I sat across from John Morrison in a poetry workshop a few years ago and couldn’t figure what he was doing there, certain, after a brief conversation, that he should have been teaching a workshop of his own. He was well on his way to doing that and plenty more. By then he’d already earned his MFA from the University of Alabama. A year after the workshop, he’d receive the C. Hamilton Bailey Poetry Fellowship from Portland-based Literary Arts. In 2007, Bedbug Press published his first full-length collection, Heaven of the Moment, which is a finalist for the 2008 Oregon Book Award in poetry. John and I got together recently at the Star E. Rose cafe to talk writing, teaching and process.
DJ: I’d like to start by reading something out of Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, which is a book I know you’ve used in some of your classes. Hugo writes in his opening: “You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write.”
Do you catch yourself, or have you caught yourself doing this, and what’s your process to move away from that place where we’re inadvertently teaching others to write like us?
JM: I think, to some degree, workshops are a sham. We enter into them in a charlatan-like fashion. I do explicitly tell my students, “I can only teach you to write like me.” Which, I think, gives them the freedom to do what Hugo says next, which is, “Keep your crap detector on.” If it’s not working for you, then back off. Also, it’s important for a teacher to go, “I can be wrong about this.” You don’t want students to do something because you tell them to. You want them to do something, read something, think something, try a different line, try a different ending, because they want to. They have to choose it. They’re not going to choose it if it’s simply my idea.
I’m afraid this is a little bit of a cop out, but I am big on telling my students I’m not teaching them to write the poems they’re working on right now. I’m teaching them to work on the poems they will have in a year, if they stay with it.
I have drafts, and I know what I love about this first rough thing that I’ve written, but I know it’s not done for literally a year. Some can come sooner than that, but it can be literally be a year, because I have so many poems going at once, and what I don’t want to do is get to the point where I’m rushing a poem. Once I rush a poem, I freeze it in a certain place. If I take my time with it, it has the time and the process to become what it wouldn’t in its own time.
That’s why when somebody goes, “Just tell me how to fix this poem,” all I can do is say what I’d do. You can send it off and see if somebody wants to take it. But I’m really not teaching you to work on this poem in front of you right now. Whatever I tell you that’s worthwhile will be there when you’re drafting a new poem in six-months, or when you’re finishing that new poem six-months after that.
DJ: Another thing Hugo talks about, and I’d like to move into your process when you’re on the page with this, is the triggering topic, or the triggering subject, allowing yourself to move free of that trigger and go where the poem takes you. In many of your poems, you prove very fluent at this. A number of them meander in this very fluid way that never feels forced, and I never feel lost. The poem takes me where I wasn’t expecting it to go at the start. The picture develops in a panoramic sense. You start here, everything stays within the frame but the borders continue to expand. Do you ever find yourself fighting to keep the poem going in something of a straight line, and how do you safeguard against expectations to allow the poem to take you where it’s going to go?
JM: That’s a difficult question because I don’t watch myself like that. I really honor what Hugo says about triggering towns, but I don’t understand it. I really love what Robert Bly says about leaping poetry, or what frenetic stuff experimental writers can get into, but I might be a little more dull than all of that. (Laughs)
DJ: OK. For instance then, in “My Neighbor’s Dog,” I read the start as a scene poem between you and the neighbor. I get a feeling for that relationship. The poem then transforms into this wonderful play of language, off the word “being,” which is the name of the dog. Then you have all those meanings a reader could throw at “being,” which you’ve connected with through the manifestation of this dog. Then the last stanza takes this almost melancholic turn where it becomes this bit of wisdom that’s being passed from father to son. I could not have anticipated this poem that began as this scene poem would have ended there. So to distill the previous question, at what point does the poem take over and you step aside?
JM: You’ve gotten it in the play of that language. Once I followed that thread, and trusted stuff that for a long time wasn’t en vogue, which is a lot of repetition. Keep hammering on a word until it takes different shape, which is what we do every day in language. Typically, the more you say a word the more it changes, the more it has a life.
There’s some real life, which is foolish, but real life in that first stanza. And in fact, I had a professor of philosophy who joked about naming his dog Being. He was a sympathetic character, but not all that likable a character. He was kind of nasty character. And I’ve never much liked Lewis Finch either – I just kind of got along with Lewis Finch – who appears as a boy in the poem.
DJ: Is that someone…
JM: From my childhood.
DJ: So he’s always a child?
