Friday, March 4, 2011

The Banned Interview

Tell us about the first poem you remember writing?

That would be a poem called “Black Fields” that I wrote when I was in seventh or eighth grade. It was probably equally influenced by Stephen Crane’s poems – he called them “bitter little pills” and somewhere I had gotten hold of a book of them, which I still own -- and Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic hit song of the era, “The Eve of Destruction.” I can actually remember the last two lines. They took the form of a call-and-response: “And where is relief?/In black fields hidden.” It was a ridiculously bad piece of juvenile writing, but the inverted syntax of “In black fields hidden” is kind of cute.

How often do you struggle with your writing? Or does it come easily?

I can’t give a definitive answer to these questions. Some poems come easy. They seem almost to write themselves. It’s like I’m taking dictation from some part of me that’s already done most of the work. Other poems, though, need to be forcibly dragged out from the back of the cave. I also don’t always know what lines go with which poems. That must sound awful, but it’s true. Sometimes it’s not until I have done several drafts of a poem that I realize that there’s another poem intertwined with the poem I thought I was writing. Then it becomes a matter of separating the threads and putting one aside in hopes of picking up and developing it later. It’s easy to get all mystical about the creative process, as there is so much about it that is unpredictable, but I have found it’s best to approach my writing as a job of work, and not as some kind of spirit quest.

Describe your typical writing environment? Pictures?

I write on a laptop. I write at our dining room table (a wobbly antique with lion claw legs). No pictures (they’re to my back in the living room). Instead, I look out a picture window at some woods. That may explain why birds so often appear in my poems. They’re always flitting in and out of my vision. Sometimes I listen to WQXR, a classical music radio station from New York City, while I write, but sometimes I just prefer the sound of my own teeth grinding in frustration.

What's your favorite poem you've written? Why?

I don’t know if I have a favorite. But I do know I have enjoyed writing some poems more than I have enjoyed writing others. I particularly enjoyed writing “Lovesick,” the title poem of my first full-length collection. The poem went through numerous drafts, but I didn’t feel anxious during the process. With each draft, I felt I was getting closer to discovering what I wanted to say. That doesn’t always or even often happen. Sometimes I can get further lost with each successive draft. So writing “Lovesick” was a particularly generous experience, but I should add that just because I enjoy writing a poem doesn’t guarantee that the poem will turn out any good. All it guarantees is that I’ll try to write another poem and another and another in hopes of capturing that special enjoyment again.

What's the last book that you loved?

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker. Baker is primarily a novelist, but this is a kaleidoscopic history of the events leading up to the outbreak of World War II. It’s told in vignettes, most of them no longer than a paragraph or two, but beautifully wrought, like perfect prose poems. The book filters historical research through a fine-grained literary sensibility and flaming moral outrage at the stupidity and deceitfulness of governments and the irredeemable waste of war.

Does reading online influence your writing style? How would your work change if you lost access to the Internet for a year?

If I lost Internet access for a year, I’d be really, really pissed. I submit my work exclusively through e-mail and have for several years. Many publications, including some print ones, seem to prefer online submissions. In fact, I have noticed that in the past two or three months there has been a mass migration of publications to Submishmash, an online submission manager. It’s a question, I suppose of, convenience. I certainly don’t miss the days of sending out manuscripts by snail mail. The process was time-consuming, expensive, and generally maddening.

Without Internet access for a year, I also wouldn’t be able to read as much poetry and as many poets as I’m able to read now. That would be terrible. The education of a poet should never end. Reading one’s colleagues is a big part of that education.

Let’s talk about brevity. Your work sketches with a faint pencil, drawing an arc to contain the vastness of air, and yet there’s always such casual preciseness. Longer poems most often accrue detail to the point where the message becomes fixed and predictable, yet you avoid that by guiding a reader with a breath instead of a firm hand. How does a poem’s length affect its nature? Can a long poem work in the same way that a short one does?

Sometimes I wish I could write longer poems. I fear editors and readers might equate the shortness of my poems with shallowness or insignificance. But my longer poems – like “Half-Life,” which appeared in elimae,” or “Armageddon, Mon Amour,” which is forthcoming in 2River View – are simply a series of interrelated short poems. I seldom write a poem that exceeds twenty lines. This isn’t premeditated. It’s just how my mind seems to work.

Naturally, I have tried to make a virtue of succinctness. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of poetry for me is that it suggests a lot with a little. Prose can be discursive, but as I see it, a poem is the most concentrated form of literary expression. It’s the difference, if you will, between the spread of a shotgun blast and the precision of a rifle shot. I just want to get better at hitting the target.

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