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.
When Brian Turner and I spoke a little while ago, he was preparing for a series of poetry workshops as well as revising his upcoming collection, Talk the Guns (to be released by Alice James Books toward the end of the year), the title of which comes from a fire command team leaders give to their fire teams, often during combat. “An evocative phrase”, as Turner put it.
The poems in his first collection (Here, Bullet, © 2005, Alice James Books) reflect in lucid detail his own experiences as an infantryman in Iraq. In addition to discussing how his military experience continues to influence his work, we also touched upon other places from where he draws his language, his early influences, and his role in the ongoing conversation around the war itself.
DJ: Are you consciously aware of how the military language comes into your work? Can you remember back before the military to what your language was like, and how it’s shifted?
BT: With these two books, I can see the effect and influence, and how the language drives the line. It affects the psychology, too, in the type of language I’m using. I’m sure there are subtler effects I’m not yet aware of. It might take some time to figure out the deeper psychological influence.
On the surface, and in the lines themselves, I can see the lingo and jargon that’s used “on the job.” I’d have to go back to some of my old stuff and see what’s there, because my family has generationally been in the military, so the language was always sort of there, just not as much when I was younger.
DJ: I’ve heard other writers use the expression “drive the line” before. As if the words are there, though not exactly a conscious thing. The poem’s already moving, you’ve already accessed what you need to say, and the language wells up because it’s in your makeup.
BT: Imagine a phrase comes to mind. I sit around with it for a week or two. I write it down quite a bit. I try to start a poem, but it doesn’t work. I try again, and it still doesn’t work. I stew on it. Whatever the phrase might be – maybe military jargon, or something I used when I was in uniform – it has a certain music.
I play trumpet and bass as well, and it’s similar to when you’re writing a song. You start off in a certain key, which leads to certain notes. I might not be aware of them ahead of time, or I might not be prepared for them. Maybe I was just noodling around, and suddenly it feels like it’s being birthed on its own, like there’s a connection that leads to certain pathways. If that makes any sense at all (laughter).
I think the words drive and create certain possibilities that come forward from them and feel natural in the process of doing so. If it feels unnatural, then there must be a reason for feeling that way, or I just need to scrap it and try over.
DJ: It’s not like you’re trying to force something where it doesn’t belong.
BT: Yeah. It’s like when you hear false notes, you know it’s not right. You keep working at it.
DJ: So the music of the poem, especially playing bass and trumpet, must be very important to you.
BT: Language is musical. The way we speak, the phrases we use…music is inherent in the language itself. Playing an instrument, it has an influence, but I don’t think it matters so much. I like the rhythms of language. That’s why I gravitated to poetry more than prose. I’m still learning how to write a sentence. Maybe once I figure that out I’ll dabble at something longer (laughter).
DJ: I know you were in Bosnia as well as Iraq. Being around these other languages, was there a sense of allure to their musicality?
BT: It starts back here in the Central Valley, California. My father was a Russian linguist in the Army. His main hobby, even to this day – he’s trying to learn Thai, Cambodian – is to learn parts of new languages while brushing up on stuff he’s previously studied. I was sort of raised in that environment.
I’m not multi-lingual in any way. I know a few phrases here and there. When I was in Bosnia, it was frustrating because I didn’t have much contact with Bosnians. I wasn’t out patrolling the streets and meeting people. In Iraq, I was out meeting and talking to people. It was more intriguing in that sense.
DJ: Were there other writers in your family?
BT: Several. My aunt – she’s not published, but all my life I looked to her as the wordsmith of our family. She seems to have more knowledge than the dictionary has in her head. A very amazing woman. My dad as well. He’s not a writer, per say, but his affinity for and interest in language affected me. Also my uncle was an English teacher who lives about an hour away. He would drop off books that were above my grade and reading level. So it was inspiring, encouraging and challenging. And I’d send him stories or poems and he’d comment back, try to encourage and urge. It was very helpful.
DJ: You have these split influences, which is quite interesting. I’m curious, outside of war writers and things like that, who were your earlier influences?
BT: Some of them are still my influences. I mentioned this elsewhere, and it’s a question I should have considered more carefully earlier. These people, my uncle, my aunt, they’re big influences, but I’d say one of my biggest influences is a guy who doesn’t even write any longer. The guitarist in my band, a guy named Brian Voigt. I’ve known him since I was seven. He’s brilliant. He’s helped shape a lot of my thoughts about art by the arguments we’ve had over art through the years.
In a similar way, a poet named Stacey Brown, who I was in graduate school with, is my best reader. She seems to know my work better than I do, and knows how to challenge me. A lot of people in the MFA program for that matter. Their influence lasts to this day as well. A guy named Nick Barrett was always saying, “Compression.” It wasn’t a new idea, exactly, but it was new to me, and I got it from Nick.
DJ: Tell me about compression in your work. It seems to me that there’s just enough air between your lines where it’s not completely flattened. Is that what you mean? That idea of keeping the story dense? Because there is a good density to your work. Not too dense. More like a happy medium.
BT: If it feels like the work comes close to it, then I owe it to the people who helped me revise. As I was writing the first book, and still now, the word “compression” is in the back of my head. Often there’s a part of me that wants to tell too much and do too much of the reader’s work. I really have to focus on cutting so I leave some of the work for the reader to do, sort of create the “unsaid,” in a sense.
There’s a poem, TWO STORIES DOWN, where a man jumps off a building. Hopefully people have to figure out “why” for themselves, because the narrative doesn’t really address the reason behind it. And who kills who at the end. That kind of thing.
It’s almost one of those cheesy stories with a sort of “cliffhanger ending”, in a sense, but I think that poem is one of the most blatant for what we’re talking about now, because the lines are compressed a bit.
The lines themselves, musically…I have a tendency to use a lot of anapestic rhythm, that rolling sort of, “du-du-dum-du-du-dum” stuff, which I like a lot, but I wind up with a lot of “fors” and “ands” and other connective tissue language. Then in the revising process I try to compress and cut those out to heighten the pressure of the language. It works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t.
Joseph Millar’s poetry spoke to me the instant I opened his first collection, Overtime (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001), a book that spans across the great American landscape and touches upon everything from fathers and sons to the telephone lines. As Millar mentioned when we spoke, the poems in Overtime seem to possess the sense of “good faith” despite struggle. While the poems exist on the page as if they were happening in the moment, his recent collection, Fortune (EWU Press, 2007), expresses a deeply reflective voice, and demonstrates Millar’s connection to music and the musicality of his verse.
After living in the Bay Area in many years, then briefly in Oregon, Millar and his wife, the poet Dorianne Laux, currently reside in North Carolina. I caught up with Millar during the winter 2009 Pacific University MFA gathering in Seaside, Oregon. The first part of our interview is from a talk he gave with the poet Marvin Bell.
(JM): We all have to confront the blank page. In a poem – and I suppose stories and novels are like this too – it’s like a song. I was reading Dylan’s Chronicles the other day, and he says that writing a song is like entering a strange country. I thought that was profound. You’re not exactly sure what the language is or where anything is. You’re wandering a little bit. You’re looking around.
Maybe something’s pushing on you. Maybe you want to go north, or you know that it’s starting to be a poem about someone who’s left you, or someone who’s just been born. Maybe you don’t know what it’s about. So you write down something that’s happening right in front of you. Maybe it’s the rain on the grass. Then you can’t think of anything else, and you start to make a song out of it.
Chances are you’ve developed certain patterns and habits of conducting yourself in this strange land. The poem may tend to follow off in your way of doing things. If you’ve been at it long enough and have developed these habits, one of them may take over.
One of the things we should do in our poems is to “go there, beyond the woods.” And one of the ways to do that is to try to avoid these patterns of entry into the strange land. Lately I’ve been doing little rhymers, almost as a kind of joke. Some of us were writing together and I couldn’t think of anything. Marvin (Bell) likes to say, “Music always wins” – if there’s a competition between sense and sound, between the message of the words and the music of the words, the music wins every time. So one possibility is that you become childlike and start to goof around. Instead of telling a story, you sing a song.
Some part of this passes our understanding. We’re not going to completely understand it when we’re writing, and this needs to be OK with us. We don’t need to be that smart to be writers. It’s a different part of the human that makes both song and story. It’s not the same as the smart part that gets you to be the valedictorian. That’s good. In fact, a lot of times, the element that makes you a poet or a writer is the part that’s held out of the “A” group, the advanced group, the “in-crowd” of whatever world you’re in. The part of you that wasn’t the best looking, wasn’t the best athlete, didn’t have enough money. The part of you that was held out is the part that makes you able to hear the song inside yourself. The part that can play by itself a little bit, make up little songs, move the chairs around.
You’ve seen it happen in prose, poetry, fiction…the writing just lifts up off the page. The journey stops, freezes up, and the writing lifts up into song, sound and lyric.
