Reading Emily Wolahan’s Hinge (The National Poetry Review Press, 2015), I’m reminded of the fact we live in “A tenable now, immersed/ in churned waterways, calling to its transient/ population. What exactly do we plan to do?” Her debut collection floats in an “armor. . .constructed from romantic movies,” ferries us past revelations in the form of hedge dew and field light. Hinge’s is a firmament that ponders the liminal as it plays out in arguments and bodies of water alike. From town planning to the Munchian scream, Wolahan illuminates the latch.
Jon Riccio: The verticality of Hinge’s poems – tighter margins, medium line lengths – adds to their reading pleasure. Was this the layout you always envisioned?
Emily Wolahan: I really enjoy a tight line and worked at honing that skill as I wrote this collection. An economic, sonic line matched the controlled tone of the speaker throughout the collection. These poems explore ideas and emotions from a very cautionary vantage point. I wanted the look and sound of the poems to match.
JR: Five of your poems have the word “Argument” in their title. What aesthetic forces must be at work for beauty to rise out of conflict?
EW: Interesting—when I hear “argument,” I immediately think of rhetorical strategies used to convince a listener or reader of your point of view. Comes from years of teaching comp, I guess.
A good rhetorical argument acknowledges conflict and finds an intellectual way through it, which is very relevant to Hinge. In the “Argument” poems, I wanted to harness an abstract idea as a strategy to conduct the discussion. That’s how I arrived at “Argument in Fog”, “Argument in Exucitasio,” “Argument in Optative.” Eventually, I start to just straight up argue with things, because eventually, I always argue. A contrarian to the bone.
The beauty for me is in creating opportunities to think my way out of corners. At the time, I found the intellect very beautiful and wanted to convey its promise and, in some way, the emptiness of that promise. You can’t think your way into action, as Hamlet reminds us.
JR: On a related note, did titling your poems “École des Hautes Études,” “Pauvres Petits en Été,” and “Vincent à Théo” in French broaden or restrict your compositional process?
EW: I have a strange relationship with French. I spent a long time learning it, some time in Paris being snubbed for not knowing it better, and am continually drawn to reading French poetry. Incorporating French into my compositional practice always broadens my thinking, though very often no French appears. I’m currently working on a project that is directly influenced by the line structure of L’excès-l’usine by Leslie Kaplan.
I believe in reading as widely as possible, incorporating into your reading poetry from all over the world. Often that’s in translations, as in Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season that Does Not Exist in the World or Tomas Tranströmer, Tomaz Salumun, and many others. I will muddle my way through French happily, however; the discomfort of not being able to whiz my eyes down the page and understand everything is enjoyable to me.
JR: “Wide: Letter to Herself” contains the lines “Within kitchen, drawer,/ within drawer, this porcelain bowl./ It will do. Will do.” which have a nesting-doll sparkle to them. How do they relate to the following page’s “indecision of paradise?”
EW: In many kinds of paradise (this one is a domestic), we may not have any worries, nor lack much, but we are also stripped of our intellectual faculties. That’s how I felt when I went from a full, New York City cultural existence to being a new mother in a small city in Northern England. I felt stripped of my brain and my ability to decide. The perfect happiness of having a healthy child and one’s kitchen in order didn’t escape me, but I felt the push against it too. Nesting-dolls embrace each other and capture each other.
JR: The above-mentioned poem concludes with “Light rain, cotton rain, cashmere rain./ Her dangerous belief in expertise.” When is novice-ness the best creed?
EW: I’d say, almost always! When are we not in a position when we are, at least in part, new to an action or situation? I’m very interested in inhabiting the position of “not-knowing”—as intellectual curiosity, but also emotional bafflement. An early title of this manuscript included the word “Acquaintance” because I was exploring the “knowledge of acquaintance” (versus “experience” or “expertise”). What results do we experience when we are somewhat-familiar-with a set of problems, but not at all expert in solving them?
There’s a palpable sense of anxiety in that, but there’s also joy in it. The energy of flying by the seat of your pants through life.
JR: You’ve lived in Britain, Hong Kong, Italy, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few of the countries listed in your bio. This, coupled with “That some solutions/ become answers, their spatial disclosure/ a forklift of readiness” (from “Sly and Unseen”) has me wondering how these travels honed your tools of investigation.
EW: That travel is the collected experience of the forced travel of my childhood and chosen travel of my adulthood. When I was an expat child, I refused to take pictures after I lost my Kodak Star 110 camera at the Trevi Fountain. I proclaimed I would rely on my memory. Alas, I am no Funes. I could observe, but not remember every detail.
What I took away from that observation of people and nature, however, is that there are multiple solutions to any given problem. A European city solves a civic need in one way, while an East Asian city solves it quite differently. One bird solves its problem of being prey through camouflage, another through strength in numbers. Designs, either industrial or evolutionary, develop over time. Some become universal, some stay idiosyncratic.
JR: You’ve melded rhythm and sound to give the best directions: “The insistent exit can be found/ in night field, short wheat/ bundled in shadow” (from “Quite Cold in Cloud”). Where best to locate a hinge’s entrance?
EW: I’d argue a hinge is not an entrance or an exit but the loose mechanism that makes either possible. While I feel liminal spaces are the most provoking of insight—what place cannot feel liminal at the right moment? Every place, and every angle of observation, can be made strange, thereby suddenly swinging open.
JR: We’re told “Some things/ are not suited for language. In the bookstore,/ you scream you want a particular fairy book,/ each fairy named, its powers afforded/ by the seasonal structures of miniature worlds.” In what ways does the fantastic serve the unspoken?
EW: What a compelling question. For a child, in particular, the fantastical and mythic can provide needed explanation of the often unspoken or hard to understand—death, betrayal, power and powerlessness.
In “Argument in Fog,” where those lines appear, I’m exploring what can’t be imagined fully (death and suicide—even our own futures) and the frustration of meeting limits. Children know that better than anyone and small children scream over it. A five-year-old’s guttural scream, the physical reaction to frustration, embodies how I personally feel. The Munchian scream into a windy terrain. The unspoken is often voiced, but in animal terms, non-verbally.
JR: If, as you say, “The only guarantee is a world/ in transition,” how do we find comfort “in the hum hee ha of a town/ that proudly cares for its pavement,/ its paths, its bridges?”
EW: The image in that line comes from my interest and admiration for town planning. There is an incredible amount of unrecognized labor that goes into our cities and towns—from garbage pick-up, to coordinating with various skilled laborers in order to paint a bridge, design a lamp post, or plant a patch of garden. I’m personally inspired by that web of human action that embraces us because our own personal lives are subject to so much transition. Nothing is certain in our lives, no matter how vastly different they might be. Change will come. The Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” defines us. We are living in interesting times.
My current project is very concerned with the insecurity of our contemporary reality. If it’s not political unrest, domestic or international, it’s terrorism or environmental collapse that we could worry about. Every day seems pregnant with insecurity. I’m working on a poem in sequences that attempts to write from within that insecurity.
JR: I was pleasantly surprised to find the poem “Hard Soft Bodies” in a book called Hinge (“Universe the universe/ imagined red and luminous./ It needs to turn.”). Do you think there’s a cosmic latch? Can it be applied to writing?
EW: Surely, we’re all in this crazy game of writing to reveal something about ourselves or the world. The primary place, I think, is curiosity and self-discovery—then the added layers of “making.” In “Hard Soft Bodies,” I was conveying the experience of delivering an infant. The universal universe—and, yes, it must turn. That experience changed everything in my world—it was the cosmic latch that opened up my life and imagination.
Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Volt, Fourteen Hills, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and many other journals. Her essays have appeared in The New Inquiry, Gulf Coast, and Among Margins, an anthology of essays on aesthetics. She lives in San Francisco.
Jon Riccio is an incoming PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent poems appear in apt, Booth, Cleaver, Scapegoat Review, The HIV Here and Now Project, Hawai’i Review, and Dead King Magazine.
interview by Jon Riccio
Ginger Murchison’s is a voice comprised of narrative vulnerability that embraces the “pulpit to all our falterings.” I’m fortunate to have worked with her at various junctures over the last two years, Murchison’s brand of literary mentorship equal parts scholar and ambassador. Her collection a scrap of linen, a bone (Press 53, 2016) encompasses the archaeologies of bloodlines in tandem with the convergences and temporalities intrinsic to the natural world. Each orchid is balanced by a father’s “old friend, skin dry as the hot-sand bottom/ of that river,” each birdsong falling on the ears of women who “kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.” Over the course of our discussion, she reflects on the equilibrium that transpires between writers and readers, illuminates “what art in the dark wants to become.”
Jon Riccio: There’s a compelling orchestration of the descriptions throughout a scrap of linen, a bone, so much so I’d call them a portraiture of words. Take the poem “Gravedigger:”
shouldering his way to the bottom of every grave,
his shirt black-wet either with sweat
or the slow rain crusting the dirty snow, every day
digging down to a place just like this—
another hole in another pewter-gray day
Do you prefer an accrual or a cascading of details?
Ginger Murchison: I want to be able to do both. I write most often with a formal pressure that controls the details. . . the release of information, grammatically orchestrated as it is in a scrap of linen, a bone’s “The Fish Houses,” a poem about those strings of nearly century-old shacks on pilings in Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor, built by the fishing industry as ice houses, net-mending stations or just shanties where the fishermen bunked.
Like seeds cracked open, blooming in the ooze of fish and mud
the blast of rain and hurricanes, they’re the story of wet boots, wet nets,
wet nights, outlasting the fishermen who smoked, drank, cursed and slept there—
their metal roofs stars in a galaxy turned upside-down, burning
its slow way to collapse, wordless as an offshore fog, a patience
in the wind’s rushed syllables coming forth and forth.
