebody would ask me what I did for a living, I’d say things like, “Well, I’m a poet but I’m also a land surveyor.” And they’d say, “OK, land surveying . . . let’s talk about that.” About 10 or 15 years ago, I started saying, “I’m a poet,” If that was as far as the conversation went, then so be it. I wasn’t going to try and prop myself up with things like, “Yeah, but I’m also a medical translator.”
DJ: And you’ve taught in residencies?
CR: Yes, but I don’t do it as much these days.
DJ: What have you seen in the last 20-25 years with regards to how students take to poetry?
CR: I used to not feel this way, but I think a lot of it nowadays has to do with the electronic age and the visuals that pop up on screens. There’s been some kind of change. Of course, my grandson is nutty about games, but he’s also a great writer and a prodigious reader. But I don’t think this is the case for most kids, and even adults, who are really tied to their screens.
Last year in one of the schools, I was passing out paper with poems on them when a young guy said, “You should just put this up on screen.” Part of it is my own bias, I suppose. I work on a laptop, but I still print things out to read. Computers are useful, obviously, but the screens get distracting.
DJ: Don’t you think there’s something to the art of scratching and editing on paper? A sort of tactile connection between the words themselves and the process?
CR: I do, but I’m not the best example. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the electronic age, and swore I’d never have a computer. Now I’m not sure what I’d do without one.
I do like that scratching around. I’ll still go out in the backyard and write by hand. I recently bought a manual typewriter, but I don’t even know if I could actually get away with the act of typing. It’s a lot of work. Eventually you wear yourself out, especially if you’re putting together a manuscript. It would take forever. I can’t figure out how people wrote fiction before computers? Or maybe computers make the whole act too easy, which can have a critical effect on quality.
DJ: Maybe Hemingway’s first draft was like a fifth draft when you factor in his level of attention? As if he had greater intention regarding what he put down.
CR: I think in the old days, people wrote more carefully. And I mean the physical act of writing on paper as much as more focus on what they were writing. Professors would write everything out then have someone typed it up, which presupposes that the typist could actually read it.
In a way, technology has made us lazy. We’re less careful. All we need to do is hit a few buttons and change everything at once.
DJ: Going back to The Book of Shadows, when you had the chance to review your old work and your new work, how do you feel about your recent writing compared with pieces from 30 years ago?
CR: In some senses, I’m still writing the same way, but I look at things a bit more carefully.
When this book came up, I realized that many of the older poems wouldn’t stand a whole lot of change. Also, I believe there’s something not quite genuine about looking at something 30 years after the fact and saying, “Oh, well, I’ll just rewrite this.” I think certain things need to stand, no matter how frail or awkward, as a kind of example of a period.
A few people tried to talk me into correcting some of the older poems. I just felt there was a kind of grittiness or rawness, an awkwardness that had some value I wanted to keep, rather than going back and rewriting things to “make them better.”
No one’s ever convinced me to do this. My wife’s an editor. She likes to mention things about punctuation. Well, I have no clue about punctuation. So of course I can go back and punctuate a poem . . . maybe it would make it make more sense. But when I was writing this or that poem to begin with, punctuation wasn’t part of the process. Of course there are a few places where I went back and added punctuation, tried to make things a little nicer, but for the most part I’m not that interested. The spark that was there when I wrote a particular poem is different now. To go back and rework it just isn’t that interesting to me.
DJ: Was there a certain period in your career you enjoyed more than others?
CR: At any moment I’ve enjoyed it as much as any other moment, because there’s nothing like the individual spark behind a particular poem. I think I’m enjoying my current writing more than anything, which isn’t to say that my work has earned any more or less critical acclaim, whatever that is.
DJ: Acclaim’s elusive.
CR: People do review my books, but not that much. A very good friend of mine said this about The Book of Shadows: “This is a really good book, and you can be sure it’s not going to get the attention it deserves.” I’ve come to accept that.
I never thought the book would be reviewed in the New York Times Review of Books, for instance. They’ve got all the books they can handle, and how you get a book reviewed in there is beyond me. Frankly I don’t think it’s that important to the kind of writing I do.
One thing I’ve learned after so many years is to be happy with what I’m doing, and to realize that, for me, this is important work, whether anyone else thinks so or not. The writing itself has value, and that’s what’s important, whether or not it receives critical acclaim.
DJ: Was there a point when acclaim was more important?
CR: Absolutely. Anyone who’s ever written feels that way. You want to be noticed. You want somebody to say, “This is good,” or to give you some sense that what you’re doing is valuable in some way.
There was a time, before publishing got so big, where you’d send poems off and an editor would actually write back and say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad, but it’s not exactly what we want.” Some people still believe that if you send work to a publication that you’re going to get some sort of response back. It’s become so overloaded with so much stuff coming and going, that you might get a piece of paper that says, “This isn’t right,” and maybe someone might sign it.
