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Eleven Questions for Eleven Poets [by Alan Michael Parker] - Part III

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.

Emotional and physical displacements, summer 2015. Last summer began with Liz's breast cancer scare, which I talked about earlier in this interview, when you asked which poem came to me almost whole. Even though this took up just a few pages in the book, it rattled us both so much that I see it now as vital to the book's center of gravity. At that same time last summer, I took on a new position where I teach, at Columbia College Chicago, a two-year appointment as Interim Chair of the Creative Writing Department. The new position required that I move from my building of sixteen years to a new office in a building about three blocks away. Then a month later, Liz and I moved to a new apartment. Those changes of space and place were dizzying—and I think this vertigo contributed great new energy to the writing even as I wanted mercy from it day after day.

The 2014 death of my former M.F.A. thesis student, Nate Breitling. I write about this in the book, too. Nate was a generous soul, and his imagination was brilliant and wild in the best possible ways. He attended my first public reading of the Dark Shadows poems, when I was barely twenty pages into Book 1, and I’ll never forget how enthused and encouraging he was about its weirdness. After the reading, we reminisced about the Watergate Tarot Deck he made the previous year for David Trinidad’s poetry and mysticism class, and he talked about the newest adventure in his life—he was leaving a few months later for a two-year gig teaching in South Korea. He’d been back in the States only a few weeks when he died. You don’t get to meet too many folks like Nate in your life. The students who graduated with him are still shook up, and still reach out to support each other on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death.

A dinner Liz and I hosted in our apartment in fall 2013 with my ex-wife, Shelly, and her boyfriend, Nick, who were visiting from Tucson. It was quite intimate—the first time I'd seen Shelly since we split up six years earlier. I open Section 2 of the book with this dinner, and, as I talk about in that part of the book, the meal was emotionally overwhelming (it healed a lot of wounds for us both) and almost transcendental, even though, on the surface, we were just passing around pad siew and edamame and talking about Tucson, where they live, and Chicago. This is a model for what I'm hoping the book's dailiness can produce: my emphasis on the minute particulars of a life always point to the deep structures of everyday lived experience that are unaccountable until we actually try to write them.

Question 10: Which poem in this book could begin your next book?

Dana Levin: Gut response: “Melancholia.” Which is instructive to me, since I seem now to be circling around prose. The poem began as straight up memoir, but early on I felt I’d reached a fork in the compositional road: essay or poem? It became a laboratory of writing short and writing long, of bending and looping time, a dance of lyric impulse and narrative drive. Now I’m writing prose in fits and starts, but thinking in it all the time: strange haibuns. Essays. Who knows what will happen.

Monica Youn: “Goldacre” —my Twinkie poem—is one of the last poems I wrote in the book, and one which fits with some current thinking around racial identity, its construction and contradictions. I wrote the poem in 2015, after the controversy surrounding that year’s Best American Poetry anthology, where the white writer Michael Derrick Hudson had published a poem under the name Yi-Fen Chou, claiming that using an Asian name gave him an advantage in getting his poems published. I could imagine Michael Derrick Hudson seeing my name on that list of writers and making assumptions about me, about the relative merit of my work, just based on my Korean last name. This brought up a much more deeply rooted set of issues for me. I’ve always had trouble writing “about” or “around” my racial identity as a Korean American. My parents emigrated in their teens and are relatively “Westernized,” and I grew up in Texas with almost no Asian schoolmates or neighbors, never learning Korean or visiting Korea. The concept of “identity”—which tends to assume some kind of authenticity—has always felt like a poor fit for me. Instead racial “identity” for me has often been something externally imposed, cobbled together out of stereotypes, out of my own incomplete and poorly researched understandings. The term “Twinkie”—slang for someone “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”—seemed particularly apropos, and I tried to tease out some of its semantic, cultural and political resonances in the poem.

I’m thinking of a new project called “Cribs.” Crib, of course, is usually a baby bed, but to “crib” also means to steal, and “a crib” can be a cheat sheet or a slipshod translation. I’ve always been fascinated with the word-grid “cribs” Ezra Pound found in the notebooks of Ernest Fenellosa and used to create the “translations” in Cathay—translations at a triple remove, from Chinese to Japanese to English. As the new mother of a half-Korean son, I’ve been thinking of questions of cultural heritage, and trying to teach myself Korean so that I can pass the language on to him. I think of the isolated and inadequate words in Fenellosa’s grids, and I think of the bars of my son’s crib, and I am hopeful that I can find poetic (or nonpoetic) analogues for the interference patterns that fascinate me.

Megan Snyder-Camp: My next book, The Gunnywolf (Bear Star Press) was actually published on the same day Wintering came out: 9/1/16. So they are sisterbooks, though I didn’t start writing The Gunnywolf until Wintering was mostly finished. There is a line in Wintering near the end, something that was said to me by Brian Carpenter, the terrifically helpful archivist at the American Philosophical Society, which stores most of the “Indian vocabularies” I studied. He told me, “You can’t say Lewis’s vocabularies are lost. Only that you haven’t found them.” In Wintering my focus and pursuit of these archival records grew increasingly narrow, and I became increasingly aware of, and critical of, my distance from what I was researching. I tried to include those concerns in Wintering, and then The Gunnywolf became a more personal reckoning—with my own whiteness and with what my friend Jessica Johnson calls “the everyday wilderness.”