In another poem, “Mandatory Evacuation,” the circumstances of hurricane Charley don’t permit a controlled orchestration of detail. In this kind of poem, the details pour forth in a torrent down the page to overwhelm the reader, mimicking that swirl of the storm. It’s a 26-line sentence fragment with 17 participles—adjectives—all descriptively holding the focus in a continual present for the whirling effect, instead of the subject-verb march of a narrative.
thrown out of the water
trees piled up Tinker Toys roofs
paper airplanes households
split wide like the lightning-strike sky
blown-wet curtains flapping
where a wall had been
and even with the waves quiet again
anything living lives on some mercy none
of the reasons for staying remembered
all around drowned
keeping on being gone
and the birds complaining
in the sore air
The poem will dictate how it wants to be written.
JR: “From the Deck in Mid-November” brings us to “that safe way my sister and I had of testing/ whether the house was too nervous for noise” before reaching one of the book’s strongest lines, “Names hold sisters together like grass holds a hillside.” What empowers you in writing about the familial?
GM: A long memory, for one thing, but more importantly, the enormous emptiness I feel desperate to fill since I’m the only one of my family still living. My mother and father are in the book, too. We were one of those uncomplicated families where my blue-collar dad worked hard, proud of everything we did and anything he could buy for us, and my mother one of that first generation to work outside the home. In the case of sisters, it’s easy. While we were normal sisters as girls, and I was, she’d be quick to tell you, every annoying thing little sisters are known to be, we were best friends as adults. We grew up with the Arkansas River virtually in our back yard, in a really small house where it was impossible to have secrets. I inherited the clothes she grew out of and I tried every way I could think of to be like her. I keep writing poems, now, to leave something with the mark each of them left on me.
JR: “Gravity” features the Niagara Falls barrel traveler Annie Edson Taylor, whose sojourn occurred on her 63rd birthday. It arrives at a “relinquished equilibrium,” as if relinquishment somehow implies there was an initial option of control – something artists wrestle with from one draft to the next. When does the Annie approach work best? Did you find yourself identifying with Annie during this collection?
GM: I’ve never thought about that before. My first reaction would be to say I’m the antithesis to Annie, but I see aspects of her in me, especially early on. She contemplated every detail of her circumstance and how she would respond, even to her invented dead husband and the lie about her age. She designed her own barrel, oversaw its construction, deliberated every precise detail of her day, even to whom she would speak the calculated responses she’d scripted for herself. My earliest poems were hatched out of something like that strict control. I’d been a teacher for thirty-one years. I knew the last line before I’d written the first one. I wrote poems that carefully guarded an image I thought I needed to protect. I was good at syntax, and I screwed those poems down so tight, grammatically, they couldn’t breathe.
I read 50 or 60 contemporary poems a day, and I knew the kind of poem I wanted to write, but my finished poem was always a disappointment, nothing at all like the poem I’d hoped to see on the page. People said things like “Trust the process,” but I had no idea what that meant or how to do it. It was after I got into workshops that I realized the really good poems were open ended, while mine were shut down at the end. . .well, not just shut down but nailed closed. I started tearing the last three lines away from all my poems and left them hanging open. One by one, I discovered endings that instead of shutting the door on the reader, actually invited him in, a participant. When I got an ending right, it felt good.
After about seven years of poems, I began to see the work grammar could do, and I finally gave my English-teacher self permission to write a sentence fragment in a poem. The freedom of that was exhilarating, and I went a little wild, writing poems without punctuation, poems that didn’t behave on the page. Those, I guess, were the poems of my “relinquished equilibrium.” I’ve settled down a bit from that, but I don’t manage the poems any more. I let the poem tell me whether it wants to be a one-sentence poem, a syllabic poem, a chunk pouring down the page traditionally punctuated or not. I couldn’t have understood that in my “Annie approach” days. And putting this collection of poems together? At first, I had trouble letting go of seeing the manuscript as a strict chronology, but after throwing it against the wall and starting over at least a dozen times, it began to loosen up. Friends helped. Tom Lombado of Press 53 determined the final order, and I was more than glad to relinquish that job to him, and it was enlightening to see his vision at work, shaping it. Note: It wasn’t until the third pass through this paragraph that I spotted that word “relinquish.” There you go!
JR: You reference the future in ways thought-provoking (“on this chair, in the larger shadow/ he will one day become”) and ironic (“commercials to remind us/ what it was we used to want/ someday”). Mortality aside, why are we so preoccupied with time?
GM: I’m glad you asked this question. It gives me one more opportunity to tell poets about one of the most important books in my library, and I’ll let those brilliant author-poets answer for me. I had just finished my first semester in Warren Wilson’s MFA program for poets when I went to AWP and listened to the panelists, David Baker, Stanley Plumly, Linda Gregerson and Ann Townsend, talk about Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry from Graywolf Press. Each of these four poets contributed an essay on time in that book that changed my whole way of seeing poems and gave me a new way of talking about them.
Listen to what David Baker says in his essay, “To Think About Time.”
Time defines us. Time binds us. Yet time is not an element of nature. It does not exist in and of itself, as a material substance, like a sycamore does or a muon. It is an immaterial measurement of the relationships of material substances and—this is important—it is an entity wholly of our own making. It is a figment, a metron, a device by which we measure the elements of nature. Or, more exactly, it is a device by which we measure the changes among natural substances. The tides sweep in and out, our hearts beat, atoms fuse and decay, and all the great galaxies spin around at unimaginable speeds across unimaginable space. Space, the cosmologists remind us, is merely another word for time. . . .
(David Baker, p. 235)
Poetry is about the varieties of measuring, telling and thinking about time. Thus the nature of its stories varies from poem to poem. The interesting question is not whether a poem has a story in it, but rather what kind of time-telling the poem undertakes. Time may be suppressed, elongated, distorted or abbreviated. It may be spotty, circular or linear.”
(David Baker, p. 242)
“Time provides the subject, the story, and the style of lyric poetry. . .if. . .the temporal engine of a poem is its verb, then what happens to time in a poem without a verb?
The apparition of these faces in the crowds;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
In the place where a verb would likely reside, Pound substitutes a semicolon (originally a colon, in an earlier draft). He wants the poem to be an instant of recognition or epiphany, an instant of likeness, so he snips out the temporal marker and puts in something like an equal sign. Thus the image in line 1 is like the image in line 2. The poem doesn’t seem to advance, or evolve, without a verb to enact. . . .[and] thereby embodies Pound’s interest in a “pure image.”
(David Baker, p. 239)
And listen to Stanley Plumly in his essay, “Lyric Time.”
Time, for instance, as a measure within and without the poem: that is, the conceit of the amount of time implied or covered within the “action” of the poem; the actual time the poem takes, say sonnet time as opposed to fifty or eighty lines or the hundred-and-thirty-two lines required to cross the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn; or timing time, the rhythm, the cadence, the metrical time, the length of line time across then down the page, pacing time. Then there is the time after the poem, relative to its displacement, density and resonance, the reading and reflective time, the breadth of time necessary to absorb the time of and with a lyric poem.
(Stanley Plumly, p. 264)
Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry” is eternal—past, present, and future—and. . .we, its passengers, are, in the best sense, interchangeable with those who have traveled and those who will travel this well-worn path.”
(Stanley Plumly, p. 267)
And there’s the best possible answer to your question: “What empowers you in writing about the familial?” I am interchangeable with the members of my family who traveled here with me. I hear my mother’s voice when I speak. I make my sister’s hand gestures; my father is always there in his quiet moral stance, modeling who we should be.
I’m embarrassed I’ve taken so long an answer, but I actually wish I could type all of Radiant Lyre’s essays for you. I hope everyone reading this will get a copy. I taught English 31 years, so I’ve developed a heightened awareness of the verb and how it moves us in time (its tenses) and the verbals that are verb forms but perform in sentences like adjectives, adverbs, and nouns and don’t advance the story forward. Read Theodore Roethke’s “Child on Top of the Greenhouse.” There isn’t a verb in the poem, but rather seven participial phrases that freeze this moment of fear for the child, “the wind billowing out the seat of his britches,” on top of those “crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,” that “streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,” those “white clouds all rushing eastward,” that “line of elms all plunging and tossing,” and “everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting.” Even the child, the poem’s subject, is not mentioned in the poem. Mimicking the events in the poem, he’s suspended on top of it in the title. A preoccupation with time? It guided Roethke’s poem, for sure. “Mandatory Evacuation” gives a nod to Roethke with its maybe 17 participles. “Every Last Time” is another one. Its two verbless subjects, “everything” and “me,” are motionless in a swirling guilt, produced by about 20 verbals.
JR: “Asylum’s” epigraph haunts me in my tracks: “for the mental patients and the hundreds of unopened suitcases found after New York’s Willard State Hospital for the Insane closed in 1995.” as do the lines:
light laid down in a cockeyed pattern, the grain of Venetian-blind slats
a labyrinth that will swallow it, an insistent hum the numb oblivion
of naked light bulbs, where it will pay to learn to be dead,
where the living stand over the dead to make sure they stay dead.
Is tone easier when you have a specific location as your poem’s subject?