It’s a huge thing when you sit down with your little self, you open the page and you say, “OK, look here, the rain on the grass….or whatever. It’s this huge, vast thing. We go there not in the spirit of confrontation but in the spirit of humility and the hope that something good happens. And we go there even if we’re afraid nothing good will happen and we’re tired. We just go there. That’s the way you get something. By going there, opening the page and making marks on it.
You’re trying to put a spell on yourself, to hypnotize yourself, to go under a little bit. You don’t want to be sitting there in the same frame of mind as if you were reading directions on how to put something together. It’s a different way of being, and a different way of thinking. You’re trying to lower your conscious restrictor. And some people are better at this, naturally. It’s a knack that can be practiced, and like most practice, it works best if you get a regularity or rhythm going with it. The unconscious relates to rhythm the same way a kids goes, ‘Oh, it’s 10 o’clock. Time for milk and cookies. Then we go out in the yard. Then we come in and lie down.’ For us, it’s like, ‘I’m going to open my notebook now. This is my chair. This is my light. Now I’m going to practice.’
After you’ve been doing this for a while, something takes over besides just your thinking. A lot of times, when you lower (the thinking) part of you down a bit, surprising things happen. Strange sounds come out. Strange cries arise from the back. That’s where you’re trying to get to. It’s something you learn by practicing.
(DJ): Your subjects are often deeply humanistic, of the earth, blue collar. The poems in Overtime especially feel like they have a lot of history to them.
(JM): Those poems go back to the 80s, and the experiences are even older than that. I didn’t have much time to really sit down and write poems every day, or work on them every day. Or I didn’t make the time. By ’97 I had a bunch of the poems already, but it took about four-years after that.
In Fortune, my chops are a little better, but another thing is that, a lot of the poems in the first book were written during an intense period of disorientation, single-fatherhood, craziness and big changes in my life. Mainly being suddenly single with an eight-year-old to raise and his big sister who was in high school, and all of us being in this weird place. I was exposed in a strange way, and the poems in Overtime came out of that. With Fortune, I had more time and my chops became a little better. I learned more technical stuff. It’s not covering as long a period of time. And my life wasn’t so (messed) up. That’s the difference in the two books.
I was less pleased with the poems in Fortune for a long time. Then I said, ‘Well, you know, they’re pretty good.’
(DJ): What was it you found less pleasing?
(JM): I felt like I was complaining a lot in that book. Here I have this great life and all I could do is piss and moan. I was thinking, ‘What’s up with that?’ And I’d talk with people about that, and they’d say, ‘Well, look Joe, you take what they’re giving you. Don’t worry about it. Maybe you’re pissing and moaning because you couldn’t do it before.’ I couldn’t afford to, sort of. Maybe that was it. It just seemed like the outlook was more bleak, stripped out and existential. The first book seemed like it had more good faith in it. More struggling good faith. Later I kind of forgave myself and thought, ‘That’s what I got. That’s the way it is.’
To some extent you take what they’re giving you, make poems out of it and try not to judge yourself. You can judge your technique in the poem and try to improve that. And you can judge the poem on whether it’s good or bad. But for the mode of expression, the thing that’s driving the poem…you know, we all have different parts and that’s it.
(DJ): In Overtime, there’s a deep tenderness between the characters in these poems – you and the father, you and the son. When you were living in this time, what was your process of getting things out. Were you stealing time? Or did you find yourself in the moment with something triggering you?
(JM): Both. I’d write at night. I’d write in the truck at work.
(DJ): You were working in a crew?
(JM): I was foreman by the time I quit. Sometimes I’d put my guys to work somewhere and park a mile and a half away, sit near the Bay and go back in an hour and a half to see how they were doing.
(DJ): Did people know you were writing?
(JM): No. I hid it from them. If they came up to my truck and I was writing I’d cover it up in a newspaper or something else.
(JM): I didn’t want to hear anything about it. I didn’t want to give that part of myself away.
(DJ): It doesn’t really fit…
(JM): The blue collar, macho…you know, the whole deal. And then later my guys went and bought Overtime and were like, ‘Hey man you were writing those poems about us!’
(DJ): Who were you reading?
(JM): I was reading Merwin, Phil Levine. He’s a national treasure. He’s the one who gave permission to so many of us to write these poems. Of course I feel it’s a privilege to be able to write poems at all.
(DJ): As a younger man, when did you start going toward writing?
(JM): I wanted to be a novelist in college. I went to Penn State for a couple of years.
(JM): Back in ’63 and ’64. There were all these great novels about personal freedom. Novels like Henderson the Rain King, A Fan’s Notes, The Ginger Man. They were all about personal freedom. I could never…it’s such a different way of imagining things. I joke with fiction writers about it all the time because I love that.
I didn’t start writing poems until I graduated, came out west to California in ’67. Then I started writing poems. I knew I couldn’t write fiction. I couldn’t think of a plot. So I started writing personal impressions that turned into poems.
(DJ): Some writers either don’t want to or don’t know if they can access certain things. Do you feel that the narrator of a poem is always necessarily the writer?
(JM): It is for me. There’s a big part of me in all my poems. I don’t think that’s true for everyone. For me it is. All these things about the unstable “I” and the fractionalized first person…to me, I write poems because I’m alive and I like how it makes me feel to do it. Maybe I’ll change. Occasionally I’ll do a persona poem, or I’ve been writing these bestiary poems, but they all have some big part of me in them. I’m imbedded in the much maligned “I”.
Paulann Petersen’s work is deeply rooted in music and presence. Even her musings and reflections remain wrapped in the moment, which guides the reader through the navigable terrain of each poem. As the poet Vern Rutsala notes in the introduction to Kindle, Petersen’s latest collection:
“There are forces in our society which try very hard to put us in a fixed place…but the poet knows that the self is slippery and doesn’t fall easily into any particular slot saying, ‘Hey…you may be here but you’re also over there and maybe somewhere else entirely.’ Petersen says these things but also adds that the place you find yourself is often a transitional one on the way from here to there.”
Petersen is an extremely active member of Oregon’s literary community, a frequent workshop instructor, the recipient of the 2006 Literary Arts Stewart Holbrook Award for Outstanding Contributions to Oregon’s Literary Life, and a board member of Friends of William Stafford. She was kind enough to invite me to her home, where our conversation started off on the topic of another Oregon writer, Ray Carver.
(PP): There was an incredible resonance in Carver’s work, especially for anyone who’s experienced hard times in their life. He was almost improbably sympathetic and generous. Very few people who achieve the type of status and acclaim he received are as unpretentious and generous as he was, and IS in his stories. It’s really there. His profound sympathy for, as Grace Paley may have said, the little disturbances of man. Paley is superb too. “The Little Disturbances of Man” and “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” are short stories…she was an enormously influential writer for people just beginning as writers. Right during Ray’s time. She might still be, though I don’t know how many people are still reading her.
Ray always thought of himself of a poet, which is incredible when someone who is credited with having changed the landscape of fiction would consider himself primarily a poet. A lot of writers cross over into different genres of course. Ursula Le Guin is a great example.
(DJ): And you?
(PP): Just poetry. I’ve written a few prose pieces. Essays, stories.
(DJ): And what about your start?
(PP): I wrote poetry as a young girl. I was in high school in SE Portland won a prize of some kind. I didn’t even know how to pursue anything with it. We had no creative writing classes, and I came from a decidedly non-literary family. Very blue collar. I never thought of this before but there was not a single book of poetry in the house, and just a handful of books in general. I can remember exactly where they were on the bookshelf.
My parents weren’t ill-educated. My mom had done nurse’s training at St. Mary’s in San Francisco. She had a sound background in biology and science. My father wanted to go to college. He was in school for a year, then the Depression started and his family needed him.
They read, but it just wasn’t a family atmosphere where books or literature were a big part of our lives. I think I had some children’s books and nursery rhyme type things.
When I went to Pomona, I took my poems to my English professor, who referred me to someone else who was sort of the resident poet. I remember him saying in effect, ‘Oh, I don’t think so’ (laughter). Something about being ‘lovely images’ but not the cohesion of a poem. And I set it aside.
As a young adult in Klamath Falls, and by now I had young children, I started reading the Saturday Review, which had poems in every issue. I also stumbled onto Philip Larkin’s poetry and began to see that there was a wonderful world of contemporary poetry out there. I started to seek it out.
(DJ): Were you teaching by now?
(PP): No. I was essentially a house wife. We had very little money, not impoverished, but not much money. My husband at that time – we later divorced – was a high school English teacher. His salary was barely above the level where you qualify for food stamps. We didn’t have much extra money, and I spent my time doing things like baking all the bread, canning, cooking from scratch and the things you do to economize. We lived on an acre and a quarter that was surrounded by farmland. It was a busy life.
