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 aestheticizeTopeka, 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.
DJ: Tell me about something you said in an interview from November of 2008, that an economic downturn can be “a good time to be a writer”.
ES: That’s a little tricky thing for me to have said. In truth economic downtowns are miserable in all practical respects. For a poet, whether boom times or bust times, it’s all the same if you’re sitting down at the page. In times of worry, there’s more of a need to listen.
Most of the economic downturn I was talking about had to do with Seattle when I got there. What you learn is that when times are great, art seems like a luxury. It seems more ephemeral, decoration, pretty, something to indulge in. What I saw, going back to Katrina, was that, after the plumbers, after the electricians, the sheet rockers, the carpenters, and somebody to make some food, after receiving those necessities in the wake of something bad having happened, there was also a need for art, for poetry, for storytelling. There was a need for people not just to make art but to have art around. In a way, art helps us understand, frame, move on, move forward, and remember this thing that just happened.
All through the city, one of the things that was really meaningful, and that taught me a lot about cities and people, was just how important cultural organizations are, these places that provide chance and reason to go and look at some kids’ drawings, for instance, that depict their memory of the evacuation. Or a lot of the fantastic, moving, sad and tragic music that’s still being made by people who went through the event.
DJ: Do you think there’s a therapeutic sense to all of this?
ES: I don’t believe art heals. I don’t think “healing” is exactly the word. It’s something like healing. Something like what physical or emotional healing is and does. But it’s something different. It’s probably not as good as those things, but meaningful.
I’ve always been kind of an “art for art’s sake” guy. Then I saw that art as having this whole other value that is for people’s sake.
One of my favorite poets is Roque Dalton. He’s a poet from El Salvador. His father was the head of the Dalton brothers, these bank robbers from Kansas and Oklahoma in the ’20s and ’30s. He escaped with his money, went to El Salvador and married locally. His youngest son, Roque, was a committed Communist guerilla and also a diplomat in Prague for a while. He was eventually executed by his revolutionary cadre for disagreeing with them. He wrote a number of magnificent books of poems, some under his name, some under other names. He says — and I think he’s clowning around himself a little bit — that a poet’s relationship to the bourgeoisie is to be either a servant, a clown, or the enemy. Within the scope of the quote, as a poet, it’s either one of those three things.
At times I’ve felt like all three. At times I feel like the servant. Other times I feel like the clown. What he’s saying is that you should be the enemy, and that you’re not automatically the enemy just by making art and poems. It’s easy to fool oneself and to be the fool if you don’t acknowledge the social aspects of your work. I’m not claiming to be any one of those three, but the quote is useful to me in looking at my own work and in looking at this book, to ask, “Well, am I being a jackass, am I being a servant by not bringing certain things in my work, or am I participating in the world the way that I should?”
DJ: Which one of those categories would you most say you’re closest to?
ES: I don’t know. What he says about the clown is that the clown poet plays around, but in the end, before he’s executed, he’s going to say how sensitive and kind the masters are. In the end, he’ll end up as the servant too. In the end, the clown is as bad as the servant.
I bring this up because it’s on my mind, but I think that Dalton is exaggerating a bit. Maybe not. No one wants to be the fool, right?
Before New Orleans you were in Seattle in the early ’90s. I read it created a desire within you to get out and go somewhere where life seemed a little more “real”.
ES: I was in my early 20s. I’d finished school fairly early. Seattle’s a wonderful city, and it’s very much a working city, despite the grunge era and the idea of “slackerdom”. It’s not a city of leisure or lots of public or street life. It’s a cultured town, kind of a high cultured town. I wanted someplace that had some life, that had people around from very different backgrounds who looked different from me and were doing different things, who had a little soul, a little color. New Orleans fit the bill.
DJ: Had you been to New Orleans before?
ES: Never. I had no connection with it except for having read a lot of books, either those that are set there or that were written by New Orleans writers. I think New Orleans has the greatest literary heritage in the country, and the best, most thriving literary scene right now in the country. I’m honored to be around that.
DJ: How did living there affect your writing, especially going from that place where you were either feeling stifled, or where nothing spurred that type of creative flow that New Orleans would create?
ES: I was maturing. I was finally becoming an adult in my personal life, which has more of an influence on one’s work than anything else.
New Orleans was a place to mature, and to mature interestingly. It was different than being off in the suburbs, doing adjunct work in the middle of nowhere.
Aside from growing up and becoming more understanding of the world, New Orleans affected my work in a number of specific ways. For one, I fell in with a poetry community of magnificent writers, each with very high standards where things like imagination and craft were concerned craft. They had a lot of different interests, not all being of American traditions.