GM: For me, tone is less about a specific location as the poem’s subject, as it is about the location of the poem in the poet. I’ll need to explain that. In an interview with Billy Collins for the 10th anniversary of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW_c_3vRcQI, I mentioned that not enough poems I read for The Cortland Review have a reader in mind. They sound like an exercise between the poet and the page. . .an attempt to be clever. . .some kind of verbal gymnastics, some attempt to appear brilliant. I’m outside that kind of poem, the kind of poem that comes out of the poet’s head rather than from some deeply human place in him that connects him to me emotionally. Billy responded similarly, that when he reads poems for a contest, he becomes impatient. “No one is talking to me! Will someone just please talk to me!” When the poet considers his reader in conversational language in an intimate setting as at a café table over coffee, everything changes. He voice will come from a more intimate place in himself. He’ll choose different words, project an authenticity I can’t help responding to. Laure-Anne Bosselaar, in an early workshop I took, said we should write the word LISTEN! at the top of the page to keep us from forgetting our reader.
The intimate place in me that produced “Asylum,” that poem you reference, was deeply affected by the fact that the Willard State Hospital for the Insane didn’t close until 1995. My husband and I have a mentally challenged daughter who, after public school special ed. programs until she was 21, went, in 1997, to live at the Stewart Home School in Frankfort, Kentucky. That’s just two years after the close of the Willard State Hospital that, at its peak, housed more than 4,000 “inmates,” with the average stay being 30 years. Most never left, and some 5,000 are buried in numbered graves on the property. Tone is inherent (not planted) in a poem that registers from this deep in that authentic place in the poet.
The tragic story of those suitcases is told in The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, Peter Shastny with Lisa Rinzler, photographer (Bellevue Literary Press, Reprint Edition, 2009).
JR: I loved line two of the closing tercet in “Vocabulary” for its relationship between object, place and the verb that links them:
I couldn’t tell where death began and ended,
but that whole farmhouse tilted toward the casket
with the weight of my new word.
Did you write this from a micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) or macro- (penultimate encompassing the entire poem) perspective? Do you think current poetry favors one aspect over the other?
GM: I think this is the third poem I ever wrote. I didn’t know a thing about writing poetry, but I bumped into a poetry group online. It was 1997, and my personal computer was about a week old when I found poems online—not the kind I’d been teaching in textbooks, but contemporary poems in chat rooms, some written a whole 10 minutes before they were posted. I wanted to do that. I couldn’t have understood your question then, and in “Vocabulary,” I wrote out of my remembered 5-year old’s confusion about what the word “death” meant. I couldn’t reconcile that casket in my grandparents’ farmhouse dining room with
[h]omemade bread [rising] in the kitchen
with choruses of Inka Dinka Do
and Won’t you come Home, Bill Bailey,
my own mother louder than the rest.
Even the priest who bowed his head
beside the body grabbed a beer,
pressed its cold against his face, sang, too.
I’m not sure I can answer your question now about what I was trying to do then, but I’d have to say that my years as an English teacher would most likely have had me leaning toward the “micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) perspective,” but then, trying to put down that 5-year old’s recollections as an adult seems to have required that “macro- (penultimate encompassing the whole poem) perspective,” too. Endings are difficult. I love what Mark Doty said recently: “One ambition of poetry is to create a reverberant silence in its wake, one that means more or differently than the silence that preceded the poem.” I think I just deftly wormed my way out of this question without answering it, but I’m thinking every poem is the examination of our macro-humanity expressed with a micro-focus on what makes that expression art.
JR: Of the mothers in a scrap of linen, a bone – “Mid-Western Madonna” (“Little more than a child herself. . .belly-soft with new birth, her flimsy skirt/ wadded between her legs) and the matriarch from “Wartime Measures” (“Weekdays, she donned coveralls,/ rode the bus an hour each way/ to work the night shift/ in Boeing’s assembly plant) – who leads a harsher existence? Who are your favorite writers on the subject of motherhood?
GM: Who leads a harsher existence? Hands down it’s the Mid-Western Madonna in that “Kansas dust the color of struggle,” that “back-alley, brick-oven heat.” But the even harsher existence may fall to the infant daughter at her breast,
not much to suckle there
but the knowledge of breast and thigh.
All it will ever pay her to know.
In “Wartime Measures” my own mother, after her “coveralled” week of the night-shift in Boeing’s assembly plant, was full of singing. And she was (we all were) infused with the cause of World War II.
all those mason jars
labeled and lined up like soldiers
on shelves in the cellar—
every jewel color of summer preserved
head to foot berry stained,
bent to the purple boil
in the weekend-sweet kitchen heat.
The idea of “mother” I grew up with was that woman described in “River”
patiently waiting for what happened next,
the way women have always waited for hunter husbands,
kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.
One of the first images of mother I discovered in a poem was in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” where even the word “glass” connotes a cold and fixed edginess at which nerves bristle, where the idiosyncratic punctuation and line breaks make the simple words and short sentences feel like a mouthful of broken glass, where the mother offers her visiting daughter nothing personal, warm, or welcoming, but rather launches into a laundry list of concerns that, while they are endowed with highly charged emotion, they serve as small talk, pointing perfectly to the emotional distance between mother and daughter. This is not a place to come for sympathy, and the outside, just as cold as the mother, is “paralyzed with ice.” That may not be my favorite image of “mother,” but in Anne Carson’s hands, it’s certainly the most poetically artistic.
The most passionate mother poem I’ve discovered has to be Rebecca Foust’s scathing “Apologies to my OB/GYN” in her third book, winner of the 2008 Many Mountains Moving Press Poetry Book Prize, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song.
Sorry that my boy birthed himself
too early, took up so much room. . . .
Sorry we were such pains in your ass,
asking you to answer our night calls like that. . . .
Sorry about how he defied your prognoses
skyrocketed premiums, weighted the costs
in your cost benefit analyses. . . .
Sorry he took so much of your time
being so determined to live. He spent
today saving hopeless-case nymph moths
trapped in the porch light, one matrix-dot
at a time. Now he’s asleep, blue wingbeat
pulse fluttering his left temple—there,
there again. Just like it did then.
JR: You mention the late Steve Orlen (co-founder of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and a faculty member at Warren Wilson) in your acknowledgements. What impact did he have on your work?
GM: Everyone at Warren Wilson loved Steve Orlen and wanted to work with him, especially on the essay. It was the first day of my essay semester, and I’d come armed with a subject—even a title: “ALL THE TIME THERE IS: An Interrogation into the Function of Sound, Syntax, and Grammar Across the Career of Larry Levis.” Warren Wilson students were never encouraged to request a supervisor, the idea being that the faculty knew better who should be paired with whom, but I’d decided I wanted to work with Steve Orlen for two reasons. One, he’d been Larry Levis’ friend, and I knew he’d have anecdotes to help me humanize Levis. I also knew he was famous for helping students throw open poems to digression, disjunction and surprise, something Levis was famous for, and something I still wasn’t doing in my own poems, so I wasn’t shy about dropping hints that I was hoping to work with Steve Orlen. Milling around that opening-day reception with a drink in my hand, I overheard Steve say, in that voice that kept few secrets, that he wanted to work with Ginger Murchison. I wheeled around, put out my hand and said, “I’m Ginger Murchison, and I just told three people that I wanted to work with you.”
Steve, very early on, got bored with the whole idea of reading one more sentence about syntax and grammar and suggested by the third packet that we “just work on poems.”
He called me out for the “matter of too much control” in my poems. Syntax, he said, was the only formal strategy that would help me break open my imagination and explore more than, say, two avenues at a time in a poem. He asked me to look at how Levis’ digressions did not lead him back to what he was already talking about but into new territory.
Seamlessness and perfection, he said, don’t necessarily strengthen a poem.
Avoid the grammarian’s tendency to tie the poem up in its own syntax.
Create poems out of speech instead of writing, and passion instead of intellect.
The closer to speech even a form poem comes the stronger its expressiveness.
As to repeated gestures, remember Jon Anderson: “Say it once and move on.”
In that one semester’s letters, Steve had direct influence on at least six of the poems in a scrap of linen, a bone. I still feel the easy way he coached me and coaxed me into another way of thinking about a poem, especially its ending. I just want to go down as evidence of the huge difference Steve Orlen made out here.
JR: You’re affiliated with Palm Beach Poetry Festival, The Frost Place and, in years past, Bread Loaf. What factors should one take into consideration when exploring writers’ conference options?
GM: Cost and proximity are always factors. The quality of teachers, and by that, I don’t mean “top tier poets.” We all love hanging out where those guys are, but conferences where they are regular fare are going to cost more, and the younger practicing poets are great teachers, too, and often a lot more energetic. Who else is going to the conference? Are most of the participants your age? Are at least some in graduate programs? Are they serious or part-time poets? It’s the level of discourse you’re after. You’ll likely be sleeping in dorms and eating together. It’s always best if there’s a varying demographic. Find poet teachers who come out of the aesthetic you ascribe to. If you’re an experimental poet, look for the conference where you’ll fit in best. If you want to write only in forms, look for the place/teacher most likely interested in helping with that. Ask every poet you know. Ask every teacher you know. Ask poets you don’t know. Ask me. I go to the same conferences every year and make it a point to study with someone I don’t know, someone about whom I have no previous notions or expectations. I’m always pleasantly surprised.
JR: The final couplet of “Small Craft Advisory” states “It will take both of you to untie the language/ and discover the insignificance of speech.” When did you make this discovery? Does it cast an interpretative lens over the book?
