I'm drawn to Mark Bibbins' work because he is not a confessional poet, and also because linear narratives do not seem to be exceedingly important to him. He is, of course, not the first contemporary poet to move away from confessional narrative, but what stands out about Bibbins' work (at least for me) are three things: his attention to and aptitude with sound/rhyme, his use of word play, and the unexpected forms his poems take. Here the author answers questions about his new book, The Dance of No Hard Feelings (Copper Canyon 2009).
MS: You state in your 2009 BAP contributor note that “Concerning the Land to the South of Our Neighbors to the North” gained its foothold when the final line of the poem (“Connecticut! We’re sawing you in half.”) popped into your head. Is it common for you to get first (or last) lines in your head, triggers that coalesce into poems? Or do poems come to you elsewise?
MB: For me a poem starts with a phrase or a sentence that arrives, usually without warning or preparation, then the rest grows around that. Some wind up as titles, others beginnings or endings; most change their minds and move around as it’s coming together. I certainly wouldn’t have sat down to write a poem “about” America, as my level of ambition is pretty low. I prefer to let something besides that direct a poem toward or around its subject(s).
MS: Speaking of “Concerning the Land . . .,” it’s a wonderful poem on the first go, but, at least for me, it only gets better with each re-reading. Can you share a bit about the making of this poem? Did the Necco wafers and New Jersey’s queer shoulder come quickly to you, or did it take several throws to get each state just right? Also, how conscious were you that each state’s stanza is gazelle-ishly distinct? Did anyone read a rough draft, and if so were there any suggestions for revision?
MB: A handful of states came during a train ride through the Nutmeg State, and I picked up again after returning home a few days later—it happened quickly, and the conceit really hustled it along. I like hearing of odd events and foods and landmarks that places are “known for.” It’s preposterous and sweet, sometimes creepy. Also arbitrary, which is why I felt entitled to fabricate, and why it didn’t always matter what information was attached to which state (New Jersey and Ginsberg being, as they so often are, exceptions).
Nobody saw a draft of it. The wonderful Danielle Pafunda had offered to consider something of mine for La Petite Zine, which she was coediting, and I’m grateful for her consideration. I usually don’t show poems to anyone until I feel I’ve finished writing and revising them, which isn’t to imply that I haven’t been given good advice in the past. Nor do I mean to separate the processes of writing and revision.
MS: The Dance of No Hard Feelings is a delightful read, mainly because of its striking use of language (“ice javelins our throats”), its word play (we fly [fly] / will fly / should fly /will have flown / are flying apart”), and its gritty/urban walking-around-on-a-golf-course feel. There’s so much fire and ice in this book—boiling seas and firey angels; snow and ice and freezing. Is the world going to end in fire or in ice?
MB: Right now I suspect it will end in paperwork. That, or water—abundance and/or lack thereof. But the earth won't be ending. It will be editing.
MS: In these poems you seem to continually resist and give into narrative, into a speaker with a past, present and future. What’s your relationship with narrative poetry? Is the confessional poem, or the I poem in general, an old, hairy, dead beast to back away from as quickly as possible?
MB: A quick look at my bookshelves reveals very little narrative or confessional poetry, assuming I understand what you mean by those terms—is “The Day Lady Died” narrative poetry? an I poem? I like it when poems surprise me, and a lot of what falls into the above categories doesn’t do that, mainly because of the style in which they’re executed, not their content. As old as this debate is, it seems the dead beast isn’t going anywhere; that doesn’t mean I want to hover over it, sniffing it and describing the stink.
MS: Explain your use of brackets.
MB: Phantom opportunities.
MS: I enjoyed “Forcefield”—it’s hard to write about breaking up, and you do it well here ([no succor / no syntax / no sleep]. I have to be honest, though: I don’t think I would have enjoyed an entire book of these space-ful, language-y-conscious type poems. A few good ones of this ilk, okay, I’m fine with that. And yet, you seem comfy wearing many different aesthetic hats. Incidentally, are you and Ashbery tight? Which poets have influenced you the most?
MB: I wouldn't want a whole book of those either—thanks? To me they seem less about breaking up than enacting or embodying a kind of brokenness. I have no idea who or what's influenced me the most; there are so many people and things, and I don’t like to rank them, but I enjoy Gertrude Stein and My Bloody Valentine a great deal (whenever I’m asked that question, I can’t help naming bands). John Ashbery’s writing has amazed me for many years, and I’m happy to call him a friend.
MS: How did LIT magazine come about? Do you enjoy that part of being a poet? Who reads the slush pile? Does being an editor hinder or help your own writing?
MS: We hatched it when I was a student at The New School; the faculty and administration were very supportive in getting it going. We drummed up work for the first two issues mostly by solicitation, and my tenure as poetry editor officially ended before there was much of a slush pile. Current graduate students and the alumni who serve as editors now read the submissions, and I remain safely “at large.” My editorial experiences have mostly been helpful, although I edited fiction reviews at a magazine for a couple of years, which wasn’t.
MS: Finally, the $10,000 question: How did you go from being a kid in love with words (correct me if I’m wrong on that) to Best American Poet? What’s the recipe for best-ness?MB: You’re certainly not wrong, although a lot of the time I still feel like a kid (not always a great thing). Not following recipes has informed both my successes and failures. Sorry if that’s a $10 answer. Do you need change?