When you’re younger, you’d like to be in magazines like Field or Atlantic Monthly. When you get a little older you realize it’s more complicated than that. If someone is offering $500 for a poem, they’re looking for someone who will give their publication a little more credit.
DJ: Do you remember the point where you got over that and finally decided that it’s just about the writing?
CR: Probably in the last 10 or 15 years. That’s all part of coming to the conclusion that no matter what I do, any kind of fame or money that comes along in the process is no longer important.
A fellow writer used to ask me when he’d see me, “Carlos, why are you doing this? And don’t give me any of this bull about honor or nobility.” It used to frustrate me.
DJ: How would you answer that question now?
CR: I’m doing it because I think it’s important. And I like it. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to conduct your life, whether or not you earn a dollar.
I used to be very defensive, always trying to explain what it was I did. Some people would get it, but most people wouldn’t. Most other writers would get it, but still there were some that didn’t.
People don’t know what being a poet is all about, especially if you’re just trying to be a poet and not an entertainer, which is a whole different art form and way of thinking. I’ve forever tried to explain what it is that I do, and quite often I’ve just copped out. “Oh, you know, I drive a bus . . .” People could relate to that. Now I just tell them I’m a poet because that’s what I am.
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.
I wasn’t familiar with Henry Hughes’ work until a local poet, Celeste Thompson, introduced us. His second full-length collection, Moist Meridian (© 2009, Mammoth Books) arrived shortly thereafter, and I was quickly wrapped up in Hughes’ use of language, as well as the clever and playful way his poems approached topics around intimacy and human relationships. A professor of English and Creative Writing at Western Oregon University, Hughes and I met briefly at Wordstock, then got together at a Portland coffee house were we sat under the front awning and watched the rain come and go. Our conversation started with Hughes’ role as a poetry critic and reviewer for Harvard Book Review, then circled back to his own work.
HH: I feel dead about some current poetry.
DJ: How so?
HH: A lot of it feels like it’s just been ground out of the poetry machine. And poets will speculate. I’m not particularly curmudgeonly about “the death of American poetry.” Some people blame workshops, or just the overly democratic poem, or the overly accessible poem, or even the overly inaccessible poem.
DJ: When you’re doing a review, do you have to jump out of your sensibilities of “This is how I write, this is not how I write?”
HH: Sometimes it’s about wearing the intellectual cap and being the more objective critic. Sometimes it’s just about being open-minded to different styles. Like in music or the visual arts, which I pay a lot of attention to, I like a lot of different things. I’m not someone who has to have this certain kind of thing, this certain kind of genre or style, or else I get turned off. I tend to have very broad tastes, which is helpful in writing reviews. Sure, in the end, who I am as a writer, and what I think is really great, or what I really love, is going to play into a review. I think we expect that out of our critics and editorialists. We want to hear their opinions.
I like writing reviews. They break me out of….you know, when you’re writing a poem, you have to really believe that you’re writing the most beautiful thing in the world. I really think that. You should love the stuff you’re writing. Otherwise you should change it, because obviously it’s not really and completely you. When you write a poem, you should say, “This f—ing poem is great.” At least in that moment. And the next day, if you still think it’s great, then you got something. In reviewing, you really have to back off from that love of your work.
DJ: Backing off from that, even if the poem you’re reading doesn’t come across as a great poem, you still have to do…what?
HH: You have to look for what is admirable in the work. Is it doing something that you can’t do? Is it doing something well? Is it making you think about something? Is it handling syntax in a way that’s very athletic and inventive, yet is still intelligible?
If this were a scientific evaluation, you could apply different tests and apparati and get interesting readings. So I try to think of it from these other angles.
DJ: Have you ever gotten any backlash on a review?
HH: I don’t really pan anybody. If I really dislike a book, I pass on it. You know how it goes…in the world of journalism, if you don’t like something, then the thought is that you should just trash it. They certainly do in reviews of theater in the NY Times, and occasionally in the book reviews.
Not often, but once in a while you’ll see someone really really trash a book. I don’t do that. Let someone else do that. I don’t know…maybe I’m a coward.
DJ: Or you’re being fair.
HH: Well, if I can’t say something more sophisticated than, “I hate this book,” then I don’t really need to say anything.
DJ: And you get positive response.
HH: I get a few emails from time to time. Most of the time I don’t hear back. I’m not really networked, I suppose. I have reviewed a number of major poets. Merwin most recently. I’d love to get a note from W.S. Merwin that says, “I read your review and you had some insightful things to say.” That’s my ego, too. But also, maybe it would be sustaining. Like anything with poetry, we don’t get paid much.
I hear back from people who read the reviews…students and people doing dissertations. So I do get follow-up questions. It’s nice to know that I may be part of the dialogue. That’s why I like reviewing. You’re part of the conversation. It’s nice to be there.
DJ: To be there…there’s also the passion of being part of it all. You mentioned ego; it’s nice to be acknowledged for what it is, but there’s also that simple desire to be in the pool, so to say, just because you like how the water feels.
