When offered a guest appearance on the Best American Poetry blog, I decided not only to write a couple of articles that I’ve been mulling over, but also to celebrate new books of poems coming out this fall. I put out a call via Facebook and Twitter, and had such a strong response I was made to choose among submissions. I did so: I read the galleys and selected eleven poets to interview. (And I apologize to those this feature could not accommodate.) So, on July 2, eleven poets received the following charge:
Please answer five of the questions below. Elaborate upon your replies—that is, please explain your thinking, and explore the examples you’re citing—and nonetheless limit each answer to a paragraph or two. Concise, substantive responses would be preferred.
- Which of these poems predicts your future?
- What two moments in the volume, or two images from the poems, would you like your reader to remember most?
- Which of the following twois your book about: Love, Art, Beauty, Death, God, Self, Ethics, Dreams, Mom, Dad, Ambition, The Body, Loneliness, Friendship, The Natural World, Human Failings, Sensuality, Perception?
- Which poem in your book should be read aloud first—that is, not the volume’s first poem?
- Which two or three poems might compete to be the volume’s singular ars poetica?
- Which poem in your book arrived mostly whole?
- What are you doing formally in this book that’s new for you?
- List five books that mattered to you during the writing of your book.
- List five events in your life that mattered to you during the writing of your book.
- Which poem in this book could begin your next book?
- Which poem in this book scares you the most?
One sad note: as many of you know, the poet Max Ritvo died this summer at the age of twenty-five. We are fortunate to have his poems, and also fortunate that even in his decline he was able to contribute sparkling responses to the interview questions. My condolences to his family and friends.
And in case you’re wondering, Eleven Questions for Eleven Poets took 143 emails.
Now the poets and their answers, a sampling of some of the brilliance we find in poetry today: Elizabeth Colen, Carolina Ebeid, Dana Levin, Max Ritvo, David Rivard, Chris Santiago, Lee Sharkey, Clint Smith, Megan Snyder-Camp, Tony Trigilio, Monica Youn.
Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration Your Sick. She teaches at Western Washington University.
Carolina Ebeid is a the author of You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press, Fall 2016). She is a student in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Denver, and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She has won fellowships and prizes from CantoMundo, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Stadler Center for Poetry, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work appears widely in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, and more recent work appears in Linebreak, Bennington Review, jubilat, and in the inaugural Ruth Stone House Reader.
Dana Levin's new book of poetry is Banana Palace, out this October from Copper Canyon Press. A grateful recipient of fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Rona Jaffe Foundations, Levin serves each fall as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Photo by Anne Staveley]
Max Ritvo (1990–2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. He was also the author of the chapbook AEONS, chosen by Jean Valentine to receive the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2014. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, and the Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Divedapper, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
David Rivard’s most recent book, Standoff, was published by Graywolf in August. He is the author of five other books: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Among Rivard’s awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, and the NEA, as well as two Shestack Prizes from American Poetry Review and the O.B. Hardison Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of New Hampshire, and lives in Cambridge. News & reviews of Standoff can be found at his website: www.davidrivard.net.
Chris Santiago is the author of TULA, winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, selected by A. Van Jordan. His poems, fiction, and criticism have appeared in FIELD, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and the Asian American Literary Review. He holds degrees in creative writing and music from Oberlin College and received his PhD in English from the University of Southern California. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, Santiago is also a percussionist and amateur jazz pianist. He teaches literature, sound culture, and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas. He lives in Minnesota.
Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards will appear momentarily from Tupelo Press. Her earlier collections comprise Calendars of Fire (Tupelo, 2013), A Darker, Sweeter String (Off the Grid, 2008), and eight other full-length poetry books and chapbooks. Her work has been published in Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, FIELD, Kenyon Review, Nimrod, Pleiades, Seattle Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the Abraham Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, the Maine Arts Commission’s Fellowship in Literary Arts, the RHINO Editor’s Prize, the Shadowgraph Poetry Prize, and Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. A lifelong writer, editor, and teacher, she leads a creative writing workshop for adults recovering from mental illness and serves as Senior Editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. [Photo by Al Bersbach]
Clint Smith is a writer and doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Counting Descent (2016) and was born and raised in New Orleans. More of his work can be found at www.clintsmithiii.com. Counting Descent is available for purchase here.
