Today would have been my son's 24th birthday, so in celebration of his beautiful life, here's "Better" by Fivestar Riot. He made this video his senior year of high school.
Happy Birthday, Charlie!
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. He is also author of After Malagueña (FootHills Publishing, 2005), Negative Time (Pudding House, 2007), Pre-Dew Poems (FootHills Publishing, 2008), Henri, Sophie, & the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex (BlazeVOX Books, 2009), The Oldest Stone in the World (Amsterdam Press, 1-1-11), and Poetry Assignments: The Book (Sage Hill Press, forthcoming 2011). He has thrice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared on Verse Daily and has also appeared in Blue Earth Review, Chiron Review, Crab Creek Review, The Delmarva Review, The G. W. Review, Mississippi Review, Mid-American Review, New Delta Review, New Zoo Poetry Review, Orange Coast Review, Rockhurst Review, San Pedro River Review, Santa Clara Review, South Carolina Review, Sugar House Review, Swarthmore Review, and many other journals that don’t have “Review” in their name. His current prose writing efforts about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break.
CC: So, just how did you get to be such as a bad-ass poet? In other words, what got you interested in poetry and how have you developed your craft?
TH: What got me interested in poetry? There are like 50 events that got me interested in poetry. When I was very young, in third grade, I wrote a poem about life after a nuclear holocaust. The final image was of a lone dog barking. Then I secretly started writing in high school. I don’t know what drew me to it. I went to college in 1986 as physics major. One day I heard the voice of Bob Dylan on his album Infidels. It was the summer 1987, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was with my friend Jeff Stremick and Dan Goettel in Jeff’s Chevy Cavalier in a mall in West Irondequoit, and Dan popped in the cassette. Oh, it was love. I wanted everyone to be quiet so I could listen to this, what Allen Ginsberg called, “angelic voice.” And it was angelic! I didn’t know it at the time, but I was drawn to his moans and long vowels. It changed everything.
CC: Physics seems a way off from what you’re doing now. What’s the story there?
TH: Well, I drank myself out of my physics program at Clarkson University. (I also played too much hockey.) Then I went to a community college in 1988, and threw myself into literature and poetry. After that, I attended SUNY Oneonta in 1989 to get a BS in English and, fuck, everything was plunged into poetry. Everything. And I had the best poetry teachers in Graham Duncan and Patrick Meanor. Duncan knew everything about Modern American poetry and Meanor pointed me to the Black Mountain Poets and taught me poetry on levels I didn’t know existed. Duncan didn’t teach me about music, but he opened my ears.
But it’s college. So what did I want to do in college? Drink and get laid. If drinking didn’t get me laid, then surely a poem would. “What woman doesn’t want a poet,” I thought. So half my intentions were to write poems to impress women. The other half was to improve my skills.
CC: Yes, a familiar story for the male poet, and I’m sure it’s still true, regardless of the skill set. So how did you develop those skills?
TH: Richard Frost, a professor at SUNY Oneonta, once told a story in poetry class about a man who talked in sonnets. I thought, “Damn, I want to do that.” So to train, I started talking in iambic pentameter, which took a while to learn to do. I actually had to write a lot to learn to speak it. Then I added some rhymes to my iambic scats. But after a month or so, when I was getting real good at it, I stopped because people didn’t much care for the rhyming. (I didn’t rhyme in front of all my friends, like the people I played high-stakes poker with three times a day.)
CC: You spoke in rhymes but not at cards with friends? See, I can speak in iambic pentameter too. Sounds like this got you thinking about the formal elements in poetry.
TH: Yes. The next few (10-15) years, I studied and wrote as many meters and forms as I could find in any language. I particularly enjoyed Sapphics, which is a form with a meter where the syllables are based on the length of the syllable, as many languages do. Then I discovered Swinburne, who pretty much taught me everything about meter. (He also made an accentual version of Sapphics, as did Ezra Pound (who combined stress and length) and James Wright (who Americanized Sapphics). Eventually, I tried to write poems where I could create tensions between the length of the syllable and its stress, and then used those to create tensions against whatever meter or form I was using.
CC: Well, Swinburne was a bad-ass too, or at least tried to be. Who else influenced you?
TH: I learned about harmonies, mainly from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who along with Wallace Stevens taught me how to work etymologies into a poem. I eventually wrote some really good musical poems. But as happened with older Swinburne, my poems became abstract and with long words and were hard to follow. Then add in some Black Mountain aesthetics and this interest in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and the poems became even more difficult.
|Gerard Manley Hopkins|
CC: It would seem to me that any serious student of poetry would fall in love with etymologies. I often draw from that well when I need ideas for poems because it suggests so many other possibilities, resonances, and imaginative leaps. How did you end up in Brockport, which of course was one of the literary hotbeds in this state, if not the country?
TH: Eventually, in 1992, I studied with William Heyen and Tony Piccione at SUNY Brockport to get an MA in English. I was the only one at the school who preached Black Mountain aesthetics. I stood firm with those Black Mountain poets in this Deep Image school. (The Robert Bly deep image. Not the Robert Kelly deep image from Trobar issue 2 with Jerome Rothenberg.) The funny thing is Bill and Tony didn’t have much effect on me. Not for a very long time, anyway. Not until maybe 2005. I was a bit stubborn and closed minded.
CC: You say that in the past tense. Do you mean to say you’re not so stubborn anymore?
TH: I’m still stubborn, though not as much. It just takes a while for new things to settle into me. Hmm. How to explain? … Between 1995 and 2005, I wrote and wrote. My writing seemed good at the time, but it was wasn’t. There came a point in the late 90s when I was getting too cocky. I thought I was great, but I wasn’t improving my writing. I was just strutting around as a writer. My ego was huge. I was resting on my laurels, or the laurels I thought I had. So one day, I took my two boxes of everything I had ever written, went to a Fourth of July party with a bonfire, and burned each poem one by one. Sometimes I read the poem aloud to the sky and gods before I placed the poem in the fire and watched its ashes rise to the audience I just read to.
I purged myself.
CC: That’s a great image. Did it help?
Yes, I could start over.