HH: That’s right.
DJ: I think that drives a lot of the interconnectedness of being associated with poetry on any number of levels. As a reviewer, a writer, a networker.
What are your writing funks like?
HH: My only problem with writing is finding the time. The world would love for you not to write. The world would love for you to take out the garbage, mow the lawn, do more service at the university, be better prepared for your classes, paint your house, call your father, write that letter to your friend who you haven’t returned the letter to in three years. The world always demands those things of you, and you have to say “No.” That’s my biggest battle.
DJ: Saying no?
HH: Saying no and finding the time to work consistently. Right now I have about two mornings a week. I have one full day. I go out to my house in Falls City on a Tuesday afternoon. I have Wednesday morning, all day Wednesday and maybe Thursday morning where I’m not disturbed. I don’t even have email out there. No student stuff, no family stuff even. Although if something comes up, I have to be there for my wife and step-sons.
Most people don’t live that way. Most people are not artists. For a long time, I was embarrassed to even say I was an artist. It sounded egotistical. It sounded pretentious. . . “Oh, I’m an arteest.” I didn’t like that, but I’ve learned I actually have to think that way.
DJ: Do you ever have any trouble calling yourself a poet?
HH: I used to be embarrassed by that. Now I say it. But I’m careful. I still don’t have cards that say, “Henry Hughes, Writer.” Some people do. Or stationary, or web sites full of their enchanted gardens.
Being an artist in busy America, or anywhere, is challenging. That’s my biggest obstacle. I’ve always loved to write. What are your funks?
DJ: I was trying to get the last layer on a poem that involves a firewalk. Earlier drafts would get to the firewalk…the poem would resolve after the firewalk, but I was skipping the walk itself. I’ve never done a firewalk.
The poem is highly imaginative, but I kept getting to that same place. It was one of the few occasions where I actually knew what I was avoiding. So I took a day off…and this is a meaningful poem to me. I was grinding on it. I took a day off and went to hang out at an artist friend’s studio. I was hanging out with her and another friend of hers. I was just sort of soaking up this feminine energy, I guess. I told them about the poem and they said, “Just shut up and write it.”
HH: Best advice I’ve ever heard.
DJ: The next day I went for a hike, just kept staying away from it, then I came home and wrote out the firewalk. The funk there, I guess, was that I kept grinding and getting to the same place, knowing exactly what I had to do but not knowing my way through it.
HH: Most people would stop at that grind, and they would finish the poem and that would be it, or they’d never finish it. A real writer goes back to it again and again. After a long hike…after a number of years. I don’t think you were in a funk. I think you were in a place that required another full flight of stairs, another few swings of the pick, another hundred miles. I know that place well. Even people who write every day get to those places. They probably get to them more often. That’s where, you know, we need time to work.
DJ: How long were you in Asia?
HH: I was in Japan for three years and China for two years.
DJ: Is there a carryover of that Asian aesthetic into your work?
HH: To some degree. The East Asian aesthetic, which I’ve always admired, has found its way into some of my writing, and certainly into the way I just, you know, keep my room a little more stark and simple, the way I look at painting. There’s a certain austerity, especially of Japanese forms and of some Chinese too, that certainly is present.
I’m very interested in East Asian history and culture. It really woke me up to the world. Prior to that I had never really traveled, except for drunken exploits in Mexico or to Canada for fishing. This really woke me up to a whole other world, and politics, and poverty, and beauty, and time, and history. That changed my writing, and made me, I feel, a much better human being.
DJ: That was before Men Holding Eggs?
HH: Yes. There are Japan and China poems in there, and there are many poems in that collection that were informed by the experience.
DJ: I wanted to ask about what seems like a uniqueness I’ve seen in your work, and “Parking Lot in Portland” is a great example. Sometimes your lines go way out in this fanning sort of way. Can you tell me a little bit about that? What are you hoping for with that style, whether you’re looking for something more from the story itself or something else, and if this was something you were doing in Men Holding Eggs.
HH: Less so in the first book. I think Moist Meridian is a more mature book, and I feel a deeper sense of rhythm and the mind’s music, as I call it.
Many of my poems are stories. An easy way to tell a story in a poem is to write a narrative poem. Good old William Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark,” or Donald Hall, take you out to grandpa’s farm sort of stuff. I do a lot of that in Men Holding Eggs. I like the narrative poem. I grew up with James Dickey and Dick Hugo. I just wanted to tell stories in cool sounding language that did some funky things, that transformed in places I wasn’t expecting. I couldn’t write fiction all that well. It wasn’t that interesting somehow. People didn’t really like it.
If I’m going to write stories in poems, then what can I do? One thing I do is I start of kind of slow, kind of tentative. I start reaching…reaching…reaching. The line seems to reach. I find that that’s kind of the way I read them too. I gain momentum and kind of stretch out to the margin. I guess I’m approaching prose, at least in the spirit, not so much in the rhythmic motions, but in the spirit of wanting to tell a complete story.