When my son was in second grade I went back to school and got my teaching degree. I drove back and forth to Southern Oregon University across the mountains. It was wonderful to be in school, even those infamous method courses and the things you take to be a teacher.
Lawson Inada (Oregon’s Poet Laureate) was on the faculty. I met with him to see if I could be in his creative writing class. We talked for a while. He said, “I can’t think of a better position for a writer to be in than to be driving up those mountains and down into the valley, doing that two times a day. All that time to think. That’s perfect! You come on in.”
It was wonderful being in his classes while I was finishing my degree. I wound up getting a Masters there, and Lawson paved the way for me to do a manuscript of poems as my thesis, which was quite unusual at Southern Oregon at the time.
(DJ): Coming from this place as a child without many books on the shelf, what bubbled up within you and to steer you toward wanting to write?
(PP): Through high school and college I was a good writer. I remember just knowing where transitions belonged, where new paragraphs should start, those sorts of things.
(DJ): From when you left school to when you went back, how were you finding time to write between raising family and living the rustic lifestyle?
(PP): I was stealing time, plus reading some wonderful contemporary poems in the Saturday Review. The Atlantic was another one. The county library was wonderful as well. That’s where I discovered Grace Paley. I was reading lots of contemporary poetry, plus following my own threads of language and imagery to learn to write.
(DJ): Where did those come from? Or maybe it’s the same now? What are those triggers for you?
(PP): Usually for me it’s a piece of language that floats in from somewhere. Sound…the sonic qualities of a poem is very important.
I believe a poem is a creature of sound…a creature of heartbeat and breath. If a poem doesn’t have that sound then it doesn’t resonate with me. There are lots of poets who work in very narrative, cerebral styles. I appreciate and recognize how fine their work is, but the poems and the poets I return to are the ones where, again and again, I find an almost phonic-type music.
So I follow bits of language that have sound forms I can hear and feel pushing from them and with them. Often I’ll just start writing. I call it riffing, as a musician might riff. I let the sounds carry me from one thing to another, just pushing and pushing and carrying onto the page. Later I’ll go back and see something that looks like the kernel of a poem, or maybe somewhere in there I’ll find a whole poem in the riff.
Very seldom do I have an idea for a poem, and then write it. Idea poems don’t turn out that well for me. People like to ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ That to me is more like, ‘writing a poem about…’ and then having a topic for a poem. That doesn’t work for me.
(DJ): So you follow the sound and music, and then the idea is there…
(PP): The idea emerges, or I can see what in that particular riff – which might be two, three or four pages – coheres.
(DJ): Is it script across the page? Are you already starting to build line breaks in?
(PP): Sometimes the line breaks are there. Once I take something out of the notebook, and start to put it on single sheets, I write long-hand a number of drafts before I ever put it on a word processor.
(DJ): Have you always worked this way?
(PP): Some French theorists have the notion that style is learned through the wrist. I’m not saying it applies to me, but I like the idea of it.
When my first full-length book came out, Confluence Press had me fill out a fairly lengthy questionnaire so they could use information in a press release. of their questions was – and I’m going to ask you this first: To which school of poetics do you belong?
(DJ): My school? I don’t know if it’s a school (laughter). Lots of tragic hero stuff. Human weirdness (laughter).
(PP): The first thing that popped into my mind was the school of Disembodied Poetics, from Naropa. I was trying to think about what schools of poetics there were. If could figure that out then maybe I could figure out where I was. Then I knew. I belonged to the school of Embodied Poetics, because I believe in poems of the body. And I don’t mean poems about the body, but poems that are embodied, almost as if they are part of your very flesh. Poems from the body.
(DJ): There’s a great sense of presence in your poems. The reader doesn’t get lost.
(PP): That’s important to me. We choose at some point what we’re going to do. I’ve been working on a few poems that are quite surreal. I like to work like that, and I can do it, but quite a while ago I made a conscious decision – and it was something I came to over a period of time, that if I was going to err in one direction or the other, I wanted to err in the direction of being accessible to people. I love the idea of a shared voice, an almost archetypal voice that could be coming from any of us.
I was fortunate to meet with Penelope Scambly Schott shortly after her most recent book, the historical narrative A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth (Turning Point Books) won the 2008 Oregon Book Award for poetry. Schott is widely published, and her credits include a novel, four chapbooks and six full-length books poetry. She’s also worked as a donut maker in a cider mill, a home health aide, an artist’s model, and a college professor. After talking baseball – she grew up a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and as a girl used to stay up with her family to listen to games in Los Angeles – we launched into various ways her inquisitive spirit informs her work. Of course her inquisitive nature prompted Penelope to interview me at the onset. Part 2 of our interview will appear later in 2009.
(DJ): It’s a joy to have these conversations. I’m starting to see that I’m seeking as much as wanting to communicate answers to other people.
(PS): I did that for a while. I have in a folder in my filing cabinet called “Friendship Project”. I was trying to understand other people, partly to see if I was weird. Sometimes you look at the furniture in your head and you think, “Hmm, I wonder if anyone else is living with this?”
I went around and asked a whole lot of people two things. One, what do you think about when you’re not thinking about something else? Is there something you return to? And the other thing was, what connects you to your friends. People were completely dumbfounded by these questions. I never got good answers to what’s in your head.
(PS): Well, what’s in your head?
(DJ): Well, as soon as you said that…
(PS): You did a snapshot of the moment…
(DJ): I think about baseball. I don’t know why I come back to this because I was a pitcher, but I see myself in the batter’s box, trying to drive the ball to right-center field. After about age 12, hitting wasn’t my strong point. Sometimes I work on it in my head. Sometimes I swing and miss. Sometimes I connect. It plays like a four-second loop. Swing, drive, start to run, head back…swing, drive, head back.
(PS): Once you hit it you know it’s going to go…
(DJ): Yes and no. I don’t know what happens to the ball. What I should really do is stay on the ball for a while.
As for what connects me to my friends…I just had an old friend out here, a guy I’ve known since I was eight. No matter how much you change, there’s always that thing that calls you back. These old friends who share the old town stories, I feel connected through a deeply embedded emotion like a rock holding water. The water is safe inside the rock. It’s still but it’s fluid, even with an encasement around it. The water doesn’t know anything outside of the rock. But it’s OK in there. It’s not missing anything. I’m over here chasing poets around. My friend’s in Philadelphia living his life. We’re held together by the water inside the rock.
(PS): That’s nice.
(DJ): So this inquisitiveness within you…between your historical and lyric books, how does does it affect and guide you down different paths, one toward research, the other toward self discovery?
(PS): Why should I answer? You gave a wonderful answer. (laughter)
I was a history major as an undergraduate. If I’d come along a little later, once history broadened out from wars and statistics and into peoples’ lives, I would have gone on in history. I look at everything in a kind of chronological way. When I’m looking out at the street here and I see what’s driving by, there’s this sort of film in my mind that runs the buildings backwards, changes cars to horse drawn and so forth. What I see doesn’t just exist as itself in the moment. It’s all in a process of change, as if everything is on a continuum. We’re all on this continuum.
I’m fascinated to take a story that has been squelched or lost and try to move backwards into understanding what it might really have been like. When I’m writing about somebody, my mind’s in a room that’s filled with the furniture of that era, the food of that era, the ambient sound of that era. That’s the kind of research I do until I feel I can hear the person.
(DJ): You delve in.
(PS): All three of my narrative books have bibliographies. I immerse myself in everything I can find. The book about Anne Hutchinson for instance…
(DJ): Congratulations by the way.
(PS): Thank you. I’m pleased for two reasons. One, I believe she deserves attention. And I’m pleased because it proves I’m now an Oregonian, after having come from elsewhere. (Laughter)
It was only when I started reading the transcripts of her trial that I felt I could hear her voice. And the word that I hate to use, because it sounds too “new agey,” is channeling. But I really felt that I knew her the way you would know a friend, and would be able to guess what the friend would think or say or do. My curiosity took me there.
In terms of standard lyric poetry…among other things, I’ve never been bored. If you look at anything, and you REALLY look at it, it gets very interesting. Sit here and look at these chairs. They were in someone’s house. Who knows what the deal was with these chairs? They all have lives. Sometimes, when I look at the world…it’s very interesting to me.
I’m a woman who’s getting on in age. You’re a young man. Isn’t it interesting that people are different ages? Different genders? I’m sitting here having this conversation with you. You’re younger than my son, but it’s the kind of conversation I may have with him. So every constellation of the moment astonishes me. If I had to use one word to describe my attitude in life, it would be “amazed.”
Look at these three trees (motions out the window). That one still has its leaves. That one has places with leaves. And that one on the corner, it has licorice fern growing on it. Right in town!