And I did a bit. And then more so a few years later, in 2002, at Eastern Washington University (EWU) with Jonathan Johnson, Christopher Howell, and Nance Van Winckel. There I earned an MFA. Again, like SUNY Brockport, I didn’t learn until a few years after graduating when it all sunk in.
|Nance Van Winckel|
SUNY Brockport ten or fifteen years later taught me about the image, and EWU about two years later (it really was two years later, I saw it happen before me) taught me about tone and humanity. And I taught myself clarity, which I’m still pursuing.
CC: It seems to me that clarity is the highest achievement in writing. When it’s done well, it seems so simple, and yet it’s so hard to attain.
TH: True. Though, I still have not written a musical masterpiece that is clear on an imagistic level or written a perfectly clear poem that is musically awesome.
Oh, I have so much more to say, but I reckon this is enough for now. There are so many people to mention, like Rob Carney, who have influenced me so much.
But there is my answer to your initial question.
Oh, and I’m bad-ass cuz I drink and swear and have slept with women.
CC: Well, I’d say you’re bad-ass for other reasons, too, namely your writing, and, of course, the work of others you present in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. “Redactions,” of course, means the process of editing or revising a piece of writing. Can you share some of your philosophy about revision, something that I don’t think most poets do enough, though I’m probably over-generalizing.
TH: Revising. I think that's a familiar condition of American poet today. Poets revise so much. The mood about revision is almost Puritanical, it seems. That is, if you work a lot on a poem, it will be good or successful. But are they successful? That's the question. I see poems in journals which are okay, but they still need work. I'd love to take those poems and fix them up.
When I revise, and I'll get more into this down below, I first start by writing all my poems by hand. I used to only use a pencil, but I'm now able to use a pen. Anyway, in the handwritten versions, I write, scratch, erase, and write the poems over and over and over again. Then, when I think it's done or done for this phase or when I just need to see it more clean and laid out, then I type it up on the computer. This is where I think many of poems stop – the OK ones I just mentioned seeing in journals.
But there's more to do, like shaping the poem. Honestly, a poem has to look good on the page, too. (Eight four-line stanzas are easier to look at and read than one 32-line stanza. But each poem has its own shape, and occasionally the 32-line stanza poem is required.) Plus, when I type the poem and print it, I can start marking up the poem. I can scan the poem or track certain sounds. I can make marks to see what I hear. I can follow harmonies, melodies, rhythms, and tones much better with a visual representation. I do less of this now, as I’ll explain below, but it's still a step in the revision process, especially when I'm stuck.
Man, if you get stuck in poem, then it's time to start using syllabics or a meter. If I'm stuck, and I see a meter or rhythm pattern here and there, then I'll chase them down. I'll try to make the rest of the poem follow it until I free myself from where I was stuck. You know, just because during the writing process I wrote a villanelle or a Sapphics doesn't mean I have to keep the villanelle or Sapphics. Sometimes you just need them to see the poem differently for a while, and meter and form can do that for you.
CC: What gets your attention as an editor, both in writing that you’d consider publishing, and writing that stops you from reading further?
TH: Paying attention to language gets my attention. You can tell pretty quick when a poem is paying attention to language. When it's not, it becomes boring. When it becomes boring I stop reading. And a poem can get boring quick. Oh, and the poem has to keep moving forward. So basically, you get a few lines for free, but if the poem stops moving forward or stops paying attention to language, then I stop reading. (I have to do this out of necessity, too, because I get so many submissions.) So the poem has to keep moving line after line. Of course, this is all ideal talk and there are always exceptions. Basically, the poem has to sustain my attention.
CC: I loved Henri, Sophie, & the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex, especially as it imagines with much historical accuracy, the relationship between sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and poet Ezra Pound. I’ve always been fascinated by Rodin’s influence on Rilke. What was this collection all about and what did you discover about yourself in the process?
TH: First thank you for the plug and the compliment.
Now to the question. Historical accuracy?! I don't know if I'd say that. I mean, for instance, Nina Hamnett did visit Sophie Breszka at a cottage during World War I, but, everything else I write in that poem is metaphorical or an imagining. I think in the end, the book is trying to get behind the swirling creative energies that existed during Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s time and because of Henri. Henri had a long and powerful influence on Ezra Pound and Sophie, and what I accidentally discovered, and it was a fun accident as the poem made the discovery while it was been written and I just happened to be the first witness, was that Ezra and Sophie both ended up in a mental hospital because of Henri's death. I loved watching that discovery. I wished I had thought of it myself. (The way I wrote the poem explains it better than I can here, because here I just want to say the only reason Ez was in a hospital is so he didn't go to jail and get executed for anti-American propaganda from his radio shows out of Italy during World War II. "Free speech without free radio speech is as zero," I think he says.)
Discovery. That's the second part of the question. What did I discover about myself in the process was the process. Prior to these poems, I used to revise so much. (I even have a poem I worked on for 17 years.) I'd revise a poem on a phonic-level to make sure all or most the sounds in a poem harmonized. So if I had a "k" sound in line five, for instance, I made sure it chimed within two lines before or after. I never could do it as well as Linda Bierds or Gerard Manley Hopkins, though. And I'd revise to make sure the language was tight and interesting. Harmony and fresh language consumed a lot of my revisions, and when it was all done, I'd have a tight poem. But you know what? During all that revision and craftiness, the poem would lose its original energies. Hell, it would lose energy in general. It would be a well-wrought poem that seemed smart. I also unintentionally revised out tonalities. So now I have this flat poem that's technically clever.
In the composition of the Henri book, I learned to "revise lightly," as Allen Ginsberg said. What I did in this book and what I'm doing now is to trust my ear. I spent years of concentrated detailed work to tune my ear and hear harmonies and rhythms, During the Henri book and since, I thought it was time to trust my ears and let them work on their own. I didn't need to interfere. So I instead concentrated on clarity and tone.
I think the problem with my earlier poems was that people couldn't get into them. The poems were obtuse, obfuscating, and sharp. They'd cut you if you got too close. In other words, the poems didn't have a surface layer. So in the Henri book, I just made sure all the poems were clear and made sense on the surface so that anyone could get into them, and if they wanted to go deeper into them, they could. Isn't that a mark of all good poems? They have a surface level, ya know, like a story, but the more you stare at it the deeper it gets. Isn't that a beauty of a Frost or Merwin poem? They invite you in, and if you want to visit all the rooms and basements and attics and secret panels in the poem’s house, you can.