Then I kind of come back. I’m going to close it off. I’m not going to write a novel. I’m going out to tell you something and I’m going to come back.
It feels natural. I’m not the kind of poet that sits down and says, “I’m going to write a sonnet, or I’m going to write a villanelle,” or God forbid a pantoum or something. I really write what I want to say, and then end up looking at the lines after. It seems to me that I’ve found this motion naturally. I say this unpretentiously. I wasn’t taught to do it. I’m not trying to emulate someone or some style. I’m sure critics can look at it and say, “Oh, well, that’s a C.K. Williams line that’s been truncated front and back.” That’s for critics to do. To me, it just feels right.
DJ: You used the word ‘motion’. There is that motion to it, from what I’ve noticed. The book as a whole…there’s a lot of sailing in there.
HH: Yes, yes.
DJ: So going from the title then inward, there’s a water quality to a lot of what’s happening in the collection.
HH: I love water.
DJ: The poems feel as if they go out like waves and then come back. When you first started to write in that form, did you try to stop it at all, or find yourself saying, “What the hell is this?”
HH: No. I just rode the wave.
I’m not very resistant to a lot of things in my life. I tend to go with things. I’m a very flexible person. If a group of us is going out for dinner, I’m pretty easy. I’ll walk pretty far. It doesn’t bother me. Or I’ll stop right here. I’ll eat Mexican, I’ll eat Chinese, I’ll go to a gay bar, I’ll go to a straight bar. It doesn’t bother me.
I feel that way about certain motions in my writing too. I don’t really resist them.
When you edit, you have to cut things back, because there’s a lot of bullshit and clunky exposition in there. Then you have to be tough with yourself. It’s like cleaning out the closet.
But in terms of my original creative process, if it feels right, I just kind of go with it.
As for others…I can see sort of the neo-formalists saying, “Henry Hughes is rather undisciplined,” or, “Just more free verse. Where’s the rhyme, where are the metrics?”
I don’t care. Clem Starck, with whom I read at Wordstock, he said something wonderful at one of our readings. He’s a great and interesting man.
He said, in response to a question about formalism, “It’s fine if you want to write formal poetry, and I admire form. But it’s hard enough just to write in very spare language, in a minimal number of lines, something meaningful and still sound human.” That’s a paraphrase, but he said it at one of our readings when someone asked a question, and it makes so much sense to me.
I want to say something meaningful, I want to say it in as few lines as possible, and I want to sound human. If I have any artistic agenda, it’s to sound human but not careless.
Ed Skoog has one of those minds that always seem to be working, whether he is actively crafting a poem, talking poetry with a student or another writer, or simply reflecting on the place where he currently finds himself. I caught up with him on the day of his 38th birthday. He was back home in Topeka, Kansas, getting ready for his 20th high school reunion, taking it easy in his father’s house. He was kind enough to take a few hours out of his home coming to talk about his first full-length collection, Mister Skylight (© 2009, Copper Canyon Press), to discuss craft, and to talk about the way that place and imagination coalesce to create poetry. Part 1 of our interview is below.
DJ: How’s Topeka?
ES: It’s beautiful. They’ve had a really mild summer so things are still really green. Usually by this time of year everything’s been blasted by the heat and drought. It feels like the way I like to remember it.
DJ: What does the idea of Topeka usually bring up for you?
ES: It has four pretty distinctive seasons, and two of them can be pretty rough. Summer is usually very hot. Winter is usually very cold and miserable. The nice part is usually spring, and apparently it’s felt like spring all summer.
I grew up near the middle of the city in an old leafy neighborhood. It doesn’t look like it’s in the Plains. It looks very comfortable, especially compared to my more urban and country wanderings. It’s sort of like the Shire right now.
DJ: Let’s get to your urban and country wanderings. One of the things that sticks out in Mister Skylight is that the language seems really tied to place, though at times it seems to be a number of places. At other times it seems to be a place that may not truly exist. Maybe an amalgamation of different places where you’ve lived or traveled.
When you go back to place in your process, do you find yourself going back to one place more than the other, or do things turn into a bit of a stew?
ES: I think you’re right. Even when the places have names that are accurate details, the poetry takes place in the imagination. If I say, “Topeka”, it’s different than saying “Topeka” in an essay, or than taking a picture and saying, “This is Topeka.”
There are a lot of places in the book. Some are places where I’ve lived or visited. Some of them, like the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, are places I’ve never been to. They’re all imaginary places as far as the poems go. The people in the poems are real people, the family and friends, but they become imaginary through the process of poetry.
The places mean different things to me, and have a lot of associations that, once you put them into poems, become art associations. They become aestheticize Topeka, aestheticize New Orleans, aestheticize California.