JM: If you take…I don’t even know if I had a son when I started writing that poem. But you look back at me as a college student with this professor who’s now an adult with me. And I have a son, though I don’t even know if I had a son then. I’m also casting back into my own childhood, and framing sort of my son as me. A lot of what is happening, you know, you find stuff that interests you or intrigues you or compels you in your everyday walking around life, but who knows what shapes they will take on the page. There’s also the image – and I don’t know how I feel about it – of driving home and being caught in traffic. That probably happened the day before. And that’s not the strongest part of the poem, it may have been something that, had I worked on the poem a bit more, might have come out. It may also have been the trigger.
I think it’s important to always be willing to give up what generated the poem, but I don’t know that I always do that, and if I do, it’s because I’ve hit upon language that lets me step away. I think I even mention it in “Evening Dress”. That’s certainly one where I didn’t know where I was going. And the poem is pretty much language driven. All I have there is my love, and regard for my 12-year-old son, and I’m telling him something really rather adult, something he won’t really need, you know, at the time, for 10-years, 15-years. I didn’t know where that poem was going to go. In fact I still look back and wonder, “Did this wind up in the right place?”
DJ: Getting back to the education, how do you convey what you just said to a novice writer, or someone who’s in your class for the first time, whether a young writer or…
JM: The short answer is process. I tell them it takes me forever to finish a poem. And they may be touched by God and finish poems right away, but I doubt it. There may be a couple of people in the world that finish a poem right away. What I say is, if you are willing to draft your poems, you are willing to get better. And you’re willing to have confidence that you’re headed in the right direction. I think if you take a finished poem and compare it to the first draft – although I really have no interest in doing that – I think you’ll say, “My gosh. Look how far away I got from the trigger. And I didn’t know it.” Sometimes we get stuck thinking, “This poem has to turn.” Well, yeah, it will. If you spend time with it. Or it really wasn’t a poem in the first place. You just thought it was going to be a poem.
In order to step away from the trigger, be willing to spend time with the poem, simply by saying, “This draft today is probably not much better than tomorrow’s draft.” It’s a way of showing patience with the poem and letting it become what it wants to be.
DJ: I’d like to ask you about “Spinoza and the Morning”, and the difference between it and “My Neighbor’s Dog”, where you took these instances and moved them into a single episode so that it reads like one unfolding moment. In “Spinoza,” you take three distinct periods and bring them together in one scene just as fluidly. There’s the deathbed, there’s the college scene, there’s you and the coworker. Yet the poem remains contained, and distills into that beautiful line, “Faster than thought, light swept toward us.” In the midst of exploring and allowing any poem to go where it will go, do you ever come up for air all of the sudden and say, “Where the hell am I?”
JM: If I’m writing a 60-line poem, do I ever stop at line 35 and think, “My God, what’s going to happen?” Maybe, but I think my answer is No. I don’t stop on line 35. I go to line 60, and then I think, “Hmmm, I wonder what this poem’s about?” And that’s what I mean by it being a series of drafts. I may be wrong, but I worked on that poem a long time. It’s also a very important poem to me. I think there was a time when it was in three sections, which means there was a time before that when it was all one. Then I went to three sections. Then I realized it was too abrupt or discordant to go from section one to two, so I took those out again.
To think about, process wise, how that happened, I was probably saying, “My gosh, I have a poem with all these chunks in it. Maybe I ought to treat them like chunks.” When I chunked them, I probably developed those chunks more. Then I’m sure I went, “You know, it’s not moving. I need to take those chunks out.” Then I probably had a challenge for a while with, “How do I transition without beating somebody over the head or being prosaic?” You never know.
One reason why I kept at that poem was because it was important to me. It all is of the question, “How does morning begin?” Which is how I felt the very early morning, the middle of the morning, after my father-in-law passed away. I thought, “This night could go on forever. We’re not hungry. We’re not moving around. We don’t know what to do. It’s too early to get the body. We’re stuck.” It was my mother-in-law, my wife and myself. I thought, “How does morning come?” I probably had a couple more memories about seeing the sun come up in different places. It does happen, but in that moment I didn’t know how.
DJ: In that poem you took “father-in-law” and spelled it out in the more personal “father”.
JM: It got clunky to have all the relationships in there as they really were. And it didn’t really matter. In that moment, my father-in-law was my father. My mother-in-law was my mother. On the human level, that stuff doesn’t matter. Was I going to stick with, “my mother-in-law, my father-in-law”? I’m not going to stick to that. To what end? To be accurate? That wasn’t helpful.
DJ: And it’s not the meaning of the poem.
JM: It wasn’t helping me move. Fundamentally those are clunky. It might be an interesting challenge to write, with all those relationship titles in there. I had other things to do. I wanted to get onto the next poem.