So what I learned was to trust my ear, revise lightly, be clear, and ensure the tones are working well. I'm just starting to get good at all this now, especially in trusting my ear. Oh, and I won't even get into harmonic tonalities.
Oh, I just remembered this. Sean Thomas Dougherty introduced this term about my poetry, and it works for every book I have and most of my poems: Investigative Poetry. Edward Sanders coined this term (and I just received his book with the same name), but it’s been around longer. You can read about investigative poetry here: http://thelinebreak.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/investigative-poetics/ and better yet here: http://bit.ly/gSfdLV. Read the latter essay, and you’ll get my poetry, even my newest collection, The Oldest Stone in the World (Amsterdam Press), which is more like Imaginative Investigative Poetry, a topic for another time.
|Sean Thomas Dougherty|
CC: What exactly is Vorticism, and by the way, The Ez Head looks a lot like you. Coincidence? Clearly, Ezra Pound has had a big influence on you. Talk a bit about that.
|The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound|
TH: I don’t think I can define Vorticism. It's too slippery a term. Each Vorticist did their own thing. However, I can say that each Vorticist piece is a high-energy construct. I can say there was Cubism then Futurism then Vorticism. Vorticism was sharper than Futurism and celebrated less the machine and technology.
I would say I look like The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, but I'm less phallic than it. I look like it because I tried to be like Ez for a while. Pound's influence is incalculable. His major influence on my writing came from his prose pieces about poetry, specifically The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound and even more specifically these two essays: “A Retrospect” and “How to Read.” I don’t even know if I can explain. But if you want demi-glace reduction of poetics to pour over your poetry, read these essays. They changed my life.
Monday, March 14, 2011
|Air Kissing on Mars (Red Hen Press, 2010)|
Kim (Freilich) Dower grew up in New York on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and received a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston.
Upon graduating, Kim stayed at Emerson where she taught Introduction to Creative Writing: Poetry for two years before moving to Los Angeles where she pursued other writing projects and began her own literary publicity company.
A few years ago, “like magic, like a dream,” poetry re-entered her life and the poems have been rushing out as if a 25 year dam had broken, and she’s been writing three or more poems a week. Kim Dower's collection of 71 poems is a sensual and rhapsodic journey through emotional landscapes sweeping everyday life. Playful, intelligent, funny, edgy, engaging—sometimes biting, ironic and dark, sometimes dreamy and surreal, full of poignancy and arresting metaphors, the daily, simple occurrences in Air Kissing On Mars startle and provoke, while stirring up the fairy dust and turbulent weight of memory; evoking the possibilities and gorgeous chaos of life. Open and inviting, these poems draw the reader into a world seen upside down, inside out, a sideways bird reporting on a universe filled with mystery and passion. Joan Didion meets Tinkerbell, Kim Dower’s poems are as whimsical and light as they are rich and intense. Simultaneously humorous and profound these passionate and personal poems, relatable to all, are drenched with vivid imagery, and sparkle with surprise.
Lost languages, disappearing mailboxes, locomotives pummeling through dreams, taxi drivers thrown by the earth’s rotation, shadows in closets, vanishing carrots, men who exfoliate—all manner of haunting evocations come together in this opus of shining and startling wisdom.
Kim was gracious enough to grant an e-mail interview about her first book of poems. I first met her in Thomas Lux's workshop at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival several years ago.CC: Twenty-five years is a long gestation period for the birth of these “jazzy, sassy, sexy poems,” to quote Stephen Dobyns about your book. How did you find your way back to writing poetry and how might you explain such prolific output?
KD: My way back was easy because I never really got lost. Just sidetracked and distracted. I may have stopped "formally" writing poetry, but I never stopped thinking about it. I only stopped putting it down on the page. I've always seen poems everywhere -- ideas for poems, lines, moments, and have kept notebooks all along. Not journals -- I'm not a journal writer -- I'm a line writer, titles, moments, ideas, images, dialogue I overhear. I have notebooks in every drawer, every corner of my house. My profession as literary publicist has also kept me working with writers, and a lot of my work is, in fact, writing. I've written screenplays, stories, half-finished abandoned poems, a million press releases, pitch letters. I've ghost written books. So words have always been around me and I've been writing on deadline forever. The poems were stacking up in my head and in my heart - just waiting for an opening. When my son left for college and the opening presented itself, the poems started spilling out -- in the middle of the night, the early morning, late in the evenings. The poems were just waiting for me to have time for them.
CC: In the acknowledgements for Air Kissing on Mars, you thank Thomas Lux for introducing you to poetry at Emerson College. How did he influence your writing then, and how is he still an influence?
KD: When I was a freshman at Emerson College I took an elective in my spring semester called "Introduction to Creative Writing: Poetry." Thomas Lux was the instructor.
I'd been writing poems since I was a child and loved reading poetry, so I thought I'd take the class and see what poetry in college was all about. That first class changed my life.
Tom announced we were all poets. He gave us this massive identity. He read us a poem by Bill Knott. He made poetry real, relevant, important, exciting. I left the classroom feeling like I knew why I was alive. I was a poet. I had a job. That was that.
Years later, when I'd been away from poetry for a long time and began writing again, I contacted him. He said "the warranty has expired," which was hilarious, and then invited me to send a dozen poems and give him a few weeks to read them. I did. He said it was as if I'd never stopped writing, but encouraged me to find a writing workshop and get back into the craft. He encouraged me to stick with it. He reminded me that I was a poet, always had been and always would be. That was that.
Once again, I felt charged with meaning, inspiration and dedication to what I had loved to many years before and what I continued to love: writing poetry.
CC: Lux calls it nightingale fever tempered by wisdom and caring. I call it emphatic, zany, at times obsessive, and most often engaging. How would you describe the voice that speaks these poems?
KD: My truest voice. My most alive voice. The voice that tries to be most observant and most honest. The voice I hope will never leave me again.