(DJ): Most people would just walk by.
(PS): Everything stops me dead in my tracks. That’s what happens. And…you know this as a writer, it’s a blessing and a curse.
I’m not going to go see the new James Bond movie. Even though it’s James Bond, and the violence is cartoonish of sorts, I really can’t stand it. It’s like I don’t have thick enough skin. When I was a kid, people used to tell me, “Well, you’re too sensitive!” And I think most writers are “too” sensitive – put “too” in quotes.
(DJ): I think you’re right. A lot of writers are “too” sensitive. And I mean that in a positive sense. It allows us to channel the emotion that’s out there, that people are walking underneath. And it makes me wonder – there are more and more writers and less and less readers…
(PS): We have to read each other.
(DJ): How do you feel about that? You’re going through life as you. You’re summoning whatever it is you’re summoning, which you then direct into your work. In the end you’re writing for yourself – we have to be writing for ourselves…
(PS): If I was on a desert island with paper and pencil I’d be alright. And I love language. I love words.
(DJ): Do you think about the masses or majority walking by? Whether these things you’ve pointed out go under their radar, and what does that say about their interest, their curiosity…
(PS): Well, I think there’s a tribe of us who do see those things. Those are the people I’m speaking to. A lot of people are so busy having stimulus come in at them, that are not the natural world. Going around with earbuds…or the television is always “at” them. It doesn’t leave quite enough room for your own thoughts to grow. I think that people who are out “being entertained” by something all the time – you need to see a movie a day, make sure to see your favorite shows, whatever it is – then what you are connecting with are the thoughts of the people who created those shows. And there’s a certain amount of stillness that you have carry within you to notice what’s in your immediate world as opposed to your media world.
David Horowitz, writer and head of Rose Alley Press was minding his booth at Wordstock when I stopped by and introduced myself. He was about to release his newest book, Stars Beyond the Battlesmoke, and we spoke briefly about Rose Alley as well as his work. During our interview a few weeks later, I learned that beyond the duties of the creating and publishing, Horowitz works full-time for a downtown Seattle law firm, and devotes additional hours to tending to the needs of his elderly mother. Only then does he sit down to handle the duties of publishing and the demands of the writing life. Part one of our interview focuses on the challenges of publishing, personal integrity and begins to get into his craft as a writer. Part two will appear later in the year. You can read his work on the Rose Alley author page.
(DJ): Between your work as a writer and managing Rose Alley, what struggles do you encounter trying to honor both, and where do you feel there may be some overlap?
(DH): There is overlapping – big time – for me. I’m not fundamentally a commercial publisher. I’m not somebody who’s going to publish something to make money, and then say, “OK, now I have to get to my serious art.” That’s not the way I work. What I publish is what I consider to be my serious art. I’ll take whatever losses come with trying to get it out there.
I don’t have a commercial line and an aesthetic line. The aesthetic line is it. So it’s a tough sell. But it does give me, personally, a lot of energy and sense of commitment to the press, because I’m publishing stuff I really want to sell. I’m not feeling half-hearted about selling it. There’s a strong sense of energized, sincere commitment that you gain by being a purely aesthetic publisher as opposed to publishing something you don’t particularly believe in just to make some money.
Now, there are ways in which the publishing impinges on my own creativity. Publishing is not glamorous. It is often very foolishly stereotyped as something that is glamorous or that entails activities performed by king-making, wealthy people and that kind of nonsense. I don’t make much money in terms of my overall intake, and I lose money as a publisher. But I’m very committed to it.
What impinges is the constant publicity that a small publisher has to do in order to promote the work sufficiently. That means readings, which includes producing fliers for each reading because you have to. People aren’t just going to go to a reading because it’s a reading. There might be 15 or 20 readings on a given night in Seattle. You have to get out there and promote. That’s time consuming. I’d rather spend my time doing research or writing poems. Sending out emails can get old, but it’s something you have to do if you want to sell books. You’ve got to commit to producing good looking work and promotional materials that make people believe this is solid stuff. The editing of brochures, the creation and distribution of email fliers…it’s not glamorous. I’d rather be doing other things sometimes, but it’s necessary. That’s probably the biggest conflict right there.
If there is overlapping, in an odd way, it’s that the socializing you do at a book fair or with your fellow writers can help create a sense of literary community that would otherwise not exist. You deepen your sense of commitment because you all understand you’re in a difficult marketplace. You get a deeper appreciation for one another’s struggles, which deepens your sense of community and commitment to one another. That’s a pleasure. It alleviates that sense of arduous loneliness that can often attend to the publisher’s responsibilities.
(DJ): I love that language…”arduous loneliness…”
(DH): It can be that way. You’re staying up till three or four in the morning sending out email messages and you have to be at work three hours later. It’s that kind of field.
(DJ): Jumping into some of your poems then . . . there’s the final line in the poem, “No Given”:
“Integrity must battle to survive,
In shadowed lunar scene must sharpen sight.”
Could you jump into that line and flash it back toward your work? Especially having heard you say what you said, and visualizing this poem taking place as a scene, it’s as if we each encounter that moment when we’re thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we were off doing this, but my integrity keeps me here.” How does that align with everything you just told me?
(DH): I value that poem highly. I don’t tend to write what you might call “statement poems” all that often, but this is kind of a statement poem.
“Integrity must battle to survive.” Yes. That epitomizes, really, the struggle of the principled artist in a corrupt word. The last line is an attempt to soften, a little bit, the potential for finger wagging sanctimony when one urges integrity as a moral ideal. In a sense, “Integrity must battle to survive.” Because, the line before it: “Day’s bribe, threat, and deceit still live–no, thrive.” That’s what you’re faced with.
Here’s an example. I never violate privacy in order to sell. In the world though, that stuff does go on. It’s amazing how much privacy is violated to find out people’s buying habits. Then stuff comes back through that data and now people think they have a better chance to sell to you. Sometimes it’s done above board and sometimes it’s not. I won’t do that. I’d rather starve than violate people’s privacy to find out their buying habits. I’ll take my chances on being an honest person. That’s not necessarily everybody’s approach. Some could care less about privacy. All kinds of databases and lists are gathered by questionable means.
The line, “In shadowed lunar scene must sharpen sight.” Well the “shadowed lunar scene” is a kind of penumbral reality . . . the penumbral moral decision making we have to face. It’s tough sometimes to know what integrity means. It’s tough to make decisions. Sometimes people who might seem good aren’t good. Sometimes people are angry but they have a good reason for anger. Or they don’t have good reason. It’s difficult to know. It’s rarely absolutely clear just what integrity does entail. On one hand, I have a strong sense of integrity. By the same token, I want to emphasize with the last line that making decisions that inhere of integrity is often tough. It can be tricky.
There are two places I will never compromise on integrity, ever, in any shape or form. One being, the art itself. You’ve got to say what you’ve got to say. You can’t sit there and worry if something’s going to be popular. You can’t go there. I say what I really think needs to be said. Number two, the basic morality, as a publisher at least, of selling. Not cheating people, not manipulating people, no baiting and switching, spying on their computer habits…none of that garbage.
(DJ): Regarding your integrity to the art itself, I’m reminded of our first conversation when we discussed your adherence to form. I’m curious about your drafting process, since your final versions are so particular to the form that you hope to convey. As you explained, there’s something in the form that in a way creates more beauty. What do your first drafts look like?
(DH) A couple of points. First, I call myself a rhyme addict. I will frequently start poems with what I call “rhyme seeds.” A rhyme strikes me as being particularly strong, and I write it down. Then, some kind of, often, very metrical line hits me. And I have an epigram…a two-liner or a four-liner. Sometimes I feel it has everything I need to say. Sometimes I feel it doesn’t. Then I really work more with a kind of putty. I’ll have a couplet or quatrain that’s pretty strict or finished, but if I don’t feel it has everything that needs to be said, I work more with drafts that have less metrical lines, maybe have off-rhymes that are really more off than I wanted, or images that are a little too nascent. So I often start with a rhyme-originated couplet or quatrain that helps me generate another few quatrains or lines that are less well-formed.
I’m also kind of an artistic libertarian. I believe everyone should be writing what they really want to write. If they’re not comfortable in form, I’m not going to berate a person for being some kind of inferior poet. There are a lot of really good free verse writers and a lot of bad formalists. I hesitate to embrace form as a kind of adjunct to a political dogma. By the same token, I’m not afraid to announce my presence. I do love rhyme and meter, and I do so unabashedly. I hope not dogmatically, but unabashedly.
I think of poetry as the intersection of language and music. Form, specifically rhyme and meter, helps convey the musical sense to the words you’re using. Form can especially help with witty poetry. It helps sharpen the sense of atmosphere, mood, tone, resonance – obviously consonants, alliteration, lots of rhetorical devices help do that too, but rhyme and meter, especially when they’re used in particular cases and not just generically, give a lot to a poem.