GM: I wrote that poem in one night at the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop where I went three successive years to study with Richard Jackson who taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, just up the road from Atlanta, where I lived at the time. It was a response to an “assignment,” a prompt that I can’t now remember. I made that discovery that night struggling to find an end for the poem. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any other poems that came that easily. But making it about Huck and Jim made it easy for me. I hold the (probably) unusual distinction of having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud 79 times to 8th graders and that once to my son. Those two on that raft, Huck and Jim, called in another poem in the book “those two strange shapes of grace,” communicated in a language more honest and more sincere than any conversation that happened on land, whether by the ignorant, the authorities or the righteous. I wanted Jason to know that kind of honesty in speech, but Huck and Jim communicated, too, in their silences when they drifted “solemn and slow.”
I don’t think there’s an interpretive lens over the book from that, but there is likely an influential one. I guess you’d never know it by the long-winded answers to these questions, but I’m selfish about words, in conversation. I’d rather listen. In the poem “from the Chicago Train,” the mother figure is “too tired to think all the way to words.” That’s how I feel most of the time. That’s why the poems are mostly short, the sharp syntax keeping a deliberate watch against telling and overwriting. If I have done my job with the images, the rest is insignificant. I don’t know if that’s why I love Huck and Jim, or if Huck and Jim helped fashion that in me. Either way, I’m richer for knowing them.
Thank you for these wonderfully thoughtful and smart questions, and for the time you spent with my book.
Ginger Murchison earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College. Together with Thomas Lux, she helped found POETRY at TECH, where she served as associate director for five years and as one of its Visiting McEver Chairs in Poetry. She serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of The Frost Place, is a member of the conference faculty for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, is a regular guest at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is Editor-in-Chief of the acclaimed Cortland Review. She has two grown children, Arienne and Jason, and lives with her husband Clyde Mynatt in Ft. Myers, Florida.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Carbon Culture Review, Mead, Yellow Chair Review, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review and Pamplemousse, among others. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
by Jon Riccio
There’s only one force of nature that can withstand you when your hurricane siblings include Emily who “whispered her gusts into a thousand skins,” Maria whose “thunder skirts flew high,” and Philippe (“flailing on a wronged ocean”), and that’s Patricia Smith, her 2008 collection Blood Dazzler a clarion container of persona and received form embodying the shockwave that was Katrina. Smith reflects on Blood Dazzler’s origins, provides an update on one of her subjects, and sings the praises of the 31-syllable tanka form. She makes us wonder whether the passage of time has salved Katrina’s “throbbing like a new-torn wound/ under August drape.”
For anyone about to title a book, there’s wisdom on that too…
Jon Riccio: You’ve stated that “34,” a persona poem recounting the “thirty-four bodies…found drowned in a nursing home where people did not evacuate” served as Blood Dazzler’s genesis, the deceased given their due with such lines as “What makes the dust of me smell like a dashed miracle,/ the underside of everything?” and “I’m cold/ and I’m strapped to this country.” Why are those last five words as horrifying as they are apt?
Patricia Smith: Many people have asked me why I took on the storm, especially since I’m not from New Orleans and have no ties whatsoever to the Gulf region. It’s because I didn’t see Katrina as purely a regional event, but a human one. I think the disaster made it all too clear just what our country is capable of—the blatant dismissal of poor, mostly brown, people in a time of crisis. And there it was, blaring from our TV screens for everyone, finally, to see. The truth, and the horror, of those five words lie in the fact that the people considered disposable in our society are those forced to be most reliant upon what that society deems as “just.”
JR: How did the personification of Katrina as a woman contribute to Blood Dazzler’s impact? What were the pros and cons of gendering a hurricane in the draft stages of your work?
PS: This line in Blood Dazzler is one of the first lines that came to me: “Every woman begins as weather.” I never considered NOT giving the storm the ability to be vulnerable, fierce, remorseful, arrogant, weary, and vengeful. Katrina’s voice is what eventually gave the book its shape. When I write poems, I always look for an unexpected entry point, and crafting this book was no different. I knew no one would expect to hear the storm to speak, and I needed her to help make sense of the chaos.
JR: The fatalities in “Tankas” – “I have three children,/ but only two arms,” “I found my sister/ whirling in the peppered blue,” and “—God’s hands smothering/ your heart. And the thumps/ grow slower, slower, until/ He takes back your name. Lifts you.” – shed light on a death toll estimated between 1,245 and 1,836 (source: Wikipedia). Why do the 5/7/5/7/7 tanka syllable constraints work so well here?
PS: You can’t look directly at death unless you can contain it. It’s horrific in its undefined edges, and the idea of it unleashes a fear that blurs both its reality and inevitability. The tight control of the tanka is somewhat sleight-of-hand—it’s a taming of what refuses to be tamed. Working in such a terse, controlled form didn’t change the truth, it just slowed my approach to it. It helped me rein in rampaging emotion. Concentrating on the syllable count gave me a way to confront the body count.
JR: “Siblings,” a roll call dedicated to names of past hurricanes, maintains its modified abecedarian form through the letter W (“Wilma opened her maw wide, flashing rot.”), the final lines diverging: “None of them talked about Katrina./ She was their odd sister,/ the blood dazzler.” Was this the intended destination of your title all along?
PS: No, not at all. When I wrote the poem, relatively early in the process, I reached the last line and put the words “blood dazzler” in as a placeholder, intending to come back and replace them with a more suitable phrase when the right inspiration hit. They didn’t mean anything at the time. I came back when I considered the book done, and by then those two words had stretched to fit. They bellowed and mystified, all wrong and yet perfect against each other. So they stayed in the poem, becoming what was whispered about that bad girl.
Then came that terrible moment when the book needed to call itself something. I’m terrible at titling, it’s something I’ve always struggled with. And those two words wrapped themselves around everything—the phrase was just wide enough to encompass the narrative without defining it. It was darkness and sparkle. It was menace and the memory of a clear, untroubled sky.
JR: Blood Dazzler also contains a sestina and a ghazal. You close your book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah on a Motown sonnet crown. Why has received form been such a good fit?
PS: I dedicated my MFA study to mastering the language of form and metrics. Blood Dazzler was my MFA thesis. As I worked, I tried to be receptive to the poems, to listen to what they were asking to be. Katrina, as persona, helped me with the direction of her voice and the voice of the story surrounding her. Form is a device in my toolbox, accessible to me when it’s needed. Chaos becomes something other when it’s controlled. I love how it’s possible to take a sprawling, unwieldy story and give it lyrical boundaries.
JR: I keep returning to “Ms. Thang Sloshes in the Direction of Home,” as you’ve built an empathy around this character, fierce in her fuchsia suede: “She thought that being a woman meant filling/ the body with rain,” “Old muscles swell, beg her to dive and push/ like a man, master the water,
swim/ like a bitch with an Olympic agenda.” What’s she up to these days?
PS: She smoothes rampant muscle
and silkens errant hairs
with a sung southern syllable.
Ask her where the storm went
when she chased it away, and she’ll
tell you her new name, spitting
the hard K in homage…
JR: There’s a series of eight voodoo poems in Blood Dazzler, each “available for the following magickal purposes…” including love and passion, healing, spiritual cleansing, and blessing. Which of these holds the most significance for you?
PS: That would be healing—healing wounds, healing rifts, healing ruptures. The prospect of being able to recover from any depth of hurt.
JR: The back cover features praise from Mark Doty, Carolyn Forché, Terrance Hayes, and Yusef Komunyakaa. How would Hurricane Katrina blurb your book?
PS: You mean Blood Dazzler? What a weird question. I suppose: “Patricia Smith dared to lock eyes with a storm—and thought she saw me.”
Coffee House Press (2008): $16.00
Patricia Smith is the author of seven books of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2014 Rebekah Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Phillis Wheatley Award; Savannah was also a finalist for both the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Balcones Prize. Patricia also authored Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her most recent book is Gotta Go Gotta Flow, a collaboration with the late Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New York Times, TriQuarterly, Tin House, The Washington Post, and in both Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir, which she edited, won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories. She is a 2014 Guggenheim fellow, a 2012 fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner, recipient of a Lannan fellowship and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Her next poetry collection will be released in 2016; she is also working on a volume combining poetic monologues and a collaborative novel with her husband Bruce DeSilva, the Edgar-Award winning author of the Liam Mulligan crime novels. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Jon Riccio received his MFA from the University of Arizona. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Yellow Chair Review, Stickman Review, Pamplemousse, Mead, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review, and After the Pause, among others. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
Sarah, with friend Alice
by Jon Riccio
Sarah Sarai’s poems remind us to savor the esoteric in tandem with the “true real.” As to the prognostic, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX [books], 2009) relieves our guesswork-addled culture through such seers as Jack Kerouac, Emma Bovary and Bill Knott, each delving into a chronology that transitions from a sky’s hindsight to the “stew of snowflake christenings.” “Every fate has rotations,” Sarai writes, her work espousing how best to adjust the knob when happiness crosshairs onto the safe deposit’s dial.
Jon Riccio: The titular poem tells us to accept connection. Is serendipity the key to a happy future?
Sarah Sarai: Serendipity is a word born in a fairy tale. The Three Princes of Serendip’s characters were, according to Horace Walpole, who coined the word in 1754, “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Serendipity is a blender-drink of fortune, happenstance, toy parade, fresh pineapple, ice, and vodka. However, you, Jon, ask for the “key” to a happy future. While I have considered becoming the sort of person able to respond to such a question, I am still in training to be a guru. Though I observe that making oneself available – open – to beneficent fortune, good luck, kind fates, the occasion of a good thing is serendipity. I heard someone say, “the future is happy” as a motto to keep himself going and knew it would be the title of my collection. Some misunderstand—think, assume or pretend to assume it is sappy. Those are the same people who start singing songs containing my first name when we meet. Don’t bank on anything but the now, although it wouldn’t hurt to put money aside for a vacation.