One of the animating conflicts for me in putting the book together was the struggle between looking at the place as real vs. as the poetic. Then there was the very real need to try to say something meaningful and true and honest in a social and political way about what happened in New Orleans, about what happened to my friends and the city I love and very nearly me. That was not imaginary. People died, lives were changed.
DJ: You’re referring to Katrina?
ES: Yes. The flooding and the aftermath, which made me very angry because it wasn’t an act of nature or an act of God. The levees failed because they weren’t built to spec by the Corps of Engineers. And the rescue operation was botched because of human failings and lack of courage. Suddenly that doesn’t become just an imaginary thing to play with, like my memories of Topeka. Instead, it’s something that changed my life and my way of looking at the world. At the same time, I didn’t want the book to be…I didn’t know how to write just about that. What results in the New Orleans poems, even some of the ones that I wrote before the storm, is a sort of struggle between us and the media, which doesn’t have any answers but hopefully creates interesting lines.
DJ: You said a second ago that the botched efforts and the botched recovery related to human failings and lack of courage. There’s an underlying quality in a number of your poems where it seems to be an unwavering spirit in the face of things like despair or disaster. These are the exact opposites of human failings. What does that say about you, and is that itself a comment, without being a direct comment to things?
ES: That spirit is hopefully the heart breaking impulse, the storytelling impulse and the lyric impulse to respond internally and to want to communicate that to somebody. The alternative is silence, which may be the most proper response to things, but doesn’t capture that spirit of looking back and looking around at the present, and wanting to communicate to people you are around or you wish were around. Perhaps that’s the spirit you’re finding in these poems. The impulse to dance. The impulse to draw. The impulse to do whatever it is that poems do. Whatever you’re doing in poetry…that need to be reaching out, to be expressing the joy and anxiety and imagination, and wanting or needing to share that.
Read the rest of this entry »
Viva Las Vegas is many things at once. She’s Liv (pronounced “leave”) Osthus, a 35-year-old Minnesotan and graduate of Williams College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass. She’s Coco Cobra, the sexually charged lead singer for Portland rockers Coco Cobra and the Killers. She’s a writer, an actress, a dancer, a spokesperson for the Portland stripping industry, a breast cancer survivor, and most recently, a published author – her first book, a memoir entitled MAGIC GARDENS, from Dame Rocket Press, has just been released. I first saw her perform — fully clothed — as part of a Back Fence PDX storytellers event. We met a few weeks before the book’s publishing date to talk about performing, writing, and dancing to Dylan.
DJ: How are you spending your days?
VL: Frantically juggling a lot of freelance writing. Plus I just started dancing again. And I tend bar two-days a week in a rock ‘n roll bar. That’s my passion. Rock ‘n roll.
DJ: You’re in a band.
VL: If I could quit everything else and just write music, I think I’d be more successful and happier.
DJ: Where are you dancing? Magic Gardens?
VL: Mary’s Club. I don’t really get along with the management at Magic Gardens.
DJ: Because of the book?
VL: No. When the book comes out maybe they’ll try to kill me. When you read the book, the manager is kind of the villain.
DJ: And now you’re doing the run-up on the press end?
VL: We’re planning a couple of parties, one here, one in Seattle. Then we’re doing a four-date tour out East. It’s a small press.
DJ: Do you write as Viva?
VL: Viva is my public character, so I do a lot of writing as Viva Las Vegas.
DJ: When I was looking for stuff, I found Liv , I found Liv Osthus, I found this New York Times piece…
DJ: The name connects with Viva somehow.
VL: It’s Norwegian for Viva, but people always screw it up. By default I’ve become Viva everywhere.
DJ: Do you ever feel there’s a time when it all has to be packaged as, ‘Here’s me…here’s what I do’?
VL: I do. And I struggle with that. We all think about our careers. I think that Viva Las Vegas has been good for my career, but the only way to take it further is with more notoriety. I don’t know if I want that, per say. I certainly don’t like how you pursue it. I’m very happy with the friends and notoriety and fame right now. The writing that Viva gets is a lot more interesting than the writing that Liv Osthus gets.
Right now, my extra energy is going into my book, which won’t earn that money. And my band is a hobby.
DJ: The book won’t earn money?
VL: Yeah, I mean, it’s a book. Books don’t earn money.
DJ: Do you think that’s the legacy of the book, just being a book. Do you think it could become a screenplay?
VL: A lot of people have been interested in screenplay rights. We actually wrote one for Sundance in February. It got through the first round of competition. It didn’t get accepted for the final. My friend and I were commissioned to turn it into a screenplay in five days. No one expected to get it through the first round.
DJ: Did you get commissioned to do the book around the time you found out about your cancer?
VL: I found a publisher around the time it was diagnosed, but the book has nothing to do with the cancer. It’s interesting…there’s more money in that industry for writing, if you can call writing about cancer an industry.
DJ: So you’d written it before you found a publisher.
VL: I’d been writing it for four or five years.
DJ: And the cancer’s become more of a back story thing?