Tony Trigilio’s most recent collection of poetry is Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2 (BlazeVOX [books], 2016). He is the editor of the chapbook Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney (Essay Press, 2016), a collection of interviews from his poetry podcast Radio Free Albion. His other books include, most recently, White Noise (Apostrophe Books, 2013), and, as editor, Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (Ahsahta, 2014). He plays in the band Pet Theories and teaches poetry at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Interim Chair of the Creative Writing Department. [Photo by Kevin Nance]
Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre (Graywolf Press 2016), which is currently on the longlist for the 2016 National Book Award, Ignatz (Four Way Books 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Barter (Graywolf Press 2003). Her poems have been published in Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Lana Turner, The Paris Review, and The Best American Poetry. She currently teaches at Princeton University and in the Warren Wilson and Sarah Lawrence MFA programs. A former lawyer, she lives in New York.
Part I: Questions 1-5
Question 1: Which of these poems predicts your future?
Carolina Ebeid: The closing poem of the book “M, Marina” predicts a kind of future. In fact, the poem was supposed to be part of the next work. I decided to include it in You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior precisely because it didn't fit perfectly, to my mind. Therefore the book itself doesn’t actually feel shut. Rather, the poem acts as a leading to the next book. In formal ways, “M, Marina” also describes my present. It is written in serial form, made up of short, variegated pieces. While the poem centers around Marina Tsvetaeva, the serial poem is a form open enough to allow many observations into its orbit. Both this poem and “Veronicas of a Matador” function in the same way formally; much of the work I am writing presently relies on the same methods of seriality.
Dana Levin: “At the End of My Hours,” of course!
But seriously: I don’t think I’d ever survive civilization’s collapse. I’m over fifty, not in apocalypse-withstanding shape, and trained to teach poetry. My only hope would be to convince a rag-tag band of survivors that they needed a shaman bard crone woman.
Max Ritvo: All the ones that predict my imminent death due to Ewing's Sarcoma. I'm pretty sure they're hitting the nail on the head. And by "the head" I mean my head.
Lee Sharkey: Allow me to subvert the question to talk about a dream that led me on a journey. In the early summer of 2011 I woke in the middle of the night hearing the words “Tonight I am walking backwards”; I scribbled them in my journal before falling back to sleep. The sentence had the peculiar quality of utterance that has led me over the years to germinal poems, yet I had no idea what it might refer to. In a month I was to fly to Vilnius for an SLS seminar, an opportunity for me to explore the Jewish history and culture of a city that had witnessed both their heights and their depths, but I made no conscious connection between the trip and the image of walking backwards.
In Vilnius, I lived in the garret of an old building on one of the seven streets that had constituted the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Between 1941 and 1943, over 35,000 people were confined there; almost all would die at the hands of their captors, the majority by execution in the nearby killing fields of Ponar. I literally walked in their footsteps as I traveled the cobbled streets and as I climbed four flights of crumbling stairs to a room some number of them had crowded into and tried to sleep. By chance or fate I found myself “walking backwards” into the vexed history I claim as my inheritance. Night by night in that haunted room, in the company of the poetry of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, I listened to the silence as the poem of walking backwards grew into “In the capital of a small republic.”
Clint Smith: It’s difficult to say which poem predicts my future, but I know which poem speaks to the future I hope to live in: No More Elegies Today. The book, as a whole, is exploring the marathon of cognitive dissonance with regard to coming of age as a young black man in America. How does one reconcile ever-present tension between belonging to a community and family that celebrates them, and a larger world that dehumanizes them? What I want, for all of us, is a world in which that tension no longer exists. A world where the violence dissipates and black children grow up with the humanity left uncompromised, a childhood not shaped by its relationship to violence. As a writer, I think, I have a responsibility to both reflect the world as it is and then imagine the world as it can be. The role of the art is to operate in that imaginative space, to push beyond the boundaries of what we see. The violence black people experience is a part of our reality, but it is not our only reality. We are and always have been more than that which kills us.
Question 2: What two moments in the volume, or two images from the poems, would you like your reader to remember?
With all the books
I’ve read, my
a heavy thing,
like a desert
mammal having just
eaten a creature
smaller than itself,
that had been eating
a creature even smaller.
There are many figures for what the act of reading might be, and this is one.
Second: the title poem takes the image of the Merrill Lynch bull-statue on Wall Street and imagines the autogenesis of bees, a ritual performed on a heifer as described in Virgil’s Georgics, Book IV. The bees are said to be born from the decaying flesh of the animal after following the precise method. In my poem, the bees glisten like coins.