Question 11: Which poem in this book scares you the most?

David Rivard: “Birth Chart,” a poem I wrote for my daughter, Simone. It has a hard truth in it—that the world is a place that sometimes eats its own heart, and that in trying to keep your child safe from the world you might end up hurting her. Tomas Tranströmer, perhaps my favorite poet, says it like this: “Nowhere the lee-side. Everywhere risk./As it was. As it is.” Some kind of trust is required nonetheless, trust in letting go, perhaps even trust in the sadness of that letting go.

Chris Santiago: The long title poem Tula scares me, because I wrote the first draft when I was in my early twenties. Some of it feels like it was written by a stranger; sometimes I think this stranger was a better poet. The Tula poem that begins, “One night I am my grandfather,” for example, does things that I wouldn’t dare to now: it creates a charged silence, it uses baroque figures, it tips its hat to Garcia Marquez.

I’m scared too of Tula’s final sections, because I remember clearly what I was trying to accomplish there: I’d been reading the Duino Elegies on L.A. buses, and I wanted the speaker of Tula to venture into an allegorical afterworld like the one into which Rilke’s speaker ventures. If those sections of Tula fail, though, perhaps they reinforce the conceit of the poem, which is that we can commune with the dead only through our imperfect memories and imagination.

Monica Youn: The poem in the book that scares me—that nearly scared me out of writing it in the first place—is the “Blackacre” sequence. I knew as early as 2011 that I wanted to write a poem about infertility that took Milton’s Sonnet 19 as a framework—an “On my barrenness” analogue to “On his blindness.” I knew it should be the core of the manuscript, and I felt compelled to finish it, to get it out of my system before my son was born in December, 2014. So I set a deadline of Halloween, 2014—the start of my third trimester—but, as of Labor Day—after spending the summer holed away trying to figure it out—I still hadn’t been able to figure out the right approach. I called my husband in tears, telling him I had failed, I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t find the key that would unlock the poem for me—a key that was largely a question of tone.

The problem was, I eventually realized, that I couldn’t come at the issue of infertility straight-on, I couldn’t treat it as an isolated occurrence, I couldn’t capture it in a single tone. On the scale of bad things that can happen to someone, infertility doesn’t rank very high. But for me, infertility was a small, irreducible fact that was rattling around in a network of cartilaginous walls, creating echoes, recalling voices that questioned my life choices, my priorities, my sense of self. I heard my mother saying, “After the age of 30, a woman is like a fruit starting to go rotten,” I heard my doctor telling me, “You’re basically dead inside.” I heard the technicians relaying the results of dozens of sonograms month after month, “All quiet. All quiet again.” I heard Milton’s words, “Spent. Useless. Denied.” At the same time I was watching certain endings in my life and the lives of others around me: I sat vigil at my father-in-law’s deathbed, I was trying to prevent the breakup of my parents’s forty-year marriage, my own marriage was on shaky ground, and the legal career to which I had devoted my adulthood was at its end. I came to understand that I needed to cast a broader net with the poem, to pull in law and religion, gender and sexuality, judgment and shame. Those voices needed to be part of the poem, and I would have to come to terms not just with the “experience” of infertility but with many of the emotional and personal fears in which the experience had become embedded.

Megan Snyder-Camp: It’s a poem that I took out: a found poem composed of notes written by a white amateur linguist who visited the Nanticoke Indians in the early 1800s. I built the poem using only the English words for which he sought Nanticoke equivalents. It was flighty and lyric and required a lot of explanation, which I couldn’t give. My aim was to fold his seeking in on itself. But when I read Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, a game-changing book that didn’t come out until Wintering was mostly finalized, I understood that I couldn’t do what I was trying to do. What was at stake for me as a white writer was so different, and the risk of my work reading as a continuation, rather than critique, of white desire for Native work was too great. So I threw that poem out, but I also think it’s important to mention its absence, rather than pretend I never wrote it.

Max Ritvo: “Troy” is the poem that scares me most in this book. It was written during an existential crisis I had before my cancer returned. Healthy though my body seemed, I was sure my mind was dissolving. Much of creativity is synthesis, building new things, the imagination coming together. This is so inspiring. But there is also the creation of disintegration. The way that as a mind seems to burn itself up or out, imagery and passion and language has, not a swan song, but the scream of a rabbit having its guts torn open by an eagle. In many ways I am certain that “Troy” is the poem that will be the poem of my last moments, although it was written in good health. It gives me the same creepy-crawly sense of terror and sublimity that I get when I listen to a brilliant and very tortured madman talk of the world burning down. Or read the Dhammapadda tell us "The World is on Fire/And are you laughing?!/You are deep in the dark,/Will you not ask for light?!." (The very first lines of Four Reincarnations bow to these lines, keep your eyes peeled!) Or when I read Ezekiel, my favorite book of the Torah.

November 13, 2020

November 06, 2020

October 26, 2020

October 24, 2020

April 26, 2020

March 29, 2020

March 17, 2020

January 02, 2020

October 09, 2019

August 09, 2019

July 14, 2019

July 07, 2019

May 03, 2019

March 01, 2019

July 11, 2018

March 30, 2018

December 18, 2017

November 15, 2017

November 10, 2017

November 09, 2017

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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