VL: That’s my publicist’s idea, that you need five words, or whatever, that will come up on Google search. “Ah, the girl with breast cancer who has a book…how do I find her?” Breast cancer. Stripper. Book. Search..
I wrote an article for Portland Monthly about the cancer. It had a lot of readership.
DJ: What about dancing now?
VL: Well, I’ve been doing it for three weeks again. The first week was terrifying. I haven’t come out, put out a press release and said, “Look, I’m back.”
I’m still feeling it out. I find myself watching the customers thinking, “OK, what do you see? Are you noticing anything different?” Some of my old customers come in…they’re thrilled that I’m back. They know what’s happened. They think it’s great. But most of these guys have never seen me before. They don’t bring that to Mary’s Club with them. I certainly don’t bring it with me. This is my body now. It’s been through stuff. Bodies always go through stuff. There are scars here. The first time, last week, I heard somebody whispering to his friend, “Look, those are fake.”
I wasn’t about to be like, “Yeah, fuck you, I had surgery ’cause I had cancer.” You know? But it’s interesting.
Jeff Selin, along with his wife, Rachel, founded Writers’ Dojo in the hopes of creating an incubator for evolving literary projects and a space that would attract amazing authors from around the world. The Dojo sits in the heart of Portland’s St. John’s area, along with Selin’s brother’s martial arts school. Since its founding in January, 2008, the Dojo has grown to include a thriving online journal, and has become a frequent gathering place for Portland’s literary and creative communities. Beyond his endeavors with the Dojo, Selin has worked as a copywriter, an advertising and branding professional, and is presently at work on a novel. We met at the end of February, 2009, to discuss online publishing, the Dojo, and his life as a writer.
DJ: At a time when people seem to going to poetry as a way to reflect and take solace in the world, there’s the question of how small presses and online journals continue to put it out there for the public to consume while also making it financially viable on their end. You must see this with WritersDojo.org.
JS: What’s interesting is it’s not an issue in Portland. The community here is incredible. It blows me away. We hear time and time again where big name poets come to town and they’re shocked. Literary Arts puts on an event and the place is sold out. The poets can’t believe it. How are we selling out the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for poetry? It’s unbelievable.
For WritersDojo.org, we’ve never had an issue finding and publishing amazing poetry. And our readership for poetry is off the charts. I know publishers in other states and other cities are struggling to find the amazing submissions and to find the readership for it. In Portland it’s not an issue. We’re something of an anomaly.
DJ: So we should change the name to Poetland?
JS: Along with all the other names…Stumptown, all the others.
We just published a podcast not too long ago by Diana Abu-Jaber. She was saying in the Middle East, people look at poets as the serious authors. For years and years, it didn’t matter if you were a professor or what genre you were in, if you were an intellectual, you wrote poetry. In Middle Eastern culture, in a lot of places, the poet is a very serious person, a person a letters, the elder statesmen of literary folk. And the novelists…the idea is, who can take a novelist seriously? You’re writing fiction.
DJ: Whereas here it’s the opposite.
JS: I think many people look to the poets here as…well, you’re a poet. It certainly puts an assumption on your politics, for example.
DJ: I mentioned to some of my workshop students that I write poetry, and the kids were beside themselves. “You write poetry?” And I said, “Yeah.” And they said, “Well, you don’t look like a poet. You don’t act like a poet.” These are 10-year-old kids. We went around the room and each kid described what a poet should look like. They had the weirdest impressions that involved everything from wearing moth-riddled sweaters to smelling like cats to walking around with your nose in the air.
JS: I think the idea of the poet, and what a poet is is changing all the time. And obviously poetry itself keeps changing. More and more, the younger crowd is looking toward spoken word poetry. Or kids realize that rap music is poetry. Somebody, maybe it was Rod Stewart or someone like that, back in the 80s was asked where all the great poets have gone. He said, “They’ve become musicians.”
DJ: I saw a Dylan quote recently where he said, “If I can put music to it, it’s a song. If I can’t, it’s a poem.”
DJ: Jumping to your own work, outside the Dojo, how is the balance for your own writing right now?
JS: For the last 15-years I always had one foot in advertising and also in journalism. Every creative professional I know, whether they’re a copywriter or a graphic designer, has this balancing act. Everyone wants to just do their creative work, but they have to put food on the table. Obviously, with the economy the way it is, it’s even more of an issue.
Lately I’ve been able to step away for the most part from advertising and work on my fiction most days. We’re very fortunate, and not a day goes by that I’m not happy for it. But I’m also looking at freelance work again because I have to. For me, it’s about prioritizing and keeping my creative work as a priority. What works for me…this idea that financial advisors have of paying yourself first. So every morning I pay myself first with my creative work. It’s when I feel most connected to the page. I spend the morning hours with my creative writing. Regardless of what happens with my professional life, I’m not going to let that go. I think that’s what happens with many professionals. They feel like they need to focus on whatever it is…writing for newspapers or magazines, or working with editors who might change their stuff too much but they feel like they need to take the gig. Or maybe they’re in advertising or PR and they let the creative stuff slide. And as the days and weeks and months go by, it’s harder and harder to get back to the page.