JR: Per your poem “The Brave One:” “Humanity’s an abrupt artform, tolerated / by the pageant and caught, a filigree in / the pretty scrapbook, amber, held to / sparkling effulgence.” Are we in more of a draft or revision stage?
SS: That’s a subtle distinction. Isn’t a revision the becoming of, or, an actualized draft? A draft is passive but certainly not dead, more like passed out on the page from the exhaustion of composition, or life. Even joy is exhausting. Even good times need the grounding of a cup of hot tea with milk. A draft is a lady-in-waiting to the writer. A revision has the daring to better itself as we writers dare to embellish, experiment with, and improve – which we do or don’t but we change the work and certainly we fail better over time. Also: palimpsest: let the word hang here.
JR: Your book features God, angels, Shiva and saints. To what degree do world religions influence your poetry?
SS: The Future Is Happy also makes mention of Jodie Foster, Spinoza, Descartes, Aristotle, Denzel Washington, Count Basie, Ingmar Bergman, Jimmy Carter. By “your book features” I take it you mean that The Great Else, the Cosmic Lunacy, God, are given a greatest weight in the collection, something I like hearing yet which makes me nervous. I’ve more or less always been a believer in The Awesome Power. Alas, being a believer is like loving a career criminal, or being one of those women who takes up with the incarcerated. Do dykes do that? You are giving me ideas! Sometimes I am disinterested in poetry that doesn’t reach for wisdom and sometimes I am annoyed with myself for falling into a pit of cleverness. Once a Swedenborgian, on hearing my mother was a Christian Scientist and my father was Jewish commented, “You were released to wander.” Nailed me, in life and writing.
JR: “Mirage or not, tales of healing palms/ lure pilgrims to our vastland./ The springs of Baden Baden?/ Miss Piggy Bubblebath soothes as good.” is a planful pitch for the shrine-inclined who occupy “Monarch of the Desert.” What happens when pop culture and the organic meet?
SS: Pop culture and the organic don’t meet so much as speed date. They have been acquainted with one another since forever. Poetry is drawn from the organic insofar as emotion and lived experience are organic, which, organic, I may be confusing with real. Who knows what will continue to sound authentic and compelling in a hundred years. Some lucky guesses but no one knows. Right now all contemporary poets are pop (is a theory one could postulate). Segue. Do you think little kids re-enacted the battles of the Iliad and/or designed costumes for the pageant? Play turns the classic into pop. Who was the Grecian Athenian action figure mfg.? Another response is simply that art is a synthesis or mash-up. By the way, Miss Piggy Bubblebath is a bathing-my-niece-and-nephew memory. And it is Miss Piggy. And it is bubblebath. A perfect storm of soap and poetry.
JR: Who are some essential poets for remembering the less-than-commendable moments of our past, moments collective memory needs, nonetheless?
SS: Right now I’m reading Ernesto Cardenal’s Golden UFOs: the Indian Poems (Indiana Univ. Press). He takes on the task of remembering the before of colonial empire without missing the post-colonial. Swinging back to your question on spirituality, here is a Cuna sage on Euro-religion, from the title poem: “‘Nobody has seen God. We know nothing about Him.’” And a garden of Eden that was lost: “The traditional here is revolutionary.” The oft-touted ‘economy’ of poetry, and some presupposition of our knowledge of history, allows Cardenal to describe a group of people, now; in the near past (of the poem), such as when Hilton tried a landgrab for a hotel; when Columbus and his band of sickos landed; and before Columbus. Before Columbus. Fifteen pages and it’s all there. Poets right now are doing similar: Claudia Rankine, Rigoberto González, Jericho Brown, Timothy Yu, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kazim Ali. Michael Broder’s online anthology on HIV, as well as his poems. These names came quickly. There are many many others. Ai, Akmatova, Brooks, Szymborska, Kuyumaka, Doug Anderson, Tagore.
JR: Would you rather live “in the melancholy beehive” with its “hot gold and warm honey,” or remain in your current base of operations, New York City?
SS: I divide my time between the two. I do long for the beehive and beauty of its melancholy. It is without the sometimes smallness of NYC. But also without the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, which stare at me with delicious disinterest nearly every day. I check rentals in little, sunny towns around the country, looking for little honey pots to live in with a honey pot. But right now I’m here.
JR: “I have no mythology” you state a third of the way through the book. What’s the quickest way to acquire one in the social-media age?
SS: I don’t have an only-one-most-high mythology. So that’s that. The Information Age gave way to the Disinformation Age as funded by CEOs and many-star generals and politicians who rake in omni-fortunes from the omniwar. We’re habituated to seeing soldiers who adapt to use of artificial limbs because they were “serving their country.” Bless Snowden, Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, and others who helped move us towards the Age of Transparency and Accuracy and bless social media for expediting that. And for friendships with writers I haven’t met but know through the mysteries of cyber intuition. And for books I learned of through s-m (social media). Happy face. There is a lot of input in NYC. It’s good to get a more inclusive perspective through the web that is world-wide. It’s here and I make use of it and media that socializes us.
JR: There’s a passage in “Everywhere Woman Is Born Free” about your own personal purgatory serving as “a beta test for a new way of salvation/ for all mankind.” Beta to meta, what were the results?
SS: Meta is a ways off in this poet’s life, and also I am not sure of your concept of a progression of beta to meta, as if we can test our way into some communion. The new way of salvation has actually been around for a while. Be kind, feed the poor, don’t lose awareness of the gift all this is. But the new way of salvation is that the future, which is now, now being all we truly have unless we can shape shift and time warp, is, you should pardon the expression, to be happy, happy enough. The Future Is Happy Enough? No one has to seek out grief.
JR: The phrase “corporeality of life” appears in the book’s final poem. Is this the best outlook for present-day happiness?
SS: Bodies are a hell of a problem. And I’ve fought to have one. My training was “there is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter . . . matter is mortal error” – which is part of the Christian Science partyline. My mother also bequeathed great gifts of fancy and imagination, intelligence, oneness of humanity. My love for her is impossibly strong. Still I wasn’t allowed to see doctors and lived day-in/day-out with her illusions, which was like living with a Transcendentalist on crack. My father was my father. He had to leave college (Columbia) in his last year because my grandfather lost it all in the thirties. He was a remarkably interesting person. Perhaps less booze would have made him even more so. The final stanza of that poem, “Incorporeal,” answers your question. I adore “a thing as pine boughs shaken/ by burning cold winds when/ we’re all alone and looking up.” I land on the simple spectacular of life.
JR: You end “Emily Dickinson Is Jewish” with “Poems as long as one letter, rise.” Your one-letter poem? Why?
SS: Quite a while back I encountered the poet Nelly Sachs in my reading. She and Paul Celan were friends and correspondents, like Bishop and Lowell but different. Celan was forced into a labor camp, as you know, and Sachs made it to Sweden a day before she would have been swept up in Germany’s horror. I no longer have the collection of hers I’d referred to, O the Chimneys. (She was awarded a Nobel in literature.) In “Emily Dickinson Is Jewish” I reveal a somewhat regrettable tendency, and great empathy, to imagine the worst possible and then care-take whoever is in those circumstances — in this case death camps although now I am thinking of the so so many people unjustly cruelly held in U.S. prisons. While you (the indistinct you) may not have the opportunity and privilege to write a poem, still, even the thought of a poem matters. Thought artwork and ashes of the imprisoned are seen by The Vast Distance.
And there you go. And now here I go. Thank you so much for asking great questions, and asking me.
Sarah Sarai’s poems have appeared in Ascent, Pool Poetry, PANK, Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Yew, Ping-Pong, decomP, and many other journals. Her short stories have appeared in Tampa Review, Gravel, The Writing Disorder, South Dakota Review, Storyglossia, and others. She has appeared in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Fe. Her personal essay, “The Changing of the Guides,” (spirit guides, in her case) is in the forthcoming anthology of odd experience, In Case We Die (Unknown Press). She studied psychic healing in Los Angeles, the work of Edgar Cayce in New York, has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her collection, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX), can be ordered through Amazon or SPD. She blogs at My 3,000 Loving Arms. And works as an editor.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. An MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, current and forthcoming poems appear in Really System, Split Rock Review, Cleaver, Futures Trading, Hawai’i Review and Carbon Culture Review, among others. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
Balakian at the ruins of the Armenian medieval city of Ani.
Peter Balakian has graffiti-tagged the space-time continuum and we would do well to keep the atmosphere stocked. His latest poetry collection Ozone Journal (The University of Chicago Press, 2015) breezes across the “static sounds from Comiskey and Fenway” circa 1961 with layovers in Haiphong Harbor and Teheran before arriving in the New York City of thirty years ago, leaving no Reaganism, Tribecan or epidemic unturned.
Jon Riccio: There are historical events, then there’s history itself, a subject addressed throughout Ozone Journal in such passages as “I could hear the end of history/ in the teeth rattling inside a gourd,” and “I was beginning to see history/ as images filtered through cracked glass.” Did putting the concept into tangible items make a more cohesive anchor for the book?
Peter Balakian: There are moments in poems where macro perceptions occur; moments when you get a jolt about an epistemological or cosmic reality; “seeing history” in these poems you mention is one of those jolt moments for me—a moment of heightened perception about something large.
JR: In “Hart Crane in LA, 1927” you write “Another colleague said you couldn’t understand Crane’s big poem/ without context, the other said you couldn’t understand/ context without the poem. Another said, listen to the/ strange sound the words make when you let the silence in.” How do you parse a poem’s meaning?