Also, there were a number of people I worked with at an arts high school that was started by Ellis Marsalis and some other musicians in the ’70s. My colleagues, other poets…they demanded that you take poetry very seriously. This was different than the ways other poetry friends had approached it. And it was all we did. For the five-years that I taught with this great group of writers, all we did was read, write and talk about poetry amongst ourselves and with some really talented New Orleans kids.
I also worked in an art museum. I’d never been immersed in visual art to the degree that I was there. Between the artists living and working in the city at the time, and spending all day in the museum, I started to developed and internalize a relationship with art objects from many different traditions.
Then there was the party atmosphere. The nature of the city as being partly very public and exaggerated, kind of the Mardi Gras carnivalesque spirit was unbelievably exciting to me, and to my life and work. But also, the other side of New Orleans, more of the Latin side, is very private and reserved. I found it to be dignified and reflective in ways I’d never encountered. Those too sides of the mask became very important to me and my view of how life should be lived, poetry should be written, and how wine should be drank.
Those are some of the big ways that New Orleans changed my life and affected my work, leading to this book. I’ve been very all-consumedly committed to poetry since I was nine-years-old. I think the path that led to this book was probably more interesting and led to a more interesting book than some of the other paths that I’d been on in places like Seattle or Montana or Kansas.
DJ: How long was Mister Skylight in process? Was this a collection of poems over time that after a while you decided, “I have something here,” or was there an intentional design to where you were going?
ES: There was no intentional design to the book. The first poems in the book were written in 1993. A few stanzas or full poems are that old, from my last year in college/first year in grad school at the university of Montana. The bulk of the book was written between 2001 and 2006. That’s when I finished. After that I went through some continued editing work with Copper Canyon and some other readers.
I started publishing in ‘95. Most of the poems I published in magazines aren’t in this book, but I had a lot to choose from, and the book had many different shapes and forms up until 2006.
“Mister Skylight”, the individual poem, was the entire book at one time, and was 70 or 80 pages. Then I did a heavier edit, was more severe with it and brought it down to about 17 pages, closer to its final form.
The poems that I started writing in 2005 or 2006 helped shaped the book. These consist of some of the longer poems where I feel as if I’m indulging figurative imagination, particularly memory loss. That’s at the core of the book. Memory loss.
“Mister Skylight” the poem permeates the book. The book moves toward this poem in a conscious way. These other later poems were also central to whatever it is I was trying to do and sort of coalesce around the longer poems.
DJ: Tell me a little about the title itself.
ES: “Mister Skylight” is a nautical term. It’s a warning to the crew that usually the ship is beginning to sink, or is being consumed with fire. The ship is at its end. But the warning comes without wanting to alarm the passengers. It’s a warning for the crew to start readying the lifeboats, or to start preparing for abandoning the ship so it could get done in an orderly process.
I ran across the term in an article back in the ’90s, about the sinking of the MV Estonia, this big tragedy in the Baltic Sea. The survivors recalled hearing, even as it was sinking, “Mr. Skylight to numbers one and two, Mr. Skylight to numbers one and two.” That was probably the scariest thing I’d ever read for some reason, not just the phrase but the thought of being a survivor, or temporary survivor, and to hear that sort of warning, which is misleading and is personified as something that is nauseating and grotesque to me.
I struggled about whether or not to put a note in the title, but I thought that as the work really takes place in the imagination and I don’t like burdening things with notes, I’d rather let things be in the language that they are rather than having any reference to the world. That’s an ongoing question of mine. To what degree is poetry referential? I’m not smart enough to know the answer.
DJ: And how does the title connect to the poems themselves?
ES: “Mister Skylight” in the poem is a personified thing. At times he’s a character, at times the speaker. And Mister Skylight seems like an excellent alternate name for the personified image we have of Death. Something honorific and enigmatic and unwelcome.
Beyond that, it serves the function of other kinds of bewilderments. There being this uncertainty of what is being said, what is being told to you, the uncertainty and suspicion about the official line, what the bridge is saying sort of thing. Is this language being directed to me? Am I the passenger or am I the crew? Am I drowning? Am I surviving? Am I responsible for what’s happening? Or is it something that’s happening to me, that people are doing to me, that nature is doing to me? Am I the agent or the actor?
That uncertainty about poetry, about language, about citizenship, about being alive in the present moment, I express often in that poem, either through the figure or through the phrase that pops up as “Mister Skylight.” My hope is that it comes through even better without the explanation. That the feeling comes across, even if it’s not intellectually expressed.