David Rivard: One would be the final image in the title poem: a hole that’s been chopped in the roof of a house—in an attic room that no one knew existed—through which you can see a great bridge that seems to stretch over a vast expanse of ocean. This long poem funnels down entirely into that dream. A dream that I had over and over again for ten or fifteen years, and that I hope will return some day.
And maybe this, from “Here We Go,” the final poem in the book:
and samurai armor, those dragon scales
humbler than the pants that boys put on
between 5th grade & 6th
Simply, I like the kind of connection this image makes. The way it leaps between the worlds of men and boys, the quickness of it, which I like to think of as the product of a certain kind of wit based in perception. I write and read poetry to be surprised—to say something I didn’t know I had in me. For the freshness that carries. To demand that it happen is useless—it either happens or it doesn’t. But you can make yourself available to being surprised, and that practice has always been my favorite as a writer.
Monica Youn: The book has two recurring images—the tree and the trellis—which keep showing up in various guises and states of disrepair. I went fairly old-school with the symbolic motifs. I think of the tree as the totem of a kind of life force, “the force that through the green fuse,” etc. —a life force that can be absurd, or grotesque, or scary depending on its situational context. What’s gripping to me about trees, plants, anything alive is their unthinking determination to remain alive, to grow. It’s a kind of automatic pragmatism. If you cut a tree down, it will sprout from its stump, if you split it, it will try to knit itself back together, if you impose an obstacle, it will grow around and through that obstacle, it will incorporate that obstacle into its own body. Lots of terrible things happen to trees in this book, and there’s a damaged tree anchoring each section—the torn olive tree of “Hangman’s Tree,” the atrophied host tree of “Epiphyte,” the doomed fantasy tree of “Brownacre” and the grafted tree of “Blackacre.” I wanted the these tree images to inform each other, to grow and root through the book and take on their own life independent of any particular poem.
And the trellis—or the rope, or the mast, or the mold, or the yoke or the field—is necessity, the given, the factual, what the life force, the imagination cannot transform. I recently read a parenting book that proposed the French concept of cadre, or frame—of limits, but freedom within those limits. Blackacre is similarly about leeway and limits, about the acre you are allotted and the ways in which you can, and cannot, transform the given.
Question 3: Which of the following two is your book about: Love, Art, Beauty, Death, God, Self, Ethics, Dreams, Mom, Dad, Ambition, The Body, Loneliness, Friendship, The Natural World, Human Failings, Sensuality, Perception? Which of the following two is your book about: Love, Art, Beauty, Death, God, Self, Ethics, Dreams, Mom, Dad, Ambition, The Body, Loneliness, Friendship, The Natural World, Human Failings, Sensuality, Perception?
Elizabeth Colen: Wow! I see a list like this and I think: all of this, yes. Which is probably a common response. Maybe less ambition, less god and art and dreams, maybe. But those are in everything also. The loneliness of the body, through the lens of our human failings in love, through the death of the natural world, and mom and dad and the failings of perception. If I have to pick two I will say The Body and Loneliness. With everything I’ve done, there is a focus on the body, on the visceral. How perception sanctions action, how we move through the world. How sex and violence enacted physically bleeds in, distorts perception, damages communication and connection. The book retells a falling apart, a disintegration, motivated partly by loss and damage and partly by various forms of exile.
Carolina Ebeid: I adore lists such as the one you’ve made. I want to nod yes to each category. Yes, my book is about Loneliness. Yes, my book is about Human Failings. I was in a workshop in Austin with Mary Ruefle, and by the end of the semester, she wrote a poem naming a thematic “obsession” for each of us in the class according to the work we presented. Mine was “God.” Yes, of course, my book is about God and about the Body. I’m interested in this word “about.” One of Heather McHugh’s poems asks the question, “So what are your poems about,” to which she answers “They’re about / their business, and their father’s business and their / monkey’s uncle, they’re about // how nothing is about, their not / about about.” Yes, my book is about Perception and about The Natural World and about Dad. I feel confident this is true especially when I consider an obscure meaning of the word “about” used to denote a tree that has budded or “abouted.”
Chris Santiago: Aren’t there only two subjects for poems? I heard Li-Young Lee say that, at least, at a reading; he then went on to argue that there is really only one subject. But if my book is preoccupied with Love and/or Death, it isn’t my death per se, or the death of what I love, although those are both part of it. It starts with filial love, and then looks backward/inward to imagine what died—both of the human and nonhuman worlds—so that my family, and other families in the Philippines and the U.S., could live.