CC: After reading “They took the mailbox away,” the first poem in the book, I wondered how many “ruined lives” will be redeemed by the reading of these love letters? What if anything gets reclaimed for you in the making of these poems?
KD: Myself. I have reclaimed myself in doing what I love the most.
CC: I admire the strength of your associative leaps, the unexpected inevitabilities you might say. For example, in “She Is Awakened by a Hair,” we get “a train way of track / thundering through her bedroom, / the moon on its back” to describe what the hair is not, and yet that hair, “stuck to the roof of her mouth,” makes her think of that train, and that moon. How are you able to make these associations?
KD: I have no idea. Truly. I close my eyes and imagine the next line, the next picture, and I write down what comes to me. Sometimes that'll be changed 100 times. Sometimes I get it right away.
CC: And of course, I want to know what that promise might be at the end of the poem, but can only imagine. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me.
KD: What are the promises we make to ourselves? That we'll be good? That we'll never love someone or always love someone? A promise we struggle to forget - haven't we all promised something to someone we wish we could take back? Or is that just me?
CC: I promised myself to stop making promises. It's not working.
These poems have certain obsessions, like the beach, the moon, tonsils, death, sex, gelato, screeching (that word shows up a number of times), and especially a longing for that which is not present. Can you talk about the creative power of obsession, how it turns to passion and finds some containment in the poem?
KD: A poet once said (and I wish I could remember who said this) that our obsessions don't change, just the way we write about them. That really resonates with me.
Certains obsessions have always been a force in my life. Obsessing itself has always driven me: desire, feelings, images, over and over, thinking about something (someone) until I have it (them). Obsession drives me. Being an obsessive person has caused its share of problems except when it comes to the creative power of obsession. Then I'm grateful for my obsessions. Proud of them. I adore them and nurture them. I love how my obsessions inform my work - how they drive it. I would have nothing without them.
You see how obsessive I am?
CC: Well, yes, I see, and in your book, the speaker blurts out, “I love a man who exfoliates,” in the poem by the same name. These poems are exuberant that way and might even be a kind of aesthetic stance. I know your life can be quite hectic with your publicist gig so I imagine there’s some therapeutic value in writing these poems. In fact, the poem that follows has this line, “you name it, I’m tired from doing it...” What gets exfoliated when you enter the making of a poem?
KD: You name it, it gets exfoliated when I write a poem.
CC: So that's why you're so radiant?
There’s a remarkable description of birth in the poem by the same name. The poem envisions so much that will be missed. I can’t help but think the speaker is also describing her own birth. As you’ve dedicated the book to your son Max, talk about how his life inspired this collection.
KD: His life has inspired my life - he has inspired me - and therefore his life has inspired this collection. Just feeling a life grow inside me and knowing him before he was born
was a poem. Every day he was inside me was a poem. I would write them but can't find where I put them. The physical act of giving birth (though cesarian) was beyond my comprehension. I am grateful to my son for the way I see the world. For how he changed the way I see it because I see it through his eyes, too, and as he was growing up my perceptions changed watching him. Sometime I'll read him a poem (when he'll let me) to see if it might connect with him. He'll tell me to change a word and I'll change it.
CC: I'd be afraid to give my son's that same liberty, but who knows, I haven't tried it. First I'd have to get them to read one first. Usually they just roll their eyes.
“Geography Matters” is emblematic of the way you take an absurd situation (i.e., the Yugoslavian driver saying, “let me make you an example”) and pushing to its even more absurd implications of language. Talk about the making of this poem, which enacts the making of an example.
KD: The poem is based on a real incident -- an absurd incident - my favorite kind: a driver taking me from Delray Beach to Miami to catch a plane back to L.A. who wouldn't stop talking about geography and the way the world works. He didn't stop talking for an hour. At first I wanted to jump out the window but then I started writing down things he was saying. I became fascinated and charmed. I was amazed by how much he had to say to this stranger in the back seat. He wanted to teach me things about geography, about his life, about driving a cab. I knew after a few minutes there was a poem here. I wanted to tell his story in my poem.
CC: I've had cab rides like that. I'm thinking of writing down the things I hear in the men's locker room at my gym. Maybe I'll call it Overheard in the Sweat Locker.
Your professional life is all about promoting writers who will be read by the kind of folks you describe in “The Couple Next Door.” How do you think about readers when you promote writers.
KD: That's an interesting question that I'm not sure I understand. I never really know what readers will like. I know they want to connect the characters with their own lives. They want to relate. They want to say, hey - she's talking about me! They also want to laugh and cry and feel alive when they read.
Our job as poets is to show situations in a way they've never been seen. To show simple, everyday things in ways they've never been shown, but without making a puzzle out of it. I feel like I'm making a puzzle with this answer. How do I think about readers when you promote writers? I think the same thing for myself that I tell my clients -- write from the heart, be authentic, tell the truth for
as long as you can and be amazing! Readers will be amazed.
CC: Another strategy in your poems involves list-making, which of course makes me think of Walt Whitman. Are you a compulsive list maker? What do you think makes for a compelling list poem?
KD: I write lists all the time, but they're dull lists about things I really have to do. If it's on the list I will do it. I do all the things on my lists. My list poems have nothing to do with my real life lists. A compelling list poem is surprising, just like any other compelling poem.
CC: The death of your father is a recurring theme in the book. What impact did this have on you and the way you see the world, and yourself?
KD: I'm still learning about the impact of my father's death (and his life) through writing my poems. I didn't really know the impact of his death until I started writing these poems and I don't know if I'll ever have the answer to this question.
CC: Your poems are very sensuous and pay close attention to the connotation of things. For example, gelato in “His Flavors are Tender.” That poem represents a longing that I see throughout the book. Can you talk about how this kind of hunger speaks to the human experience?
KD: All my poems are about longing which is what all of life is about, isn't it? I suppose life for me is about hunger. It's about what I long for. When is enough enough. Are we ever satisfied? I don't think so.
CC: The door triptych intrigues me and seem to represent otherness, distance, and separation. Can you talk about what those three doors mean to you?