DJ: It is a challenge.
JS: I’ve been working on a novel for quite some time, and I’m getting close to finishing. The times that I’ve stepped away from it for something else, whether it’s a short story, or life happens, or whatever’s going on, it’s much harder to get back into it. Where am I, where’s the story arch, who are these characters? When I’m working on it every day, or I’m thinking about the story every day…if I step away for a month and try to go back, it’s challenging.
DJ: Everything becomes frozen in that spot where you’ve left it. I’m wondering if there’s ever any crossover between this work and that, or where this work (professional ) informs that work (the creative), where one begins to seep into the other?
JS: In the advertising world I’ve always been more of the brand, headline, creative type of copywriter. The concept of what is creativity and how do you access it on command – mood has nothing to do with it. As a professional, you need to wake up and have creativity on tap. What does that mean exactly? When do I feel more creative? It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for some time, so in that sense it overlaps. And when I was working in advertising full-time, I would write and do the marketing stuff sometimes for 12-hours a day, then come home and still have to find time to write. That’s where I developed my morning writing habit. Before I go give my creative energy to sell some widget, I’m going to write for myself.
Finding that creative juice, regardless of what you’re doing – my brother is an entrepreneur and a martial artist. Artist is right there in the title. For the Dojo, we’ve adopted the metaphor- and this concept connects to the martial arts, this idea of being a center for excellence. In business you’ll find it takes a lot of creativity to generate the energy of creating new business.
In advertising, I worked with designers, photographers, producers, web developers, etc., in creating this bigger brand concept. I always thought of it as creative. So the question wasn’t, “How do I stop doing this dry, boring stuff?” Because the energy and the project was always creative. The question was, “How do I stop focusing on selling products and services that I don’t really have a passion for?” Does the world need another BMW? I don’t think it does.
But there’s a mixed feeling in me about that. On one hand, products bring a lot of value, because they brings jobs, and the list goes on and on for how things play into the community and the economy. But if my passion isn’t 100% there, am I doing a disservice for my clients?
DJ: That’s a good point about the work itself being creative, because the work IS creative. The challenge is that idea of whether or not I want to support this, or if I’d rather be doing something else all together different.
JS: And on the other side of it, the fiction writing, I’m trying to be a professional writer. To me that means two big things. First, thick skin. I’m going to send things out, and they’re going to be rejected. Second is the showing up every day aspect. I’m going to write from this time to this time everyday, just like a full-time job. Where does mood come into it?
Having the discipline to come to the page every day…in the marketing world, it’s obvious. You’re going to sit in your cube, or wherever, and do stuff that you don’t want to do. That’s part of the distinction between the serious, professional writer, and someone who loves to write as a hobby.
The Dojo has a lot of members. Everyone’s serious about writing. When they come through the door they focus on their writing, and that’s what they’re here for. Many of those folks have other jobs or do other things, and there’s this sense of solace and community with other writers. The core members are professional writers. They use the space as their office. They’re here working.
When you see the amount of work they do, and the amount of daily effort that’s required to show up and keep plugging away every day, it’s a huge inspiration. The folks that are well published, the ones whose names are well recognized – they’re the quietest about what they’re doing. They’re here, their white earbuds go in, and they’re in their zone every single day, just writing, writing, writing, writing, writing. The level of prolificacy is phenomenal. For me, since I’ve been working on the same novel for four or five years, it’s especially interesting and inspiring.
Shaindel Beers’ poetry feels like the Midwest itself – open, rolling, as if a dust storm could blow through any moment. Her first full-length collection, A Brief History of Time, captures the sadness and longing of a never-ending landscape in rich language that evokes loss, flight, grace and humility. We spoke a few weeks ago, and discussed the concept of “mental crafting” (Beers holds onto ideas for months and even years before writing them), teaching (she is a professor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, OR), rural life (she grew up in Argos, Indiana), online publishing (she’s been poetry editor at Contrary Magazine since its founding in 2003), “short-shorts” night (as referenced in the poem A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR), and how memory and reflection lead her into verse.
DJ: You definitely have a lot going on, between your own work, your work with Contrary, what you’re doing at “the school” and your radio program (blog talk radio). Is there one area where you get greater pleasure or satisfaction?
SB: I guess everything feeds into more material to write about. It would be nice to have more free time to write. Still, I learn a lot from my students and from my other part-time jobs. They give me more time to think about writing.
DJ: A lot of your work reads in a way as if it arrived on paper exactly how it happened, almost in a “channeled” sense. I don’t mean “channeling” in a new age way, but more so like the poem came out of you in one long gush. I’m trying to get a picture of you working when suddenly you’re hit with this wave…
SB: I work a lot in my head, more than I ever write down. I wish I were one of those writers that carries a notebook and pen everywhere. I go through phases where I try to make myself do that. Sometimes something will stay in my head for months or even years before I write it down.