My mother’s father, for example, never made it to the U.S.: he died of a stroke not long after he lost two sons to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. One of these sons was my uncle Flu, who was put in solitary confinement for several years for opposing Marcos; the other was my uncle Virgil, who was smart, well-loved, and musical, and who was killed by Marcos’s secret police at the age of twenty-one. My book digs into these absences, and explores their consequences, and the consequences of being an immigrant’s son.
But the poems also embrace and appropriate the unknown, and the half-known—the few words of Tagalog and Ilonggo that I know, for instance. To me, these syllables are like fragments of urns or maps. I try to use them to elegize the ancestors, the way of life, and the way of speaking that were never really mine, except by blood. Those losses that are specific to my family are broadened out, and traced back to older roots: the Japanese occupation during World War II; the American War and occupation of the Philippines; the long occupation of the Spanish before them; the Islamic, Chinese, and Austronesian histories that shaped the islands before them.
Tony Trigilio: Mom and Death, absolutely. Well, Sons and the Undead, too, I suppose. Dark Shadows (the television show) functions a conduit for my autobiographical writing: some of the book’s most revealing and vulnerable moments, for me, occur when ekphrasis and life-writing collide and the experiment takes me to unexpected and unchartered autobiographical ground.
In many ways, this book is an elegy for my mother, focusing specifically on the daily half-hour time slot we spent in front of the TV during the pre-linguistic and early-linguistic period of my life until I started kindergarten (the same year Dark Shadows was canceled). Barnabas Collins, the vampire of Dark Shadows, was a central figure in nearly all my childhood nightmares. My mother was a huge soap opera fan, and I watched the show with her every day in the first few years of my life. My earliest memories are of watching the show with my mother and then, at night, falling into recurring Barnabas nightmares. I was terrified of Barnabas and I couldn’t look away from him. I fell asleep each night with my shoulders hunched to prevent him from biting my neck.
Death is a major part of the book, too, and not just because the dead can’t seem to stay buried in Dark Shadows. I can trace the origins of this project to the deaths of several close family members from 2001 to 2010, a period of my life which also included an amicable but emotionally painful divorce. I had been trying to write about my Dark Shadows fixation all of my adult life, and these losses somehow triggered this project—the constant presence of death tapped something in me that allowed me, finally, to write about the show’s effect on my life. The book is also an effort to confront, and even court, my own mortality. I still have over 800 episodes of the show to watch—over 800 sentences to write—and I hope I stay alive long enough to finish the project.
Question 4: Which poem in your book should be read aloud first—that is, not the volume’s first poem?
Elizabeth Colen: To me, all poetry should be read aloud. If I start reading a collection out loud and the sounds don’t please, I’m highly unlikely to finish the book. That to me more than anything is what separates / elevates poetry from prose. I know other readers / writers of poems are led by image, or by the movement in logic. I’m moved by those things as well, but always as they are in the service of the sounds.
So, every poem in What Weaponry should ideally be read out loud? But that’s not what you asked, so I’ll try again: A devotee of Stein, I’m attracted to the various methods by which repetition can be utilized—sounds, rhythms, words. Direct repetition of phrase is something I’ve become more attracted to as I settle a bit more into trusting my own craft and process. Two poems that come together midway through What Weaponry and allow heavy usage of repetition of phrase are “The Balance of Terror” and “Hesitation Cut.” I think these two especially happen better out loud.
Parts of “The Balance of Terror” have a fluid movement between internal and external conversation that seems (to me, anyway) particularly heady when read out loud:
“The neighbor came over with a stack of our mail, saying something’s not right with that mailman. You had blank black eyes with that circle of blue; he could see right through you. And me standing in the doorway, saying silently not this time, not this time, eyeing the shotgun leaned against the wall. Bird in the fire and he spied this, saying nothing’s wrong. Not this time.”
“Hesitation Cut” follows and has several instances of repetition, the anaphora (and cataphora) toward the close reads: “I wanted to crack his nose or I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to slice his ear with a penknife or I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to wake him, shaking your father’s rifle at his cock or I wanted to cover his mouth with my mouth and breathe all the boy from him.”
Dana Levin: Gut response: “My Sentence.” I guess it offers prologue for the book. What I am doomed to love, and lose, and how those two drives—to love and to save against time—ignite the making of art. A first hint of what we all stand to lose, or encounter unrecognizable, in the wake of climate change.
