Ed Skoog has one of those minds that always seem to be working, whether he is actively crafting a poem, talking poetry with a student or another writer, or simply reflecting on the place where he currently finds himself. I caught up with him on the day of his 38th birthday. He was back home in Topeka, Kansas, getting ready for his 20th high school reunion, taking it easy in his father’s house. He was kind enough to take a few hours out of his home coming to talk about his first full-length collection, Mister Skylight (© 2009, Copper Canyon Press), to discuss craft, and to talk about the way that place and imagination coalesce to create poetry. Part 1 of our interview is below.
DJ: How’s Topeka?
ES: It’s beautiful. They’ve had a really mild summer so things are still really green. Usually by this time of year everything’s been blasted by the heat and drought. It feels like the way I like to remember it.
DJ: What does the idea of Topeka usually bring up for you?
ES: It has four pretty distinctive seasons, and two of them can be pretty rough. Summer is usually very hot. Winter is usually very cold and miserable. The nice part is usually spring, and apparently it’s felt like spring all summer.
I grew up near the middle of the city in an old leafy neighborhood. It doesn’t look like it’s in the Plains. It looks very comfortable, especially compared to my more urban and country wanderings. It’s sort of like the Shire right now.
DJ: Let’s get to your urban and country wanderings. One of the things that sticks out in Mister Skylight is that the language seems really tied to place, though at times it seems to be a number of places. At other times it seems to be a place that may not truly exist. Maybe an amalgamation of different places where you’ve lived or traveled.
When you go back to place in your process, do you find yourself going back to one place more than the other, or do things turn into a bit of a stew?
ES: I think you’re right. Even when the places have names that are accurate details, the poetry takes place in the imagination. If I say, “Topeka”, it’s different than saying “Topeka” in an essay, or than taking a picture and saying, “This is Topeka.”
There are a lot of places in the book. Some are places where I’ve lived or visited. Some of them, like the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, are places I’ve never been to. They’re all imaginary places as far as the poems go. The people in the poems are real people, the family and friends, but they become imaginary through the process of poetry.
The places mean different things to me, and have a lot of associations that, once you put them into poems, become art associations. They become aestheticize Topeka, aestheticize New Orleans, aestheticize California.
One of the animating conflicts for me in putting the book together was the struggle between looking at the place as real vs. as the poetic. Then there was the very real need to try to say something meaningful and true and honest in a social and political way about what happened in New Orleans, about what happened to my friends and the city I love and very nearly me. That was not imaginary. People died, lives were changed.
DJ: You’re referring to Katrina?
ES: Yes. The flooding and the aftermath, which made me very angry because it wasn’t an act of nature or an act of God. The levees failed because they weren’t built to spec by the Corps of Engineers. And the rescue operation was botched because of human failings and lack of courage. Suddenly that doesn’t become just an imaginary thing to play with, like my memories of Topeka. Instead, it’s something that changed my life and my way of looking at the world. At the same time, I didn’t want the book to be…I didn’t know how to write just about that. What results in the New Orleans poems, even some of the ones that I wrote before the storm, is a sort of struggle between us and the media, which doesn’t have any answers but hopefully creates interesting lines.
DJ: You said a second ago that the botched efforts and the botched recovery related to human failings and lack of courage. There’s an underlying quality in a number of your poems where it seems to be an unwavering spirit in the face of things like despair or disaster. These are the exact opposites of human failings. What does that say about you, and is that itself a comment, without being a direct comment to things?
ES: That spirit is hopefully the heart breaking impulse, the storytelling impulse and the lyric impulse to respond internally and to want to communicate that to somebody. The alternative is silence, which may be the most proper response to things, but doesn’t capture that spirit of looking back and looking around at the present, and wanting to communicate to people you are around or you wish were around. Perhaps that’s the spirit you’re finding in these poems. The impulse to dance. The impulse to draw. The impulse to do whatever it is that poems do. Whatever you’re doing in poetry…that need to be reaching out, to be expressing the joy and anxiety and imagination, and wanting or needing to share that.