Consider the most basic, elementary example, which is Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.” It’s not iambic. It’s trochaic. Think about the Native American subject matter. If you go iambic, you’re going, “bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM.” Trochaic is the inverse. You’re going, “BUM bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM bum.” It’s the perfect sound of an Indian drum. So the shift of the meter changes the mood and tone of how the language is conveyed. If it were iambic, you wouldn’t get much of a sense of Native American drumming or rhythm. Trochaic – that is so perfectly chosen. That’s just one example, but there are many of using form not just as a rational structure or generic default because you don’t have the creative energy to think individually, but instead to reflect the theme, tone and emotions in the writing. It’s a wonderful tool to do that.
As much as Peter Sears gets jazzed by his own work, he’s equally excited – if not more – by the prospects of helping writers at all levels find the line or turn the phrase they’re shooting for. Born in New York, Sears has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Reed College, Bard College, and is on the faculty of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. In addition, he has led countless independent and affiliated workshops. His work has been widely published and has appeared in The Atlantic, Zyzzyva, Northwest Review, Rolling Stone, Southern Poetry Review, Mother Jones, Antioch Review, Poetry Northwest, Mademoiselle, Poetry Now, Iowa Review, New Letters, and the New York Times. In 1999, Sears was awarded the Stewart H. Holbrook Award from Literary Arts, Inc. Today he remains an instrumental part to the writing community throughout Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Part 1 of our interview focuses on education, while Part 2 focuses on Peter’s writing, and will appear later in 2009.
(DJ): Did you have a class yesterday?
(PS): It’s a basic comp course at PCC (Portland Community College). Most of the kids are 18, 19. There are some vets in there. I asked one of the guys what he came out as. He said, “Spec 5.” So did I. The difference is he was in the infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I basically went to southern Germany and Berlin. I mean, I lived like a king compared to this poor guy. He didn’t mind.
It’s a required course. About a third of the students are almost too good to be there. The ones at the bottom don’t know what a sentence is. They try, but cognitively they can’t get ahold of it, or they never got it. They’ve never done any writing, they didn’t get proper grammar in high school, they don’t read, or they didn’t read. So now they’re semi-illiterate. They’re nice, they’re quite bright, they work hard, but it’s hard for them. If they get a C they’re going to be lucky. It’s not their fault. They didn’t have it in school. That’s the range. Then there’s a bunch in the middle who are sort of OK.
(DJ): No creative writing?
(PS): No. The first assignment I used a Ray Carver poem, “The Car”. Each student reads a line. They write their own ‘car’, ‘house’, or something, whatever it is. The actual writing assignment is to transpose the creative start to an essay. Essentially, make full sentences out of each of these phrases. A good fifth of the class flunked. They couldn’t do it. I let them make that up, but we had to get further into it. I’ve spent more time than the class really allows for getting into grammar, sentence structure and things like that.
(DJ): Does it frustrate you?
(PS): I like to teach. This is the real world. It’s not like graduate students. One guy tells me about sales meetings he has to go to. One guy can’t make it because his kid’s sick….
(DJ): So teaching comp vs. teaching poetry…
(PS): I was in teaching a lot longer than I was in writing, professionally speaking. In the last few years I’ve realized that teaching is a lot harder than writing is. It’s a lot more important. It just isn’t credited in our society. I wanted to get back in it in the real way. Not just doing creative writing classes. They’re fun, but they’re kind of specialized. They’re not the real world.
I did a residency out in Fossil and Condon (small towns in north-central Oregon). That was the breakthrough for me. I mean, Fossil has 450 people in it, and the population is going down. There are 28 students in the entire high school. It’s really out there. I was trying to get someone out at both schools, but then I took it. The kids only go four-days a week because there aren’t enough students to warrant otherwise – they get enough instruction time. That kept me sane. I’d drive back here on Friday mornings.
I went out there with the understanding, or I told the school, that I needed two things. The teacher would be in the room with me to keep control of the kids. Secondly, the students wouldn’t be graded. Not only that, but if they didn’t want to do something they didn’t have to. It would be my challenge to keep it interesting. The kids were astounded. They were the children of ranchers. These people were serious, they didn’t mess around. One bad year and they were out of business. And it was a challenge, but because of that openness, it made the teaching much more interesting.
(DJ): When was this?
(PS): Two years ago. I was only six-months off chemo. It turned out, being in a dry climate was just what I needed. I’d go for a walk in the afternoon. I couldn’t go in the evening because they had cougars.
(PS): Someone said, ‘Do not go for a walk at dusk around here.’ I didn’t see one. They told me it was true.
(DJ): Any poems from this period?
(PS): A few. One about wind turbines. It’s OK but not great. I’d like to get the cougars in some.
(DJ): And the kids liked the class?
(PS): I had them do poetry, personal essay prose, short story writing and playwriting. We did four pieces in four weeks. Then we did a show for the students at both schools. People were like, “You’re not going to get these people to come to some show.” Their teacher told me to give her a list of students that I wanted to read, and she’d work on the families. First she told the students, gave them a certificate and made a big deal out of it. Of course none of them wanted to do it. Peer pressure. They weren’t going to stand up and read in front of a bunch of people.
So she calls the parents up and tells them, “You know, Mr. Sears wants Johnny to be in this show, but that’s not why I’m calling.” And so on. The parents would cut in and say things like, “What’s this about some show?’ The teacher was great. She’d say, ‘Well, Johnny doesn’t want to do it, and Mr. Sears isn’t going to force students to participate. And the parents are like, “We’ll get Johnny to do it.”
Soon the show becomes the thing to do. Suddenly kids who hadn’t written jack come up to me and say they want to be in it. I tell them they didn’t write anything and they say, “Yeah, but I didn’t know there was going to be a show.” Stuff like that.
The show was monumental. All the families were going screwy, chanting and hollering. The guy who owned the theater never sold so much popcorn in his life. It went right to Fishtrap (the funder) and their board, then it went right to the community foundation, then right to the NEA. This is exactly the type of thing they like.
(DJ): When you create something like that, don’t you think it creates the desire to continue when you’re gone?
(PS): God yeah. The grant is still going on. It’s in its last year now. It was a big event, but it came along because of the teacher. The committee didn’t know what to do but the teacher was great. Just one of those things where it hits.
Teaching out there was as rewarding and meaningful as any teaching I’ve done. I’ve taught at a lot of places. And when I came back I wanted to do a comp class. And I’d like to do more. Working with teachers through Community of Writers is also very important to me. I like to stay engaged. Plus from a practical standpoint, it’s reliable.
Remember, I’m 71. To be working at my age in any field is really a great benefit. People my age do some consulting work, things like that, but they’re kind of pushed off to the side. So I feel very fortunate. I also think it helps my writing a lot. My writing’s gotten better.
(DJ): I was going to ask…
(PS): It really has.
(DJ): If you were cloistered away, not working…I can’t imagine that being your day.
(PS): No, I couldn’t do it. I like to be out there. I like the contrast. It’s healthy. If I was around my house all the time, just me and the cat and the washing machine, I’d go nuts. I’m lucky to be teaching and I’d like to do more of it.
Steve Almond is the author of two story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the non-fiction book Candyfreak, the novel Which Brings Me to You, co-written with Julianna Baggott, and (Not that You Asked), a collection of “Rants, Exploits and Obsessions” released in 2007. He and his family live outside of Boston. Keep track of Steve and read some of his work on his site.
(DJ): You end your recent Boston Globe piece on David Foster Wallace ( “A Moralist of Hope”, published 9/21/08) with the following:
“We have lost one of our most powerful imaginations, a man whose works provided us a means of rescue.”
To turn this inward, do you see your work in any way providing a means of rescue? Reading your fiction and non-fiction, you’re obviously OK with exposing yourself and putting yourself out there. Within this, readers have the chance to laugh at you, with you, and at themselves. There’s a sense of rescue to that, and I’m wondering if you feel the same.
(SA): “Rescue” is probably a little lofty in my case, but that’s the basic idea. Foster Wallace – like Vonnegut before him – was a guy who was openly concerned with the fate of the species, and the terrible moral decisions we make in the day-to-day. His work was full of complex ideas, and lots of sly irony, but it was also driven by a single idea, not at all ironic, which is that humans have a duty to take care of one another.
I’m not interested in writing – or art more broadly – that doesn’t have that kind of compassion at its center. I’m not saying I want to be preached at, but I want the author to have a Christ-like mercy for the people he or she is writing about.
(DJ): There’s this quote from a Jonathan Yardley review that you mention early in a 2005 Salon essay, “The Blogger Who Loathed Me”, and that also appears in (Not that You Asked):
“If Almond devoted a fraction of the efforts [sic] he brings to self-promotion to his writing, he might finally be on to something. But I doubt it.”