David Rivard: “Swerver.” It’s the poem I most enjoy reading aloud myself. I like the way the language is inside the lifetime’s worth of experience that it’s narrating. I remember when I wrote that I felt as if music alone were holding all the disparate moments in this woman’s life together. It’s the music of a “spoken” language, and evidence of the narrator’s thinking and feeling about this woman. I wanted him to sound slightly surprised by what he’s saying, and hoped to get that sort of on-the-spot invention and improvisation into all the poems in the book.
In each of my books I’ve written about a woman I’ve never met, returning to her for reasons not at all clear to me. She has some features of character and biography that are a composite of a number of women I’m close to, it’s true—I’m provoked often to write about her because of something one of them does or says. But she isn’t any of them. I might say that she’s a projection of my anima, if I were a Jungian. I’m not. In these poems, as in “Swerver,” I meet her at different times of her life—some times she’s a child, others quite elderly. In a way, time is the true subject of these poems, its mysteries. That’s true of all the poems in Standoff.
Chris Santiago: “Some Words,” if only because it’s a personal favorite. It’s about having our first child, and how in those first few weeks, time seemed to both stop and to flash by. The poem is also about joy, and this idea that all language is translation; our words can’t help but fall short, especially when we try to use them to describe something as fleeting as joy. But words are still a kind of miracle. And by failing to recreate the “original,” so to speak, we create something new. The original for this poem was the clean sheets/nightbloom scent of our newborn son, especially right at his nape; in failing to contain or transcribe that joy, I ended up with this poem, which I consider a fair trade.
Lee Sharkey: “The City” began as an exercise, an attempt to work with the form David Ferry invented in his “One Two Three Four Five”: a single word is repeated in each line of a five-line poem, first placed at the front of a line and with each succeeding line moving further toward its end. I had been thinking about the vision of the City on the Hill and reading about cities of refuge in ancient Palestine, where those who had committed involuntary manslaughter were protected from punishment for their crimes. It was only when Jeffrey Levine accepted the completed manuscript of Walking Backwards for Tupelo and the press asked me to write a brief description of it that I realized the quest for a city “with water for cleaning and drinking” and “bread to quiet hunger” had become the thread that holds the book together. So, if you’re not wont to read books of poetry from the beginning, do turn to “The City” and read its fifteen lines aloud. I didn’t adhere strictly to David’s form, but the principle of progressive repetition in his model helped me construct a parable that opens the door to the journey.
Question 5: Which two or three poems might compete to be the volume’s singular ars poetica?
Max Ritvo: “The Curve”—this poem is kind of a creation myth in which Humans are not God's True Children, but Language is. We learn human beings are basically a rough draft to be God's incarnation on earth, and He or She learned that His or Her reality is better represented by the shifting, fluxing, self-contradicting, non-solid, neurotic medium of language. And so our human bodies are turned to God's soil, and language His fruit. I've always harbored the suspicion that I exist for the sake of poetry, and that it really doesn't give a lick about me at the end of the day!
“Touching the Floor”—this poem features a vision brought to mind by my sense organs, the miraculous and healing sensation of the marble tiles in my bathroom surging from my palms pressed into the tiles and up into my shoulders, like bulls charging up my arms. The poem then turns to the despair of the mind trying to make this image, The Bulls, last in language, or in memory, and the horrible unsuitableness of our poetry-making faculties, of the Mind itself to do the Body and its wonder's justice. This is my angry ars poetica—it's not a surrender of the Body to the Christ of Poetry so much as it is a wish that Poetry could somehow summon the world with the strength of a Body.
David Rivard: “Flickering,” the earliest poem I wrote for Standoff, could be an ars poetica. It’s totally explicit about the multiplicity that runs throughout the book—that sense that we’re composed of many selves—an amalgam of moods, feelings, guesswork, insights, and experiences. The sum of those selves is an enigma: an enigma that is both powerful and vulnerable. We catch a glimpse of it at odd, unexpected moments. We sense it more than see it: like sitting at a picnic table in a foreign country, and hearing a flock of swans pass overhead in the fog.
The title poem, “Standoff,” addresses the other sensation that runs through the book: that feeling that, while we live intensely in the world and are part of its colors and sounds, we live simultaneously in our heads. There’s something both wonderful and troubling about that to me—we’re searching for something in both places. It’s typical of the book as a whole that the poem flows through these seemingly random, “accidental” moments that have so much indecipherable meaning: some street food in Rome, a wintery night in Boston, news about a drone strike. The mystery takes place at street level. You’re standing on solid ground there, but how did that happen, and who are you really?