PB: The characters in my poem are evincing something about the complexity of reading a poem. We all know that there are many ways into a poem and that a poem is a complex work of imagination that demands we read it from various perspectives. Formal and aesthetic dimensions are always the center of the work and we must go there first—that’s how the work came into being. But, various historical, cultural, and biographical contexts, when unearthed with care and brought to the poem with precision, can open up the work in important ways. The dialogue in my poem about Hart Crane tries to bring these issues into some conversation.
JR: I’m drawn to Ozone’s glimpses of the scientific, a few examples being “the lidocaine of the morning air,” “the nanoparticles of spray-can mist” and “T cells floating in the elevator at Saks,/ spikes of protein/genome invasion.” Has this always been a facet, or is it something that subconsciously found its way into your writing?
PB: I’ve always wanted to open the poem to everything possible in the realm of knowledge, ideas, experience, etc. When I was younger I was focused a lot on the body and its anatomy. Over the years, probably since the late ‘80s I’ve been interested in wrestling with dimensions of technology, digital culture, and especially the realities of our screen-age from TV to computer to cell-phone screens. Screens find their way into my poems because of course, this is a primary mode of consciousness and perception of our age—starting with mid-20th century TV culture. My recent books Ziggurat and Ozone Journal are engaged with various dimensions of science, from physics and the archeology of artifacts to AIDS and the erosion of the ozone in our age of climate change and ecological disaster.
JR: The titular poem is divided into 54 sections, while others range from three to 12. When do you know a section is complete?
PB: Writing in longer forms engages me in another kind of rhythm; you have more space to work lyrical language and create planar juxtapositions and metaphoric shifts; you have room to layer the experience of the poem more richly. Each section is in conversation with other sections in the poem, and I’m trying to find the rhythmic and conceptual moment when the right realization has been achieved.
JR: “I was held together by tranquilizers and the weft of a prayer rug” (the first line of “Providence/Teheran, ′79”) succeeds in its beauty and frankness. What’s the most memorable advice you’ve received about beginning a poem?
PB: I can’t say I recall anyone ever giving me advice about opening a poem. My sense of the opening is driven by the rhythm of the phrase and how interesting or energetic the opening line or lines can be while at the same time being right for the poem.
JR: Buddha, Joe Louis, Khomeini and Calvin Klein – not your everyday poem occupants, though they manage the Ozone with aplomb. What are the pros and cons of attaching recognized names to the work? Is there such a thing as too much celebrity-lending in the written word?
PB: My engaging those figures and others in my work is not about using celebrity; those figures are just parts of various cultures that I’m interested in writing about – religious ideas, America during the Jim Crow era, contemporary America, etc. I have a broad interest in culture and I suppose here Whitman, Yeats, Auden, Robert Hayden and Adrienne Rich would be the kinds of poets who have inhabited these zones in their times. I suppose the issue of how grounded in culture can a poem be and be interesting to future generations is always at stake in this conversation. But, I would note that we still read Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Auden’s “August 1, 1939,” Rich’s “Planetarium” or Hayden’s “The Middle Passage.” Homer and Dante give us plenty of culture and history in their poems.
JR: The second tercet in “Baseball Days, ′61” closes with “Kennedy’s hair blew across the screen. Castro was just a sofa.” A great moment in furniture poetics, for sure. How did you arrive at this image?
PB: Remembering the TV screen of 1961 brought me those images. Kennedy’s face is obvious, but I guess the reader would have to know that a company called Castro made a much advertised pull-out sofa in the ′60s. But, the pun and double-entendre (Fidel Castro) is also, I hope, comic and engaging for the reader.
JR: I attended your lecture on Moby Dick at the Colgate Writers’ Conference. What are Ozone Journal’s Melvillesque qualities, if any?
PB: Melville will always embody the ideal of an expansive reach of linguistic density and opacity. He will always embody the ideal of fusing the sensory and sensual with a reach for the metaphysical and for the domain of ideas. It’s not for me to say what might be Melvillian about my book, but these aspects of Melville’s sensibility are always prodding my head to go for as much as possible.
JR: I admire the conventional turned on its ear, hence my double underlining of the phrase “anthropology’s shakedown” in “Slum Drummers, Nairobi.” What are the best possible outcomes of this, and who should do the shaking?
PB: Again, I’m not going to do a reading of my poem, but I would just note that that image suggests something about what anthropologists do, how they critique, how deep inquiry can radically alter how we see and understand the world, how we come to have knowledge. In the poem, it’s my daughter Sophia, who is fact an anthropologist, who is leading me forward to see things in fresh ways.
JR: Your book begins with a devastator and a sparrow. It ends on “a subway station sliding into water.” How do you equate dichotomy with destination?
PB: Human experience is full of paradox and complexity, full of colliding strangenesses— and in some ways those are our destinations.
Peter Balakian is the author of seven books of poems, four books of prose and two translations. His book of prose Black Dog of Fate won the 1998 PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for the Art of the Memoir. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize. He is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Colgate University. His new book of essays, Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture was just published by University of Chicago Press.
Jon Riccio serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Really System, Split Rock Review, Futures Trading and Hawai’i Review, among others. He graduates in December with an MFA from the University of Arizona.
by Jon Riccio
Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive (Press 53) highlights the trappings of a humanness as agonized as it is Americanized. That she conveys these struggles and their triages in a book composed entirely of sonnets is no small feat. Foust’s collection excels in its alcoves, each iteration of the 14-line form simpatico with “the limestone walks/ to houses glowing like over-lit cruise boats/ docked under old oaks.” Inspired by Foust’s “The tiles are set in cement, but we’ve seen what a few/ cigarettes or million bucks can shake loose,” Jon Riccio tours the neighborhood, the author serving as his guide.
Jon Riccio: We met at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar where you were the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence. You won my respect right off the bat after I heard that Robert Frost’s clothesline served as your primary canvas for determining the page order in Paradise Drive. Have you always employed such creative methods in the assembly process? What’s the best advantage to the book-by-clothesline technique?
Rebecca Foust: I laid out my first few books as I imagine everyone else does: on the bed, on the floor, on the kitchen table. The table was never big enough and the bed had to be cleared at night to sleep in, so the floor always ended up being the best option. But it’s hard on your back and knees to be bending over and stooping and creeping around like that. An open door or window can have disastrous effects on your carefully-aligned piles. And you eventually have to pick the pages up to mop the floor.
When Cleopatra Mathis came to visit at The Frost Place (TFP), she told me that when she was a fellow there, she tacked her poems up all over the living room walls. I loved that idea, but I knew those walls had been freshly painted and did not think TFP would appreciate my pockmarking them with thumbtack holes. Instead, I set up two banquet-size folding tables on the screened-in back porch and laid my poems out in rows. The porch faced west, and I liked working there in the late afternoons with the sun slanting in; I’d look up now and then to see if I could catch a glimpse of the mother bear and cubs who lived in the back field. One day I looked up and noticed the clothesline hung right over my head. That’s when I got the idea to pin the poems to the lines.
Two clotheslines ran the length of the 32-foot porch, so I had 64 total feet, enough room to hang about 85 poems. The rest got spread on the banquet tables, but I no longer had to have them in piles, and for the first time I could see all the poems that might go into the manuscript in nearly one glance. I used the tables as a discard pile and the clothesline for various incarnations of the book. I could see the “pages” at eye level and move them around at will. And I could leave them up for the whole summer! I always think better and get ideas when walking, so being able to pace back and forth along the clotheslines allowed me to see connections between poems that had not occurred to me before and to imagine many, many different possible sequences. Everything was fixed in the pinned moment but also infinitely fluid—all I had to do was unfasten a poem, slide the others down, and voila!—a new order. An added benefit was that the process was much easier on my back and knees than the “floor” method I’d used before.
JR: Polident and Percocet are a few modern-era amalgamations featured in the centuries-old sonnet forms throughout Paradise Drive (Ritalin, Tupperware and d-CON appear as well). Is it me, or do our times feel sonnet-made?
RF: All times are sonnet-made, in my opinion, or perhaps I should say the sonnet is for all times. I have found it to be an infinitely elastic and highly generative form. People have been breaking the rules with sonnets for so long that breaking the rules has become part of the form. But even staying within the rules permits infinite possibilities for expression. Wordsworth’s poem “Nuns Fret Not” (a title I borrowed for a poem in Paradise Drive) makes the case for structure allowing for greater artistic freedom. In an article written for the Cortland Review, Tony Barnstone says it this way:
In the words of the great Tang Dynasty statesman and writer Han Yu, to write in form is to “Dance in Chains.” That is, the joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly following the rule of prosody, of pouring content into a predefined form, but in creatively interacting with a tradition, renewing and modernizing it.
Poet Sam Gwynn calls it “pouring new wine into old bottles,” and it’s all just another version of Pound’s idea that the poet’s job is to “make it new.”
JR: Was it harder writing about your father’s life (“I’m ready to tell the truth about Dad,/ extolled as a death camp liberator…He was false and flawed and still/ someone’s god, each 3-a.m. sobbed drunk-dial call.”), or your mother’s death (“At my mother’s wake, other gray faces/ who’d worked the looms in rooms/ so thick with thread that noon/ was dark.”)?