If the writer/author doesn’t go about promoting his/her work, then who does? To me it’s part of an old way of thinking that contributes to the “starving artist” archetype, as if we’re all meant to die drunk and penniless. I’d like to get your thoughts on the importance of self-promotion and what it takes for someone to get beyond their unwillingness or reluctance to do so, and approach it from a place of acceptance and even enjoyment.
(SA): The quote isn’t from Jonathan Yardley. It’s from the blogger. Yardley is a critic. It’s his job to focus on writing and whether it succeeds or fails, and how. Bloggers tend to focus on authors. My sense is that bloggers are sensitive to authors who “promote” their work because bloggers are, by and large, engaged in a pretty bald form of self-promotion.
As for my own career: I started as a short story writer. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was going to have to make some effort if I wanted people to find my work. So I’ve focused on doing the sort of stuff I enjoy and/or know how to do: readings, events, writing essays or Op/Eds. There are plenty of authors who don’t want to spend their time doing these things, who would rather devote themselves solely to writing, who are less needy for company. I have great admiration for them.
(DJ): Digging a little more out of the same Salon piece, you refer to the essay’s subject as being something of a mirror for you, representing “the desire to avoid the solitude and humiliation of sustained creative work, to choose grievance over mercy, to find a shortcut to fame.” Is this still something you guard against, considering how much of your work is out there now? Or do you feel established to the point where now you have a whole new set of worries?
(SA): I have a wife and two kids, so that’s definitely a whole new set of worries. But you never stop worrying about creative challenges. I’d like to feel that someday I’m going to be able to write a decent novel. I’ve written three of them at this point, all thoroughly suck-ass. But the main thing, I think, is to keep trying. Not necessarily to succeed, but to keep trying.
(DJ): At the end of the piece you write, “We both face the same doomed task: to write in an era that has turned away from the written word, to love the world in the face of considerable self-hatred.”
Do you still believe we’re in an end-state of writing and literature as we’ve known it, or is it a case where it’s time for writer/author/artist to evolve, embrace new technologies and find new ways to communicate the many layers of the human condition? Within this, as we go on living in the era of text messaging, are there still ears to listen and eyes to read?
(SA): I don’t know if we’re in an “end-state” exactly. But it’s obvious that our screen addiction has amphetamized our intellectual metabolism. When I was a kid, TV had, like, half a dozen channels. There were no computers, let alone cell phones or i-Pods. But the students I used to teach at Boston College grew up with those technologies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, of course. But the bottom line is that the act of reading requires a sustained period of concentration. At least the sort of writing that asks the reader to enter into a fictional world, and to immerse themselves in the most complicated and sometimes painful emotions of the characters. What’s endangered at this point is the willingness – if not the capacity – to do that sort of work. Humans are still doing plenty of reading. It’s a question of how much that reading is making them feel.
(DJ): Thanks for being so willing to talk about some older pieces. It’s interesting to return to them through the lens of the last few years. I’d like to ask about a 2003 interview with Bookslut.com, discussing your first collection, My Life in Heavy Metal. You refer to our literary culture as “anemic”, then go on to say that we’ve “got to find a way to make people understand how important literature is.”
In five years, have things grown better or worse? How much of it depends on the writer getting out there more, being willing to self-promote and taking advantage of new ways to connect with readers?
(SA): I hate to sound like a gloomy Gus, but it’s gotten worse. People still read, and a certain segment of the population will always read, will find succor in that pursuit. But it’s a smaller segment.
I’m basing this on my own sense of the world. We’re a visual culture, fame-obsessed, pornographied, imaginatively stunted and in full retreat from our internal lives. In a lot of ways, we’ve made progress as a species. But in terms of our capacity for engaging with works of imagination, we’re headed in the wrong direction. A hundred and fifty years ago, people were arguing over the latest installment of “Great Expectations.” That was the hot new commodity.
(DJ): Let’s come back to the present then, something you wrote as Guest Editor for the Best of the Web 08. You mention something called a “backlog of bitterness” that pervades the blog world, and write about the phenomenon where we’re generating new books and new writers without any corresponding means of generating new readers. The “backlog of bitterness” then plays itself out on the Internet, with people taking aim at one another. You write, “That’s what most of literary content on the Internet boils down to – it’s not creating work….not even serious criticism. It’s gossip.”
If this is the case – and you’re careful not to blame the machine, but rather point out that the machine merely enables us – how do we point the ball in a new direction so it rolls along in a way that helps “reinvent literature”?
(SA): I don’t think there’s any sweeping solution. We live in a country – thank God – where people are free to say whatever they like. The problem isn’t that online commentators say mean things. It’s that other people consume those mean statements. That’s how they choose to spend their one and only life.
As a species we’re in pretty big trouble. Lots of blameless people are dying everyday. Our scientists tell us we’re pretty close to blowing the planet’s thermostat. Religion has become a tool of dangerous fanaticism. And the best we can do is to sit around saying mean things about each other? It’s so infantile, so sad. And it’s completely at odds with the role of art, which is to make us feel more human.
I can only hope that, as the world gets scarier and more chaotic, people will return to literature. Vonnegut says we’re dead if we don’t. And he’s been right about everything else he ever predicted.
Robin Cody is a native Oregonian who understands the geography of people and place. Along with dozens of published articles, he’s written a guide book (Umbrella Guide to Bicycling the Oregon Coast, Umbrella Books, 1990), a Columbia River travel narrative (Voyage of a Summer Sun, Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1995) and the novel Ricochet River (Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1992), set in the fictional Oregon town of Calamus. In 2005, Ooligan Press released a revised version of the novel to help get the book in the hands of more teachers and young adult readers. Part-one of our interview focuses on Cody’s approach to writing, revising and giving new life to his work. Part-two of our interview will appear early in 2009.
(DJ): Ricochet River was quite a process…
(RC): I’d been teaching English at the American School in Paris where you could teach the hotshot sophomores Sometimes a Great Notion and King Lear, then take them to Stratford on Avon during the year. Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could pick the books I wanted to teach. When you read those books, after a while you figure out that the narrators don’t get it. Take a character like Wade (narrator in Ricochet River). It’s pretty obvious that he’s not the brightest guy in the book. Lorna has figured out this place. Jesse isn’t school smart, but he has that instinctual brilliance.
I wrote Ricochet River a number of times. I couldn’t get it published. It wasn’t good enough. I had to go back and write it again and think about why I liked Kesey’s book, and go back and read it again and figure out how he did that. Or the idea of Huck Finn going down the river. He’s reporting to us as if he’s with a dumb runaway slave. We get it as readers, but Huck’s not interpreting. He’s not preaching. He’s not doing that stuff. And that’s the kind of narrator I liked. That was the key to getting it published.
(DJ): So it hinged on the narrator?
(RC): On the narrator and some other stuff. I needed some more Indian lore, coyotes, those kinds of things. I didn’t have that stuff in the first version. But I wrote this thing over 17-years of teaching, coaching baseball, sending a manuscript out, getting rejected. And when you get a manuscript rejected widely, you lose your confidence and suddenly you’re not any good as a writer for a while. You have to wait for it to bubble back up. Say, “Well, I’ll try it again.” No one had written this story related to the life cycle of the salmon, and the Oregonness of it. At least I didn’t think it had been written yet.
Another clue to the breakthrough narrator was One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. The story’s told through Chief Broom, who’s really in a fog. He doesn’t get it. We have to interpret it, which draws us into the story.
(DJ): Seventeen years is a long time.
(RC): Cyclically. It happened in cycles. I liked my life as a teacher. I never thought of myself as a writer (in Paris). I’d gone to school at Yale, so I knew what it was like not to be the brightest guy, surrounded by really smart people.
(DJ): Were you there when Bush was there?
(RC): I was the captain of the baseball team when he was a freshman. In those years freshman weren’t allowed on the varsity team. And this kid from the freshman team would come into the varsity dugout and put his arm around the coach. It had to be explained to me that he was the son to the ambassador of whatever Bush Sr. was doing then…the son of a famous guy and a legacy at Yale. So the coach had coached his dad. But it was the whole deal we’d see later, the schmoozing, glad handing (laughter).
Going from there to Paris, it was the first time I was surrounded by really creative, free thinking people. That helped a lot.
(DJ): What about the revised version?
(RC): That was a marketing decision. I hadn’t written Ricochet River for teens at all. Eventually it ran its course in general sales. But English teachers were picking it up and doing great with it, except there’s this sex scene that gets it blocked by Christian school boards. Another scene that takes place at the Dalles, four people and two beds, drinking and that sort of stuff. All the time I was bumping up with censorship. In the revised version, I made it less explicit. There’s really very little difference.