KD: Other, distant and separate -- perfect! This is the way I often feel. This isn't a sad thing, this is just the way it is. However many friends I have, family, loved ones, work, no time in the day to think . . . at the end of that day I will feel other, apart, separate, and have since I was a little girl. Perhaps that's why I write poetry. To pull myself out of those feelings. To try to make connections where I've never felt them.
CC: Talk about the section of the book called People Give Me Titles. My favorite is “Coffin Bone.”
KD: When I got back into writing poetry, I asked some friends to give me titles. It was a way I could jump start myself - force myself to write a poem - one every day. It was a fascinating and successful pursuit because I got some fabulous titles (including "The Door" which you asked me about in the previous question), and I had an excuse to send these friends the poems so they'd be forced to read and comment on them! Poets love other people to read their poems and make comments!
The "Coffin Bone" is from my friend Karen Karbo who's a wonderful writer and someone I've known for a long time who encouraged me to start writing again. I loved that title though I had no idea what it meant. I wrote the poem not knowing what it meant and then I looked it up. It was a thrilling and surprising definition. I'm grateful to her and to everyone who gave me titles.
KD: I'm rereading Frank O'Hara because I love his poetry to death. I'm rereading everyone who influenced me: O'Hara, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Erica Jong, James Tate, Thomas Lux, Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman - there are so many! I'm reading Words in Air the letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I'm reading Jane Hirshfield's book, After which is amazing. I love Billy Collins, Kim Addonizio and Charles Haper Webb. There's so much poetry to love and learn from the list could go on forever.
CC: What are you working on now?
KD: Poems! More and more and more poems for a second collection which will be called, Snacking on Venice, Before Dawn. Do you like that title?
CC: Can't wait to read those poems!
Sunday, March 13, 2011
In a previous post, I wrote about the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" that lead to relationship disasters, one being defensiveness. Its opposite of course is curiosity, a willingness to hear and accept whatever your partner has to say, which is not the same as agreement. Being hard-wired to protect our self-interests, however, means that it takes considerable work to overcome defensiveness, especially when the words you hear seem threatening, as this defensiveness is "rooted in existential fears of rejection, abandonment, inadequacy," according to an article by marriage and family therapist Dr. Athena Staik. What does she recommend?
"Unless you develop the learned skill of consciously feeling and processing your feelings and thoughts, in moments when you get triggered, these defense mechanisms can rob you of your capacity to choose your thoughts and actions freely."
Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want, and couple's therapy pioneer, teaches the Imago Dialogue as a way to by-pass defensiveness and pave the way for intimacy. This dialogue starts with safety and has three basic steps: mirroring, validation, and empathy. Here's an excellent primer on this way of connecting with your partner: IMAGO DIALOGUE 101.
Give it a try and let me know how it works out.
Friday, March 11, 2011
From Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s website:
Marie-Elizabeth Mali was born and raised in New York City, with frequent trips to Venezuela and Sweden where most of her family lives. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego in 1998 with a Master of Traditional Oriental Medicine degree. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College in 1989 with a B.A. in East Asian Studies.
Her first book of poetry, Steady, My Gaze, was published by Tebot Bach Press in 2011. Tebot Bach is Welch for "little teapot" and the organization is dedicated to strengthening community, promoting literacy, and broadening the audience for poetry by demonstrating through readings, workshops, and publications, the power of poetry to transform human experience.
She is a co-curator for louderARTS: the Reading Series and Page Meets Stage, both in New York City. Before receiving her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, she practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Poet Lore, and RATTLE, among others.
I first met Marie-Elizabeth at the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Writers Seminar and remember her reading a stunning pantoum that subsequently appeared in LUMINA, Volume 7, 2008, called “A Good Night's Rest.” Since then we see each other yearly at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and even dance the salsa. Well, she dances the salsa and I try not to look too much like an idiot.
Here’s a recent e-mail exchange about her book, poems “attuned to the sensual and the sacred”, to quote Kim Addonizio’s comment on Steady, My Gaze. To me, these poems transform what’s known to the unexpected inevitabilities that we all seem to know, but didn’t know we’d known, if only we pay closer attention. That’s the occasion of this collection. So let’s see what we discover now in conversation with Marie-Elizabeth Mali.
CC: In one of the epigraphs for the book, you quote Carl Jung: “who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” Writing poetry is the closest I come to this, though I think it’s so easy to delude ourselves. I think about Stephen Dobyns’ book Best Words, Best Order, and his essay on the jester he keeps at his writing desk. How were you able to keep your gaze steady and not get caught up in the distractions of publication, performance, and pleasing others? Hey, three Ps. I’m usually not that organized.
MEM: Ha! I love it when a poet asks questions.
It’s an ongoing struggle for me. I have to turn my gaze away again and again from all the glittering, compelling, beautiful distractions outside. In terms of this book, some of it was written during my MFA program, so the nature of the program, and the sheer level of coursework, provided a helpful structure to keep me focused and turned inward. Post-MFA, it’s harder for me to knuckle down as regularly, but creating structure through things like NaPoWriMo (writing 30 poems in 30 days in April) and the occasional generative workshop, helps. And then there are days when I spend three hours on Facebook and wonder where the poems went.
CC: I love the surprise of the prologue and epilogue, the way the book comes full circle. In fact, the book does have a number of cycles. I’m interested in how the prologue and epilogue represent two aspects of self. How did each poem convey its own meaning and what did you discover in the process of translation? Did you write the prologue or epilogue first?
MEM: I wrote the prologue first, which is a poem in Spanish called “Hambrienta.” It was written during a fantastic Latin American poetry class at Sarah Lawrence in which we read and translated Latin American poets’ work and wrote our own poems in Spanish. This was one of the few poems I wrote in Spanish that I kept. It was written in frustration over some of the more hyper-intellectual work we were reading, which helped me get to an emotional core that I’m always trying to find when I write.
The epilogue is the translation of “Hambrienta” (“Hungry”), which I felt was necessary to include in order to allow non-Spanish speakers into the poem. I discovered that it’s very hard to translate one’s own work and that it’s a better poem in the original language! The two poems represent two aspects of myself in that I’ve navigated these languages my whole life, which formed me as a person who constantly seeks connection across traditional lines of division.