DJ: What finally gets you to write it down? Why does it stay so long, and what gets you to say, “I have to get this thing out?”
SB: Sometimes because it doesn’t feel finished. I’m not saying it’s a finished product in my head and then makes its way to paper. It’s like a seed. It has to germinate for a certain amount of time. Sometimes I write it down because it feels like it’s almost done, and sometimes I write it down because I’m afraid of forgetting either a part of it or the whole thing.
DJ: Would you say you’re mentally crafting pieces?
SB: I always feel like there’s a frame around things. When it feels like I have enough to build on it, that’s when it goes on paper.
DJ: So you’re never too worried that you’ll actually forget something?
SB: There are things I think I’ve forgotten.
DJ: Looking at the poem, ELEGY FOR A PAST LIFE, you mention in the second stanza:
“Back then at sixteen
I thought we’d make it out together,
and become writers.”
How long has this been going on for you, getting these lines coming to you, and at what point did writing enter your life?
SB: I probably wrote before I could physically write. When I was little, I would tell my mom stories, make her write them down then read them back to me. I was sort of a writer before I knew letters or the alphabet.
I think it was either high school or undergrad when I made that leap between wanting to be a reader and being a writer. I don’t know if I felt confident about my own work until I started having things published, first in the undergrad literary journal, then later in places right out of college.
DJ: It’s interesting that you showed up in the world as an oral storyteller, because there’s a wonderful diversity in the language of your poetry. Did you make your way to poetry from other places, or has poetry always been a place where you found a home and a voice?
SB: Some of it might be that poetry requires a shorter attention span. When I was an early teen, I remember reading my mom’s old poetry books and feeling like I could read a lot in one sitting, because mostly they were just stripes down the middles of pages. So I could read much more poetry in a short amount of time than I could, say, fiction. I feel this way about writing it also.
I’m trying to get better about spending more time at poems and fiction. I think poetry is my natural progression as a writer, then eventually I’ll move onto fiction. A lot of writers move in the same way.
DJ: So you’re actively writing things other than poetry?
SB: I have about half of a short story collection done. I need three to six more stories to be long enough to send out.
DJ: When you mention that poetry requires something of a shorter attention span, how do you say this is a benefit when it comes to online publishing? Especially when you consider the fact that there are well-regarded online literary sites and opportunities popping up all the time.
SB: I’ll sit down and read a 500-page novel in hard copy but I’d never do that on screen. I don’t know if it’s a physical issue, where staring at a screen that long isn’t good for your eyes, or if it’s a psychological issue, where we feel that things online should be short. There’s definitely something to the fact that people will only spend so long reading something online. You expect it to be no more than three screens if you’re scrolling, as if there’s an intuitive link between how long something is and how much we’re willing to read. Which is a good thing for poetry.
In general, I think people are in the mode of reading shorter fiction when they’re online. They’re more likely to read a 2,000 word story online than a 10,000 story.
DJ: Is that sort of shift completely positive?
SB: I don’t think it’s positive. It might just be one of the necessary evils that happen. I don’t want to think that we’ll be like Japan, where our literature turns into text message novels, or whatever the craze is. I hope it doesn’t go that far, but I think we have to be realistic that, if we’re sending things to an online venue, people are only going to read a poem that’s one screen, or a story of about 2,000 words.
DJ: As you’ve edited and been a reader for print and online places, could you speak to whether or not you see a different caliber of writing coming in?
SB: With Contrary, at least right now, I’m the final poetry editor. Of the 1,000 or so submissions a month, I only see the top 20 – which makes it really hard to choose. I’ve gotten things sent to me directly where I’ve felt people didn’t even look at the literary journal, but I haven’t seen any differences in quality from when I was a first reader for print to now.
DJ: Do you have any sense of shifts going on as it relates to the financial viability of small press publishers vs. online journals?
SB: I just know it’s expensive going to print. Just look at the big newspapers that are shutting down or selling right now. Print no longer seems to be where people are getting either their news or reading material, and I think we’re moving more to the online end of the spectrum.
In one issue of Contrary, we had nearly 100,000 page views – there’s no way we could afford to print 100,000 issues, or even 20,000 issues for that matter. I think a lot of it is the economy, but some of it is environmentalism – we’ve all seen journals give thousands of back issues away for free. It’s sad because there is something to the hardcopy print world and the tactile feeling of a book, magazine or journal. Unfortunately it’s expensive to do these days.
DJ: A hundred-thousand views is huge. When you think about a journal like Contrary, if it was exclusively in print as opposed to online, it would probably be a regional-type press.
SB: Definitely. And if anyone weren’t from the University of Chicago, or around the South Side, it would just be word-of-mouth subscriptions. People would read their classmates who were published in there, and that’s how it would spread cross country.