(DJ): What was that like revising something you’d written so long ago? All writers get to that point where we know we can make things better. How was it going back to it?
(RC): I made it better. I made the sentences better. It’s surprising, because once a book is in print, you read parts of it at Powell’s, book fairs, something like that, but you never go back and read it all the way through. And I found lots of ways it could be improved, mostly by subtraction. Sort of, “That sentence doesn’t have to be there. It just slows the story down.”
It’s all at the sentence level. It’s not content at all, except for that scene at the Dalles and the sex scene. The Christians call it literary pornography (laughs).
(DJ): Does that make you a literary pornographer?
(RC): Yeah (laughs). They even have a website against the book. I’m convinced the new version is better writing.
(DJ): I saw someone comparing it to Catcher in the Rye, which has also found its way on the banned books list. Does it hurt you that there’s outcry against it? Does it make you laugh?
(RC): It’s just a fact of life. The book had no future of sales. It was being kept out of the hands of kids. So no, the alternative was that it was out of print. It was my idea to do it.
(DJ): You approached Ooligan or they approached you?
(RC): I approached them. The book was out of print for no fault of its own. It had had steady sales, and suddenly I’m getting calls from teachers because they can’t replace it, those who were able to teach it. So I said, “Let’s do a school version that really won’t have to change that much.”
With Ooligan being a teaching press at Portland State, I had six graduate students in the editing class go through and underline the things that caught their eye from the first version. I told them what we were going to make less explicit. Otherwise, I wanted them to suggest things, point out where it didn’t make sense, what stopped it. Of course they went overboard with their underlining (laughter). But, one out of three things they caught…for example, for my generation, when people talked about “that U2 incident,” that referred to the spy plane shot down over Russia. To younger readers, it’s a rock band. It made no sense to them. They didn’t know U2 was a downed surveillance plane. I didn’t hesitate to change it. I’m always changing things anyway. When you’re a writer, you try to spin older stuff off to different audiences. I’m used to thinking of everything that I’ve already done as not finished. That it can be better.
(DJ): What about your new collection.
(RC): The Oregonness of It. Which is a phrase that came from an actual meeting with an editor in New York at Knoff, about Ricochet River. We’re high above the bleeding cabs of New York, 23rd story of some building and he’s got piles of manuscripts around, looking every bit like a caricature of the rumpled and mussed editor. So I asked how he it was that he picked this manuscript out of the pile. And he didn’t talk about the story. He talked first about the “Oregonness of it.”
I’ve written some about that, about what makes us different as a culture out here. How we’re different from American literature. Really it’s an argument about how we’ve developed in three phases, from the woodsman and river taming phase, the dam builders, the loggers and all those heroes, through Ken Kesey and to a new phase that I think makes some sense.
(DJ): What do you think the new phase is?
(RC): Nature as teacher. Taking our cues from nature. How to live in balance with nature. If we can do it out here in the greenest corner of the richest nation on earth. Or if we can’t live in balance with the salmon and the woods, I don’t think it can be done anywhere. If we can, then we’re a model for the rest of the world. It’s not stated directly in our literature. It’s stated slantingly that we’re different. Nature’s alive. As in Kesey, nature’s a character in the good stuff we write.
All my stuff, even as a non-fiction writer, is told slantingly. It comes out of someone else’s mouth. I don’t want to preach it. Then there’s one whole section just about the jobs I’ve had. Bus driving, baseball umpiring. Refereeing, or lighter stuff like “Deaf Basketball.” That’s an example—it was twice as long when I first wrote it for Northwest Magazine. Then I sold it to somebody else and cut down on it. I read it at Fishtrap this summer, and one of their rules at open mic is you get four-minutes. So I chopped it down and it was better, punchier. It’s that process of having to do it over and over, getting better through subtraction.
(DJ): What happens to the old stuff that doesn’t make it?
(RC): I have an electronic trail of what had been. Before computers I kept hard copies of what had changed. Sometimes you have reason to go back and say, “How’d I write that the first time. Maybe it needs a little more here.”
(DJ): There are these parts throughout Ricochet River where, through the narrative, you seem to be revealing something about writing itself. There’s the scene just after the suicide squeeze where we have Wade in the barbershop. He says, “I guess sometimes, at least at the barbershop, reality has to adjust to the story.” Do you get to that point between the truth and the story where, as a writer, you have to honor both?
(RC): I think the story can often drive to the heart of the truth better than the facts do. This is not just me. This is Ken Kesey, where Hank in Sometimes a Great Notion, you know, he plays the dumb logger, but he comes up with this stuff. He says, “Well, maybe it didn’t happen, but it’s the truth. And maybe some things that did happen are not the truth.” I just love that kind of thinking. I can give it to Wade by saying, “I guess…” because he’s just poking at things. If I said it as the author I would just say it right out. But it’s not me. It’s Wade. He’s not that smart of a guy. He doesn’t know the answer. That’s what interests me. That’s what, I think, made Wade better as a narrator. In those first versions of the book that got rejected, he was as bright as Lorna. He was sort of spouting. He gets the racism of the town, for example. It’s not nearly as interesting as having Wade trying to figure things out. Before he used to get it. He understood it. It’s more interesting when you don’t understand it and you’re just trying to figure things out. It was a conscious change, and I couldn’t have done it on the first draft.
J.D. Smith is an amazingly versatile writer who explores the art of telling a story, capturing an image, scattering truths and creating worlds from any number of angles and vantage points. His books include the collection, Settling for Beauty (Cherry Grove Collections), The Hypothetical Landscape (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series), the edited anthology Northern Music: Poems About and Inspired by Glenn Gould (John Gordon Burke, Publisher), and The Best Mariachi in the World (Raven Tree Press), a recently released bilingual children’s book. Three of his poems, along with an excerpt from a 2005 essay, are featured on the Creative page. We conversed through email exchange, discussing his work and his approach.
DJ: The first thing that strikes me is your ability to move swiftly between genres and forms. You prove adept at moving between emotions and perspectives within a given piece – connecting what’s happening beyond the “I”, then projecting what’s happening within. I’d like to discuss your poem, “Elegy,” which is a wonderful example of this in-and-out movement.
The opening, coupled with the title, is a great set up for nostalgia:
“Dusk. The plangent geese migrate.
Ragged chevrons that used to bisect a continent
now settle near a golf course and the retaining pond”
Half-way through, it begins to read like a social and pop-culture commentary:
“…that bathes the climax
of a made-for-TV film
about the latest disease
or another private distress
raised to a social issue, if not elevated:”
Suddenly I’m spun in yet another direction, this one with a great sense of self-deprecation:
“From my depths, I’ve summoned
a spiral thread of hair, less than
what I could have called myself,
without affecting a second language:
With all these wonderful turns, you never lose the reader. We’re always watching a flock of geese settling near an office park. How do you keep yourself from getting lost when the landscape of the poem follows such a meandering course, moving, if you will, through a set of mental gymnastics?
JDS: What prevents me from losing the reader in a poem like that is not inflicting my first draft on him or her. My first drafts are usually considerably longer than the final version and include alternative versions of lines as well as lines and sometimes stanzas that don’t survive until the final draft. Over the course of multiple revisions I try to remove as many obstacles to understanding as I can. This means that over time I have to learn what is and isn’t essential in a poem, which leaps of association can and cannot be made.
As for moving among different tones and levels of languages, that’s something I’ve had to do all my life in dealing with people from different backgrounds. In my first 14 years I lived in a neighborhood with a sizable population of transplanted Southerners, and from kindergarten onward I have been in one or another setting with a variety of ethnic groups, educational levels and social classes. This has meant learning to speak a variety of “languages” on any given day and learning how to shift gears or, as the linguists call it, switch codes.
DJ: Where are you most at home? Is there a path you like to follow, or are you happy to follow whatever path come along? Reading your work, I see a writer who is equally adept at communicating a vision and crafting a story regardless of style. Not many writers have this luxury, or perhaps many writers begin to whittle down their choices over time, finding the place where they feel most “at home.” Have you identified this place, or are you comfortable roving?
JDS: I might get tangled up in semantic games here, but roving might be that place for me. You’ve probably heard about how foxes are supposed to know many things, but hedgehogs know one great thing. With all due respect to the hedgehogs—and you need them to make the world run—I’m one of the foxes who wander all over the place.
Although I still think of myself primarily as a poet, which is probably as much a matter of habit as anything else, I’ve also learned again and again that writing poetry is not something I can sit down and do in the same way that I can write expository prose. I definitely look forward to writing more essays, since essays give me the opportunity to engage in free association in the same way as poetry but without the same demands for compression and heightened language, and with more room for pursuing a line of argument.