CC: In the section called “O Three-Eyed Lord,” the last octet (“Mantra”) revisits the first (“Chant”). Talk about that cycle, its concerns and what you were trying to puzzle out in the writing.
MEM: I was deep into the study of Kashmir Shaivism at the time, trying to puzzle out this question of non-dualism: how God can be everything (not just IN everything but BE everything) and how there can be such apparent evil in the world. It’s a philosophy that’s not for sissies, or for those who want a comforting father-figure-type of God to lean on. The sheer hugeness of its implications blows my mind, which led to this section of poems grappling with death, war, rape, meanness. The last poem in the section revisits the first because my great aunt died shortly after my cat did, so I found myself chanting the mantra referenced in the poems again in honor of her. It felt different, and yet the same, and provided a way to bring the section full-circle.
CC: The five years of marriage cycle in the section “I Celebrate the Husband” also interests me, how it reveals the complexities of married life, and how close contact with the other, in this case, the husband, deepens your gaze and helps you awaken, if you let it. I take it that this marriage provoked a fair amount of anxiety for the speaker of those poems given past experiences revealed in the collection, but she realizes that love is a great healer. What would you say about all that?
MEM: I’d say your reading of it is right on! I came to marriage late, at 39 years old, once I realized that I wanted to grow in ways that would probably only happen if I committed myself to opening to a relationship without being able to ditch it as easily as I did before when I got bored, hurt, or went through any of the typical tough phases any relationship goes through over time.
Within a couple of months after our wedding, I experienced an unexpected loss of “filter,” in that the horrible things done to women all over the world that show up in the news on a daily basis felt like they were happening to me. I had to work for months to distinguish my experience and my man from “women’s experiences” and “men.” The poem “Newly Wed” came out of that “loss of filter” time. That period of time exposed a level of gender anger I had not previously reached in my inner work, I think because I had never committed to a man that deeply before, so it hadn’t been forced to the surface. So, yes, marriage has provoked “a fair amount of anxiety” for me and the speaker of these poems, and a fair amount of awakening and healing as well.
CC: In the “Second Year of Marriage”, I love how the magnanimous “let it be” is immediately subverted in the next line: “Later, we fight...” How do you think about conflict, not only in marriage, but in the making of poems, or being human for that matter?
MEM: Every time I think I’ve gained some kind of equanimity or wisdom, something usually happens to show me how little I’ve actually internalized, how easily my veneer of acceptance can be blown. Hence the subversion in that poem of the speaker’s magnanimity with the reality of the simple things that trip us up on a daily basis. Those contradictions, for me, form a lot of what it is to be human, as well as the acceptance of being a bundle of contradictions, which allows for more relaxation with it all while recognizing how ridiculous I am most of the time. I think from that place true compassion and magnanimity can arise, not the bullshit I’m-going-to-help-you-or-bear-with-you-because-I’m-so-magnanimous-and-wise type of compassion, which isn’t really compassion anyway.
As for the making of poems, I think the most interesting poems have some kind of tension in them, whether within the speaker, the content, or on the level of language and form. I’m wary of poems that seem to absolutely know what they’re talking about, that impart some wisdom without revealing the hard-won nature of that wisdom, without revealing the complexity of the human being behind the pretty surface of the smart ideas.
CC: Can you talk about the ambivalences in “Fifth Year of Marriage”, the work of enlightenment “when no one’s leaving/clothes on the floor...” and the “giving up of every story...”? This last poem of that cycle has a bite to it, a sting.
MEM: I was thrilled when that poem came out, just before the deadline for final changes to the book, because I feel it gets to the core of how I see marriage as a mirror of the journey of awakening: that waking up involves letting go of EVERY story about oneself and the world, which is almost impossible, given these gorgeous minds we have that live to create story. Nothing reveals one’s stories faster than living in close proximity to another human governed by his/her different stories. Hence the power of ashram/monastery for the monk, and marriage for the householder, if one approaches it with that intention.
CC: As you know, we both like to dance, and you write several poems about how this is tied to the speaker’s cultural identity. I’m thinking of “Origins” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” What does the clave mean to you? And I agree, it’s the sweet that matters, not the wrapper, although the wrapper can be sweet too. I’m guessing you didn’t always think so.
MEM: Yes, you’re getting to some of my core stuff here, that feeling of invisibility I’ve had much of my life, in terms of feeling largely Latina on the inside and looking largely Swedish on the outside (and not having a name that places me clearly in one culture or the other). The clave is my heartbeat, and for years I wished people could see that beyond the dance floor. Many of the poems in the first section of the book reflect that struggle to accept my cultural mixture and to not expect that I wouldn’t be “seen” because the wrapper and sweet weren’t an obvious fit.
CC: Going back to “Origins”, you write about marginalia, and I can’t help thinking that this book might be the marginalia in the book you call life. Maybe that’s poetry. Marginalia on life, though that sounds so trivial. Talk about how you meant this word.
MEM: I meant that word much in the way you interpreted it and as metaphor for my having grown up among three cultures, feeling literally “in the margin,” looking from the outside at people who seemed to be squarely embodied within the text of their singular cultural perspectives. A luxury I could never have. Now I’m grateful for my perspective, given that it probably made me a more adaptable person and a poet, but as a child I didn’t know it was a good thing, given that I simply wanted to fit in somewhere.
CC: The entire book represents a spiritual quest, at least at some level. I’m thinking in particular of “The Questions Themselves” and the Silent Retreat cycle near the end of the book. That last cycle, by the way, reminded me of Lucille Clifton’s "Ten Oxherding Pictures." Has she been an influence? What is the Tao of Marie-Elizabeth?
MEM: Yes, it does, in that my life is basically spiritually oriented and I wrote the book. I prefer the word “journey” to “quest,” in that “quest” feels a bit too effortful for where I’m at these days with it all (which is not to say my spiritual journey hasn’t been full of effort in the past).
I love Clifton’s work but I wouldn’t say she’s been a direct influence. Though I have certainly gained strength from the directness with which she expressed her truth and her willingness to name what needs to be seen with such craft and skill.
I love that: “the Tao of Marie-Elizabeth.” Hmm, I’d have to say it’s about looking into life as best I can toward some deeper truth than this conglomeration of likes and dislikes I call me.
