More fantabulous answers by superb poets, including some scary responses... Part III of III... Find Part II here.
Question 9: List five events in your life that mattered to you during the writing of your book.
Max Ritvo: I read the book Ardor by Roberto Calasso, which is about the Indian Vedic tradition. This religious tradition encouraged its devotees to spend their entire lives in ritual dance to commune with the gods, to the extent there was no time left over to build permanent buildings of worship. Which feels to me like a life writing poems. The Vedas spent much of their time addressing the creation of the world and the fundamental ecstasy of desire. They do so using hallucinatory Freud-like myths in which a god has sex with his interior monologue, Speech, only to have the child rip out the womb of Speech itself and force it on his father's head as a turban so he may never impregnate such a potent womb again. This is all I could ever aspire to have my imagination create. It also is a religion that focuses around the guilt and complication of eating meat, and I am a vegetarian. So Ardor's blood runs strong through this book. Grazzi, Roberto! On a less literary note: I got dumped during cancer. I got married to the most wonderful woman in the world. My illness is now terminal. I am in great pain and on many drugs. All of these things made me feel very strong feelings, and so I wrote poems about them. Since my mentation has certain very idiosyncratic features, the poems cohered into a meaningful whole with kind of a narrative around them. And this, my friends, is Four Reincarnations!
Chris Santiago: Akita. I wrote the first draft of the long title poem as I was graduating from Oberlin and moving to Akita, Japan, to teach English. It was a relatively isolated part of the country, with even more snow than my home state of Minnesota. That experience of isolation— living in another language, one I could hardly read or understand—was a gift. It gave me solitude, distance, and perspective.
Manila. From Japan, I was able to backpack around Southeast Asia. At least a few poems came out of this, including “Photograph: Loggers at Kuala Tahan,” which is about getting drunk with some loggers we befriended in the Malaysian rainforest. I also traveled to the Philippines a few times. My uncle Flu put me up and showed me around. He took me on some adventures, introduced me to his network, and regaled me with stories, many of them harrowing.
Los Angeles. After Japan, I lived in LA for fifteen years and worked several odd jobs: I worked in a call center; I read scripts and rolled calls at Miramax; I was a substitute teacher in South LA and Long Beach, and a graveyard shift editor for a wire service. I also dealt with mild depression, and would go one or two years at a stretch without writing a poem. When I met my wife, Yuri, it was, as Karl Ove Knausgaard says about meeting his own wife, like day broke. After we had our first son, the poems started coming again.
Minneapolis. A few weeks after I defended my dissertation—which included an earlier draft of TULA, my mother died unexpectedly. Up until that point, it had been a season of joy: not only had I finished the program at USC, but I had gotten a job teaching literature & creative writing. The job was even back in my hometown, where my mother and father were still living when she died.
I was, of course, devastated. Part of me wanted to set the manuscript aside—it was hard for me to look at it. It became clear to me how much the poems had to do with my mother, how she tried to transmit our family’s history to me, through songs and stories. The fact that I never learned her language is the seed the book grew out of: I never learned it, but when I hear it spoken, it’s like a music and a home.
But my circle—from USC, from St. Thomas, from Kundiman—gently kept the pressure up. After Daniel Slager called me to say that A. Van Jordan had picked TULA for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize, I called Yuri and cried for a long time. I’m grateful that my mother was at least able to read a draft of the manuscript.
Megan Snyder-Camp: Falling in love with the Pacific Northwest coast and wondering about the origin of these bleak place names like “Dismal Nitch” and “Cape Disappointment.” The birth of my daughter. Sitting with writer, Native Studies scholar and enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Elissa Washuta at a bar one night and her rattling off a long list of books I needed to read (she was right). My husband losing his job. Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike with my dad, a trip we used to make all the time but hadn’t in many years. Encountering the term “ruin porn.”
Clint Smith: It’s impossible to disentangle the poems in this collection from the broader racial justice movement that stemmed from the death of Trayvon Martin, and later Michael Brown. These poems are shaped by and responding to the political moment from which they are birthed. These poems are also deeply informed by my work both a teacher and researcher in prisons over the past two years. I teach creative writing at a state prison in Massachusetts and in my doctoral program, I am being trained as a sociologist focusing on the relationship between prisons and education. My proximity to both the people I worked with in the prison as well as an extensive engagement with the social and historical literature outlining how the prison system came to be very much inform my political, and inevitably artistic, commitments.
Tony Trigilio: The Boston Marathon Bombing. Boston, where I lived for ten years before moving to Chicago, already was a big part of the book. The Marathon bombing occurred very early in the composition process, while I was only a few pages into the manuscript. This is a violent book at times, and it has to be, because it documents the politically turbulent year, 1968, when these Dark Shadows episodes first aired, and the painful world we’re living in now. The Marathon bombing is the book’s first violent act. Even when I wasn’t directly writing about Boston, the bombing shadowed just about everything as I wrote the first section of the book.
Gun violence in Chicago. I’ve lived in major urban areas for almost three decades, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The body count we experience every day is heart-wrenching and infuriating. The episodes I watched for this book originally were broadcast in 1968, and I imagined the book would document the global violence of that year (all but ignored in the show’s fictional, soap-escapist seaport town of Collinsport). I just didn’t anticipate how violent my own city, and at times my own neighborhood, would become as I wrote the book.