In a moment of grandstanding I once told a friend “I want to be an industry.” That doesn’t mean the insane brand leveraging of, say, Hannah Montana, but something more like a one-person studio with a wide range of written “products.” My ideal would be a full-time, multi-faceted writerly life like that of Margaret Atwood or David Mamet.
DJ: One topic or theme that comes up, regardless of form, is our physical/sexual natures. Here again, you approach the topic from a number of perspectives, voices and styles. In your poem, “Coitus,” from Settling for Beauty, you guide the reader with a sense of reverence and distance:
“It is only flesh
Meeting more of the same,
The means for a double helix
To spiral through time.”
Compare this with your article, “An Immodest Proposal”, where you approach the topic with great objectivity, humor, and humanitarianism, proposing Viagra as a way to curb the poaching of endangered animals for aphrodisiacal reasons. Finally, there’s a story like “Pillow Talk”, where the narrator comes across as something of a hapless yet hopeful everyman, obsessing over a certain part of the female anatomy until he moves on to a new obsession.
As you approach a given theme from different angles, do you find that one style or voice tends to inform or affect the others? Though you demonstrate a keen ability to zero in on your subject in a way that fits the form and genre, I’m wondering if your mental partitions are fairly permeable. When you’re sitting over a poem, for instance, do you find another voice trickling in, informing the words that make it to the page?
JDS: This is a challenging question, but the pieces that you bring up invite that line of inquiry. My relationship with my own physicality has always been complicated. In my earlier years I was overweight and experienced an early onset of puberty, and in grade school I was bigger than most of the other children. Then at about the age of thirteen I stopped growing and am now about five-two. That sense of being different and out of sync, combined with depression that wasn’t adequately treated until I was in my thirties, made for an impoverished love life and a feeling there was this big party that almost everyone else was going to, but not me. I spent a lot of time as Cyrano de Bergerac pining after one or another Roxanne who would have been all wrong for me anyway.
In different pieces I have written about the erotic with detachment or some attempt at being straightforward. Still, what’s painful is also the source of humor. Sexual desire and romantic longing cut through a lot of pretension and show us as the needy buffoons that we often are. All of these approaches have their place, considering how complicated Eros is for humans compared to other animals.
There’s a final irony to this situation. Now that I’ve found the right woman and am married, I largely write about less personal subjects. My thinking and writing are largely given over to aesthetic and ethical concerns, and the state of the world at large.
DJ: What are your present concerns, and how do you see them informing your work? How are you, in your work and even in your life, approaching them to create some sort of reconciliation, or at least attempting to find peace with modern times?”
JDS: Predictably, I suppose, my concerns are moving from the issues of youth to the issues of middle age. These are not just the exclusively personal side of coming to grips with mortality and other limitations, like those of energy, ability and financial means, but also how to make some small contribution to the world within those limitations. Or in spite of them.
In even less personal terms, my writing has turned increasingly to how to help people move toward a balanced relationship with the natural world, which to me seems to bring together aesthetic concerns and human self-actualization in terms of both of our evolutionary biology and our spiritual dimensions. I have more questions than answers, but it seems that we ignore the aesthetic aspects of life at our peril, short-term savings aside. To take just a couple of examples, what happens to food and architecture in the name of efficiency and narrowly defined cost-cutting boggles the mind.
A related issue is how to cut through the thickets of media overstimulation and reclaim consciousness so as to find an authentic relationship with the world and oneself. There’s a lot of media analysis out there, but a lot of it bogs down in theory and academic jargon or simply doesn’t bother to explain why we should engage in what Iggy Pop once called “psychic defense.”
DJ: From here, then, perhaps it’s a question of process for you. Do you go to a different place depending on genre, style, form, etc., or do you drink from the same well using different cups?
JDS: For the most part, different pieces of writing suggest themselves to me in different forms. It took me a long time to learn to listen rather than impose my ideas. I don’t want to get too mystical about saying “where the poem leads me” and such, but I usually know from the beginning what should be a formal or free verse poem, what should be an essay, and what should be a piece of fiction. For a long time I thought of myself only as a poet and tried to turn everything into a poem, which seemed to involve less work, but I only ended up with a lot more failed poems than successful poems. Writing pieces in their most appropriate form may entail more work, but it leads to far less frustration.
DJ: Consider a poem like “Bout” and a short story like “This Time”. Both play with concepts of violence and defeat, yet do so in completely different ways. Reading these, I see a writer who wants to explore a topic from as many angles as possible. Or is it more unconscious than that, where you are simply willing to follow the muse wherever she takes you, whether it’s a 10-line poem or a 2000 word short that appears in a place like Thuglit.com?
JDS: To me, at least, the two ideas you stated may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. I spend a lot of time ruminating about things from a variety of angles, and some of those thoughts turn into what I write. Many other thoughts, perhaps most of them, do not turn into written work. Of course, I don’t know which part of my daydreaming is “productive” until well after the fact. Writing about topics from different perspectives is also a way of arguing with myself and trying to escape a purely binary mode of thought, something our technologies increasingly impose on us.
Violence is a subject that particularly troubles and engages me. I am squeamish and mild-mannered—I have witnesses for both—but I can’t bring myself to the purity of being a pacifist in the world as we find it. Violence can be great fun to read and write about—or see on screen—but violence also serves as a symptom of other disorders and it places a story or poem in the tradition of the cautionary tale. The work of Flannery O’Connor comes to mind in this regard.
DJ: Tell me a little about your latest work, The Best Mariachi in the
World. Where does a book like this fit in, where did the initial concept come from, and how does it relate to what’s come before? Or, is it a case where the relation doesn’t matter beyond the fact that it has your name on it?
JDS: This book is a very recent publication, but its history goes back to 1997, before my first book of poetry was accepted for publication. I wrote the first draft while commuting by train from my parents’ home in Aurora, Illinois to one or the other of my two part-time, no-benefits jobs in Chicago. I didn’t want those jobs to seem like the only thing I was accomplishing, and I was starting to realize that the only way I would really make anything of myself was through writing. (Some of my earlier plans hadn’t worked out, or I just hadn’t wanted them enough.)
I didn’t have anything to lose besides ink and paper, and I started with a premise that ranges somewhere between wacky and outrageous: Gustavo, a young boy in a family of mariachis, believes that he is the worst mariachi in the world because he cannot play—or isn’t even allowed to play—any of the instruments. I am not musical or from a musical family myself, and I am not of Mexican or other Hispanic ancestry, so I was going out on a limb in addressing these subjects. Working through the story allowed me to figure out that what Gustavo could do at that point was sing, and his family and others applaud him for his ability. It later became clear to me that I had written an allegory of my own attempts to find my way. There were plenty of things I couldn’t do, but I could write, and that would be accepted. For others that thing might be in the arts or in another field altogether, but finding and embracing it is crucial. I dedicated the book in part to all the Gustavos of the world, because almost all of us are Gustavo at one time or another. The only exception might be those blessed few who at the age of five know what they want to be when they grow up and happily follow through with that.
DJ: So if someone was to pin you in a corner and say, “OK J.D. Smith, explain what in the world is going on here,” how would you answer? Personally, it’s inspiring to see a writer approach so many areas of interest with such lightness. Does hopping back and forth between genres, voices and styles help you maintain a certain level of dexterity, allowing you to eschew the moniker of “Jack of all trades” and instead embody the concept of “Master of many”? If there’s a
thread that weaves through your entire body of work, what would it be?
JDS: If someone pinned me in a corner I would first say “Please don’t hit me in the face” and then “I don’t have anything of value—I’m a writer.”
More seriously, I am reminded of one of Goya’s late etchings, a self-portrait of the artist walking on crutches in his eighties. The illustration bears the inscription “I am still learning.” That was true: he explored new techniques and media until the end of his life. This lesson was delivered to me more directly at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1992, when William Matthews, my instructor, looked over my poems of wildly varying quality and said, “You’re still finding out what you can do.” And I am still finding out what I can do. I haven’t written a full-length play, for instance. I haven’t written a novel, either, and I’m starting to get some serious peer pressure on that count. I might try and fail miserably, but I’m starting to feel secure enough to live with that.
Writing in different voices and genres allows me to stay fresh mentally, and it also means that I always have something to work on, whether that means a first draft or a revision. And there are many revisions. Crossing genres also helps me to resist complacency. If I’m having good luck in writing or publishing in one genre, there remains the question that would sound something like “What else are you doing, tough guy?”
It’s hard to say what ties all of my work together, but a few ideas come to mind. The first is an interest in the sound of language, especially its rhythms. I learned this initially through poetry, but I’d like to think it comes through in prose as well. I’m also interested in how much meaning can be packed into a given amount of text through word choice, connotation and economy in language, as well as through syntax. I would also like to think that what I write, even if it’s a piece that’s seen as entertainment, carries some intellectual and moral weight and helps to enhance readers’ sense of being alive and engaged in the world.
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.