CC: Who inspires and influences you as a writer and what are you currently reading?
MEM: Mark Doty has inspired me for a long time, the often non-dual way he sees the world (Read the poem, “A Display of Mackerel”) and the beautiful language with which he brings the world to life on the page. Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, Patricia Smith, and Kim Addonizio, too. I want to be smacked in the gut by a poem and theirs do that to me.
I’m currently enthralled with Keetje Kuipers’ first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, Ada Limón’s latest book, Sharks in the Rivers, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s latest book, Lucky Fish. I love their gorgeous, lush use of language and their enormous, deeply feeling hearts. I read almost a book a day of poetry, so it’s a bit much to list here, but in the last five days I’ve read The Requited Distance by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, World’s Tallest Disaster by Cate Marvin, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope by Paisley Rekdal, Ghost Letters by Richard McCann, Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen, and re-read Carpathia by Cecilia Woloch for an interview I’m doing with her for my blog (http://memali.posterous.com).
CC: In “Stuck in Traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway at Sunset,” you describe sights that might drop you to your knees. I’ve seen some of your underwater photographs and must say they come close to doing that for me. Can you talk a bit about your photography, and where we can see some of those pictures? How does photography influence your writing?
MEM: Thank you, Charlie, I appreciate hearing that! I’ve got two recent underwater photo albums up at Phanfare: http://memali.phanfare.com/
I’ve been shooting underwater for several years but took an underwater photo course in Turks and Caicos last summer that really moved my work forward. The album from that trip is on Flickr: http://bit.ly/dZ7lAs
|Cryptic Teardrop Crab at Night, Photo by Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Used with Permission|
I love the oceanic world. It’s so complex and utterly different from our land-based world (though we influence it, unfortunately rarely for the better). I feel privileged to be able to visit and document the amazing creatures down there. I don’t see a direct link between my photography and writing yet, except perhaps in this impulse to share what I see, whether through image or word, in the hopes to perhaps move another person to pause and feel.
At the moment, a more direct link between word and image is happening with the poem trailers I’ve been making in iMovie and posting to YouTube. There are four there (search for “Steady, My Gaze” and they should come up). I’ve been having a great time choosing images and music for my poems, and it’s made me think about them in a different way. I imagine at some point I’ll end up writing a poem because of an image or piece of music I think would work well with it for a trailer or short film, though I haven’t tried that yet.
CC: Toni Morrison explores the complexities of identity and sexual abuse in The Bluest Eye, and I have to believe you’ve read this book. It became particularly evident to me in the reading of “Quinceañera.” I’m also thinking of the title poem, “Steady, My Gaze” which alludes to the woundings of abuse. Can you reflect on this a bit?
MEM: Yes, I’ve read this book, though it was—ahem—a loooooong time ago in college Women share certain experiences across racial and cultural lines, including ways they are perceived and treated by men (not all men) and I tried to get some of those into these poems. “Newly Wed” runs along those lines, as does “Animal-Subliminal.” I experienced the projections white North American women experience when they travel to other parts of the world (largely due to Hollywood films), in my teens while visiting family in Venezuela, when the boys there were trying out ways to be men, largely modeled on the machismo of their fathers and grandfathers, and it wasn’t the best of situations for me.
“Steady, My Gaze” is an ekphrastic poem in the voice of Frida Kahlo, inspired by her painting, “The Little Deer,” in which her face appears on the body of a deer pierced by nine arrows. I resonate with that image, in terms of how I often experience the world coming at me. And the steadiness of her gaze within that wounding in that painting contributed the title.
CC: There’s a kinship I feel with you given that we’ve both worked in the helping profession. Have you ever read How Can I Help by Ram Dass? I think this book is so sympatico. I could identify with your poem “The Helping Profession”, the weariness that comes with all that need showing up in your office. I think of a line I wrote about Disney's Shrek who’s “green with intrusion” and all he wants to do is hang out in his swamp, but he’s compelled to help. Yet it’s hard not to take the aches of others inside as you point out in “Volunteering with Rescue Workers at the Javits Center.” How might writing be an antidote to this kind of weariness?
MEM: Yes, we read that book in our clinical counseling classes in Chinese Medicine school. It’s such a great book, so useful for anyone drawn to helping/healing work. I think writing is a great antidote to the weariness that can arise from working with others’ suffering. It’s important not to take it on, to find some way to release it between sessions or at the end of the day. Writing (even writing chart notes) can be a way to get it out.
That said, working with others as a massage therapist and acupuncturist for thirteen years was one of the greatest privileges of my life. Those were some of the times when I felt most alive and awake to the raw, gorgeous messiness of being human.
I find journal writing to be an essential way to process things that happen on a day-to-day basis, though I’m no longer in private practice. But I find journaling and writing poetry don’t often happen together for me. Sometimes dumping in a journal can empty me out enough that I can get to the writing of a poem, but they often end up happening at different times.
CC: I’d like to conclude by asking you about the lyrical insights in “The Diver”, namely the perfect thing in life and the paradox of kissing. Maybe you’ll write a collection of poems about diving. Anyway, talk about longing, and teeth.
MEM: Though I’ve never had any success before in corralling my poems toward any kind of coherent project, I’m hoping my next project will be a collection of diving and ocean-related poems combined with underwater photos (hear that, Muse, please?).
There’s a line in that poem, “Maybe the only perfect thing in life is longing.” Really, doesn’t longing get us out of bed in the morning? And what would life be like without sharp teeth on the other side of those kissable lips, reminding us to not to get too complacent, not to go to sleep?
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Jim Tilley and I first met five years ago at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival where he studied with Stephen Dunn, one of my favorite contemporary poets, and then again the following summer at the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Writers Seminar in Stephen Dobyns workshop, a poet who has this to say about Jim’s first book of poems, In Confidence (Red Hen Press, 2011):
...the poems are about trying to maintain “this fragile equilibrium” like a tightrope walker tip-toeing about a lion’s den. One sees the quiet elegance is all that keeps one from shouting, “Watch out!”
