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?