RF: In some ways it was harder to write about my father’s life because he was so private, even secretive, and what I know of his inner life and even of his history is largely imagined or re-constructed from going through his papers after his death. I think it was his experience in WWII that made my father turn inward, because in the photos before he was drafted, I see a very different man from the one I knew. My mother, in contrast, was open and willing to share details about her passions and frustrations, joys and griefs. It’s been easier to write about her life and death because she let me in, and the raw material for the poems is more accessible. Also, when writing about my father I feel a reticence that comes from, I suppose, a fear of violating his intensely-held privacy. I don’t have that fear when writing about my mother. I feel her blessing on everything I write.
JR: This excerpt – from “Stepford Wives Theme Party” – “stovetop Jiffy Pop, its swollen tin orb as frail/ as a paper wasp nest or spacesuit worn/ on the doomed Apollo.” has forever changed my outlook on movie snacks. What is it about lines like this and others, such as “She found the kill switch (every miracle has one),” that makes them so successful?
RF: I like that Jiffy Pop image too! It’s a very rich, visceral, accessible pop culture image that triggers several senses at once, but is not one that has been overused. And I think its comparison with those old spacesuits is surprisingly apt. Surprise and precision are two elements that can empower a figure of speech. Also, perhaps, oxymoron. The fragility of the foil torn through to get to a snack seems trivial, even fun, until you consider the same fragility as applied to space suits meant to protect the human body from harm. That kind of yoking of opposites adds tension and vigor to simile and metaphor. Something of that nature is at work in your second example as well. Miracles are large, profound things, often sacred, so it is surprising and even sacrilegious to conceive of them as being “rigged.” And since we generally think of miracles as being life-affirming, the idea of one having a “kill switch” adds another little jolt of surprise.
JR: Paradise Drive, the street of wizened sonnets. An impromptu blurb, but since we’re on the subject of wisdom, let’s jump to the second poem of “The Market” where the futures trader trades “his clogs for a new pair of Adidas – / traction against those pesky subpoenas.” Give us another item essential to residency on your book’s titular drive.
RF: I love “the street of wizened sonnets!” Can you please put that up in a review on Amazon?
I can think of a number of items one needs in order to live on Paradise Drive. A Bird Dog, apparently. A two- or three-car garage to house the SUV for ski weekends along with the requisite PC-Prius. A home gym. A plastic surgeon on speed dial. Blinders are helpful. A Rolex is good. It’s all there in the book, everything you need for the Paradise Drive survival backpack.
JR: I enjoyed the ways you incorporated other poetry forms – the list (“Three-Car Garage”), persona (“Gone to the Dogs”) and elegy (“Bourbon Elegy,” “Anastrophe Elegy”) – into the sonnet. What impact did multi-layering have on your generative/revision process?
RF: If it had any impact it was at a subconscious level. Aside from trying to follow the sonnet form (then later trying to see how much I could deviate from it), I didn’t think about form. I never thought: I’ll make a list poem, I’ll make an elegy. Once I had an idea in about 14 lines, I just kept revising to try to make it a better poem. Most of these sonnets came to me whole. I started the book in 2008, during my second semester in grad school, a time when I became interested in, then obsessed with, the sonnet form. For a year or so, sonnets were all I read. I was immersed and it was like learning a language. I eventually found myself dreaming in sonnets, making grocery list sonnets and even thinking in chunks of about 14 lines. For a while almost every poem I wrote just came out that way. I wrote hundreds of 14-liners; some became sonnets, and a few were good.
Paradise Drive began in one insomniac three-day period during which I wrote about 35 core poems without stopping, one right after the other, half filling a notebook that I afterwards carried with me everywhere. You know how it is when you are in one of those fertile creative periods, when everything—I mean everything—seems directly to feed the work? It was like that. I just looked around me and listened to what people were saying and read the local papers and there were poems everywhere. And because of my mindset and obsession at the time, the poems emerged as sonnets. It was like spitting out owl pellets—I’d take everything in, digest it, then expel these small, condensed packages of bones, teeth and fur.
JR: Your sonnets on bridges – “Romance” and the abovementioned “Anastrophe Elegy” – address suicide. One could see them as structures within structures exploring the unsayable. What do you hope readers will take away from these poems?
RF: That’s what poetry is supposed to do, right? Get as close as possible to expressing the ineffable, saying what is hard to say or can’t be said. It’s an impossible mission, and one I rail against in the poem “No Words.” But yes, I found structure very helpful for taking on really difficult subjects. The hardest poem in the book for me to write, the hardest line to write, was the one in “Don’t Talk About this” that addresses the mother’s fear that her child has used the belt of his bathrobe as a noose behind the closed bathroom door. That one, and the line about what the child says to her after she’s tucked him into bed. Thinking about form is one way I distract myself from what I am afraid to write, and I use it to trick my inner censor into looking the other way.
JR: “Death by Dodge Sportsman” contains the immortal epigraph Man Gets Six Years for Motor Home Chase. What’s your advice for writers turning truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments into poems?
RF: That epigraph was an actual headline taken from the Marin Independent Journal. You can’t make these things up, but they are everywhere if you look and listen. I wrote several poems from Marin IJ headlines but “Death by Dodge Sportsman” was the only one that made it into Paradise Drive. I had way too many “Seven Deadly Sins” poems for the book; one, “Rage Gets a Court Date” has an epigraph from a headline that read “Novato Women Guilty in Stabbing over Romantic Rival.” Most of those sonnets, like “Death by Dodge Sportsman,” combine humor with something that is not funny at all.
My advice? We always hear about Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” but I guess I’d say something along the lines of “experience it slant” or even “experience slant.” We take all kinds of utter insanity in the world around us completely for granted. My advice is to look for the strange in the everyday, really look at things and really listen. The more you do this the better you get at it. And then something else begins to happen—you can begin to mis-see and mis-hear things in very interesting ways.
Then, of course, it is important to capture the things you notice. I try to carry a pen and index cards with me always, but when caught short I’ll make notes on my phone or even on my hand and all the way up my arm. If you don’t write things down in the moment, they are lost.
JR: There’s a sentence from “The Quest” that resonates, stronger every time I return to it: “Maybe the chance/ to do an angstrom of good, make beauty/ or protest or laughter.” How does Paradise Drive serve this quartet of intent?
RF: Well, let’s just say I hope the book does an angstrom of good. I love that word “angstrom” by the way, and I stole it from a poem written by my friend Roy Mash. I like how the word sonically evokes the narrator’s anxiety about whether she has the power to do any good in the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that old chestnut about what can poetry do, what good is it, does it matter. We all know all the various lines that get quoted when this subject comes up. I’ve pretty much devoted my life to poetry since I retired from autism advocacy about eight years ago. That’s a lot of hours spent at my desk moving commas around, and it sometimes feels more than a little self-indulgent. So the preoccupation of the narrator in “The Quest” is my preoccupation. And her conclusion is pretty much how I rationalize spending so much time on this art. I do believe poetry can do that “quartet” of things, and that they are important things and maybe the most important things any one person can do. I often think about that line by Phil Ochs, how in times like these, beauty is the last form of protest. Some poetry does outright protest and bear witness, of course, and a small subset does it well. But I agree that beauty is itself a form of protest. In an age of cynicism, acknowledging and building beauty takes courage. And yeah, just making people laugh is a good thing. Beauty, protest, laughter—these allow for hope, and hope may be the only thing with the power to make the world better. In an essay written for the Georgia Review last year, Ann Pancake talks about the obligation of artists to “dream forward”—to see the world not just as it is but also to envision how it might be. Seeing and making beauty can, I guess, be a way of dreaming forward.
JR: The Volta derives its name from “the turn in thought in a sonnet that is often indicated by such initial words as But, Yet, or And Yet” (thank you, Encyclopædia Britannica). Which volta has inspired you the most, and why?
RF: The word volta contains its own unit of electricity, and that is what you find in the best sonnets: electricity, pure energy. Urban dictionary calls sonnets “Pop-rocks for your mind. Deceptive packages that set off unexpected explosions.” Sonnets can indeed be like little bombs, with the volta where the explosion happens. Before the volta is set up (the fuse) and after it is, well, aftermath.
Voltas that are cued in obvious ways with disjunctives like “but” and “yet” are often the least interesting ones, because you can see them coming a mile away, and they can end up sounding didactic and over-explicative. These are the signals for rhetorical voltas, turns in argument or logic, but there are many other more subtle and powerful ways a sonnet can make a turn, for example by changing tone, setting, point of view, verb tense, subject, etc. Some poets, like Billy Collins (in his poem, “Sonnet”) actually employ the word “turn” to make the turn. The last poem in Paradise Drive, “Preparation for Pirouette” executes the steps of a balletic turn (“whip-pivot-spot”) in its 13th line.
Once I understood there are many kinds of turns besides a shift in thought signaled by disjunctives, I began to see that many sonnets have more than one turn. For example, some Elizabethan sonnets with strong voltas in their closing couplets also make a less obvious turn where we expect to see it in a Petrarchan sonnet, after the first eight lines. I was thinking about voltas when I wrote “Contradance,” on one level about a turn-and-dip dance move called a “Gypsy Meltdown,” and on another level about turning away from a turning away from faith, not quite the same thing as embracing faith. In that poem I tried to insert a turn in every single line; I wanted it to be continuously revolving.
So, to answer your question, sonnets that make more than one turn and whose turns are subtle are the most inspiring to me. Some poems in Paradise Drive strictly adhere to form and others bend the rules; others break nearly all the rules. What makes a sonnet a sonnet, I kept wondering, and how many conventional criteria can I jettison before the form falls apart? Two poems in Paradise Drive don’t have 14 lines, but I still consider them sonnets. I ended up deciding that if there is one element that must be retained, it is the volta. A sonnet has to end in a different place than it began; there must be compressed tension and change. So it’s great to end the interview here, on the volta, my favorite part of and what I believe to be the sine qua non of the sonnet form.
The 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence, Rebecca Foust is the recipient of the 2014 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Award and recent fellowships from The Frost Place, the MacDowell Colony and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and can be ordered at http://www.press53.com/.
Jon Riccio graduates this December with an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Qwerty, Redivider, Mountain Gazette, White Whale Review and elsewhere. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
by Jon Riccio
There’s a high likelihood Megan Volpert is the only Teacher of the Year appearing in The Volta. Much as I wanted to ask her about the faculty smoking lounges of yore, we had other matters to discuss, namely Megan’s new book, Only Ride. Any poetry collection prefaced with lyrics by Tom Petty is bound to resonate. That and the line “I pretty much have the kind of problems that a pot of macaroni & cheese can solve, except that a lot of people think I think about death a little too often.” Driver’s ed be damned.
Jon Riccio: I’m thrilled to present Only Ride in an experimental autobiographies class offered this semester at the University of Arizona. How does it feel having your book on a 2014 syllabus, as it was published in the same year?
Megan Volpert: Any time somebody wants to teach your book, it’s awesome. Indeed, it feels good that Only Ride is popping up on some syllabi rather immediately after its publication. As I was writing it, I figured it would be more of a slow burner–sort of unassuming, but then growing in favorability as word of mouth about it spread. It’s ending up more splashy though, and I can’t deny I dig that. However, the thing about your particular case of classroom is not that it’s in the current year, but that it’s an “experimental autobiographies” class. I know the class is being taught by a poet, but wow; it’s most lovely for people to understand that Only Ride is in a hybrid gray space, and is not, strictly speaking, poetry.
JR: The final sentences in your poems blew me away. They’re places where hypothetical monkeys, John Cougar and bridged infinities abound. How did you hone your talent for endings? Was there a writer whose work influenced this?
MV: Thanks! My attention to closure, and hookiness generally, probably stems most from my roots in slam poetry. When your three minutes are up, people have to know it by the sound of your voice and the sentiment of your final line. That said, I’ve always been a girl who likes to have the last word, who likes to get in the quippy and biting final remark. That’s a branch of sarcasm toward which I’ve always been naturally inclined. But also: Camille Paglia, Roland Barthes, Andrei Codrescu, Daphne Gottlieb, Nicole Blackman, and many more.
JR: The dead are “already being reborn & preparing to speak ill of you.” Only Ride offers such additional meditations as: “I don’t know the precise moment when I first looked upon my own mortality with respect. There was blood on it.” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, just not until it’s done scaring the holy hell out of you.” How did these examinations shape the book’s arc?
MV: They shape its motivation more than its arc. Since I was a kid, people have been telling me things like I have an old soul, or I’ve been forty since I was eighteen. Especially since being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about ten years ago, and the extensive chronic pains that have accompanied that malady, I have come to some serious personal realizations about my life’s priorities. Only Ride is on a mission to share those, to make some kind of foray into humanism and to make explicit my philosophies of life. My grandpa called me up and said to me about this book that, at age ninety-three, he feels very close to death and he was shocked by how thoroughly I captured his feelings, given that I am only thirty-two years old. And that’s the thing: some people look death in the face sooner than other people, and I am just one of those people–the shadow of death is upon me. I’m not a morbid person, but I do consider daily the importance of making each day great.
JR: You mention wanting to define the living daylights in “Ankles disappear.” Here’s your chance.
MV: I just googled “living daylights.” I’ve always thought it would be a good name for a band, and there is in fact a band out there agreeing with me. It’s also one of the Timothy Dalton James Bond movies. Beyond that, I think the notion of “living daylights” is a highly personalized one. Everybody is fearful of different things they encounter in their differing existences. Who was it that said that only two things a person can be sure of are death and taxes? Only Ride gives a strong sense of my own living daylights and what I’m doing to keep on keeping on in the face of them, but I’m reluctant to declare too many aspects of my own scene as universal.
JR: “There are concave people & convex people” according to your poem “I’m not Velma.” Suppose there are two types of writers. What are they?
MV: You know where that line comes from? I ripped that idea from the movie Cocktail. There is a great bit in there where the mentor bartender is talking to newbie Tom Cruise, and the guy says, “there are two kinds of people in this world: the workers and the hustlers. The hustlers never work and the workers never hustle–and you, my friend, are a worker.” I’m paraphrasing, but fairly tightly. That’s an idea that’s been with me since I watched that movie as a kid. It was a formative experience for understanding how dichotomies operate. Now, supposing there are two types of writers, what are they? The workers and the hustlers. I appreciate your not asking me which type I am.
JR: Your publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, welcomes all authors, artists and readers regardless of sexual orientation or identity. “Blowing up all kinds of new avenues” is how you described their trajectory during a recent interview. Please share how you came to be affiliated with them.
MV: I snookered Bryan Borland, the publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press (SRP). I’d had a press lined up for the Warhol book, but the press went under and left my manuscript in the lurch. Like, majorly last-minute in the lurch. I had to find a home for it and had heard some nice things about SRP, which at that time was just a tiny indie upstart with the first inklings of buzz. So I invited Bryan to do a gig, and then after the gig, I cold pitched him the book. He fell in love with the idea of it right away, and I had already done 99% of the legwork and everything, so it would be super easy for him to slide in and just print it. That was Sonics in Warholia, and Bryan and I have been working together ever since. Of course, he’s learned not to say yes on the spot to random writers who pitch to him in bars–I thank my lucky stars he greenlit me so easily. He has such good instincts, and watching SRP grow exponentially over the past few years has been a total delight. I’m giddy about being a part of that family, about helping Bryan to build his empire.
JR: One of my favorite passages from Only Ride is “I conjure before you the only openly queer faculty member in this public Southern high school, fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance. You are failing tolerance…” Enlighten us with a tolerance tutorial.
MV: The epilogue there is interesting: I’m currently serving as my school’s Teacher of the Year. So that’s awesome and weird. But as far as a tolerance tutorial, it really just amounts to two things: having an open-mindedness that recognizes difference, and then valuing those differences in a positive way. Valuing difference in a positive way is very difficult for most people, myself included. I think a lot of people are idiots. This year, I’ve been trying to be conscious of the ways I put people into boxes, and I’m trying to do a better job of extending grace to people I might otherwise find idiotic. Being gracious is one of my life-long challenges. I know I’m entitled to my opinion that most people are idiots, but I can still extend those people a space for their contribution to the world. If I tried to cut out all the idiots, I would face a real consequence of loneliness plus the strong likelihood that I will have myself become an idiot. Fascism sucks. Tolerance is just about clearing space for people to do their best, despite the fact that you may think their best is not as cool as yours.
JR: Your book opens riding into the sunset and closes riding into eternity. Do you think we’re more of a sunset- or eternity-driven culture? What role does poetry play in this?
MV: Well, that opening poem is titled “Only idiots ride into the sunset.” The idea is that there is still so much work to do, and so much life to live. Each of us is leaving a legacy for the rest of eternity, and if you want to exercise some decent amount of control over what that legacy is, you’ve got to deliberately go about prioritizing some things. Only Ride is a bit of a guidebook to what I’ve chosen to prioritize, and I hope it helps some people make a little more sense of their own daily struggles, gives a little fresh perspective on what each of us can accomplish in our relationship to the stream of history. So that’s the role of the book; I don’t really want to speculate on the role of poetry at large, but I guess most people would agree that the arts are one good way to share what individuals learn for the betterment of our whole culture.
JR: “Filthy lucre never sleeps” is one of most apt musings on karma I’ve read in ages. Any karma in your life of late?
MV: Oh, wow. Yep. Big time. So, my wife and I just celebrated nine years together. Her birthday is close to our anniversary and we had a little party at the house. Once a bunch of our friends and family had gathered, I proposed to her that we renew our wedding vows in NYC next year, to celebrate our tenth anniversary. She said yes, of course, and it turned up the volume on the birthday party quite a bit. And then the next day, I discovered a lump on my ribcage. Like, a huge lump the size of my fist. Overnight, there it was. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been having what we can now retrospectively refer to as a cancer scare. And the synchronicity of those two events in one weekend is pretty ugly, you know? I’ve never felt for one second that the universe was punishing me for being a queer. But I do believe we’re all on a bit of a pendulum swing, and we get some good, then some bad, then some good, and the other shoe is always going to drop sooner or later before another upswing. Well, I guess we upswung way high with that vow renewal idea, so the ham-fisted fates socked me one in the ribs the very next day. It’s funny, but in that way “the luck of the Irish” is funny, which to a lot of people isn’t funny at all.
JR: Your titles could be primers for living: “Everything still turns to gold,” “No bonus for backs broken,” “There’s a difference between familiar & recurring,” “Coming down is the hardest thing.” What’s best about the ascent?
MV: I think we’ve covered both the “primer for living” notion and the “ascent” issue. Ascent: everybody does it. Let’s make t-shirts. The Living Daylights band can sell them.
JR: You “aspire to have been not the poet laureate of rock & roll, but the rock & roll laureate of poetry.” Your first three acts in this vaunted (and Patti Smith-approved) position consist of…
MV: Only Ride is the opening volley. Right now, I’m working on a thing about the Bicentennial that is extremely gonzo and punk rock obsessed. And then I’m happy to tell you I’m under contract to write a book about Bruce Springsteen. I love music. It understands me.
Megan Volpert is the author of 5 books on communication & pop culture. She edited the Lammy finalist & ALA-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. She is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.