Here’s his bio from his website:
Jim Tilley's poems have been published in various literary journals and magazines, among which are Southwest Review, Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Sycamore Review, Tar River Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, Florida Review and New Delta Review. He has won the Sycamore Review's Wabash Prize for Poetry, the New England Poetry Club's Firman Houghton Award, and the Editors' Choice Award from Rhino. Four of his poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work also appears in the college textbook anthology "Literature to Go" (Bedford/St. Martin's), edited by Michael Meyer.
Jim has studied poetry in workshops with several nationally acclaimed poets, including Brigit Kelly and David Rivard at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference; Alan Shapiro and Mark Strand at the Sewanee Writers' Conference; David Wojahn, Gerald Stern, Claudia Emerson, and Stephen Dunn at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival; Tony Hoagland at a Poets House workshop; and Stephen Dobyns at the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Writers' Program.
Jim earned a first-class honors degree in Physics from McGill University and a doctorate in Physics from Harvard University. He retired in 2001 after a 25-year career in insurance and investment banking. He has won numerous prizes for his papers in actuarial science, finance, and investments, and in 2008 received a Founder's Award from the International Insurance Society for his pioneering work in asset-liability management.
Tilley’s poems explore the unanswerable with precision and elegance, and by this exploration he writes the reader’s life. He takes us in his confidence, here in this e-mail exchange, to share a bit about his poetry, among other very interesting things.
CC: I love how Billy Collins in describing your book sees domestic relations as complex and dark matter as a more solvable problem. Your poems definitely explore this paradox. I guess physics was too easy for you so you decided to take up poetry, and dabble a bit in my field. Seriously, how did you go from physics, to Wall Street, to poetry, and now to being a closeted shrink, and a pretty good one at that?
JT: No, physics was too hard, so I kept trying other things! Well, that’s sort of true and not at the same time. In 1975 when I earned my doctorate in Physics, jobs as a physicist were hard to come by, especially in academia, where one would spend six years or more as a post-doc before securing a junior faculty position. I wasn’t excited by that prospect. Because Sun Life of Canada had provided a scholarship for my freshman year as an undergraduate, I thought I’d approach them about becoming an actuary, a way to leverage my mathematical skills to gain entry into the world of business. They gave me a job, and after hopping to John Hancock and then Equitable, I discovered, mostly through the urging of my ex-wife, that Wall Street would be more stimulating. She called it a “high-octane atmosphere” and she was right, not surprisingly, having worked there herself. I stayed at Morgan Stanley for more than 17 years before retiring, and even then stayed on as an advisory director for another seven years. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but while earning a living, it was research papers in actuarial science, finance, and investments. After retiring, poetry seemed like the best creative writing endeavor for me, because I like to have the satisfaction of “finishing” something fairly quickly. The thought of laboring over a memoir or novel for years was frightening. About being a closeted shrink, I think everybody who cares about people is to some extent a shrink.
CC: I love the epigraph by Whitman: “This hour I tell things in confidence,/I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” Not everyone likes poetry, sad to say, but for those who do, Whitman, and now you too, can speak in confidence. To do so, you have to be a good listener. Tell me what the title of your book means to you and how it defines the arc of the collection, and maybe even your aesthetic as a writer.
JT: It wouldn’t be fair to let readers think that the book’s epigraph was my idea. Our good friend and poet, Jim Scruton, suggested it to me, and I bought it immediately. The title of the book, together with its cover, conceived and painted by another good friend, suggests one person taking another into his or her confidence. That’s the primary meaning I intended for the title. But the title is also “aspirational”—that after working at the craft of poetry for ten years, I may have gained a measure of confidence that I can write good poems from time to time. As to arc, I’d simply say that I think poems should be written with a reader in mind and that the process of writing then becomes taking the reader into the writer’s confidence—it’s a productive model.
CC: I’d describe you as a narrative poet. What inspires you as a story-teller? Who would you point to as major influences?
JT: Yes, I think you’re right. I hope to achieve lyric moments in my poetry and the award from the New England Poetry Club was for best lyric poem, but the most identifiable feature of my work is its narrative thread. Don’t we all love stories, right from the moment that our parents first read to us? Among contemporary poets, I started off on a diet of Billy Collins and Stephen Dunn. I would say that Carl Dennis, Philip Levine, Bob Hicok, Galway Kinnell, and Albert Goldbarth have also been strong influences.
CC: With that in mind, who and what are you currently reading?
JT: A mix of newly discovered poets and old favorites. I’m particularly enjoying Jim Harrison’s book, In Search of Small Gods, and James Richardson’s By the Numbers.
CC: Your poems luxuriate in their language and I think diction is a definite strength for you, and by my reading of "Vocabulary Test," something you’ve passed on to your sons. How do your poems compassionate the lexicon and what might that portend? Give us some of the paraphernalia in your bag of writerly tricks. But not too much. We don’t want you to give away your secrets even though you are taking us into your confidence.
JT: I’m unaware of any tricks or secrets. I think that what comes out on the page reflects how one feels about language. I’ve always enjoyed words and word play. How words and phrases sound matters to me. The rhymes that worm their way into some of my poems are more accidental than planned, subconscious more than conscious. When I think a poem is getting somewhere, I’ll walk around our library reading it aloud to the walls. That’s often when I find that other words want to come out, better words than the ones I’ve first used.
CC: The father-son theme in the collection is strong, as is the husband-wife motif. Turns out that domestic life ain’t that tame, eh? And while you’re at it, talk about what being Canadian means to your stance as a writer living in the US.
JT: The last part first. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1971 when I came down to Cambridge for grad school. I didn’t become a U.S. citizen until 2001, but I’ve pretty much considered myself American for a long time. Now to the father-son and husband-wife themes that several of my poems wrestle with. Relationships are work, aren’t they? For everyone, but especially for those of us who have a tendency to be self-centered. And hard work when it comes to relationships between two strong personalities. There are clash points. I think it’s important to play shrink with oneself, to understand why we do certain things and feel certain ways. Without doing that, there’s little ability to work productively at relationships, especially the ones we most want to succeed. For me, this struggle to make sense of what happens between people finds its way into poems.
CC: One of the things I envy most about you is your hammock. One of my favorite poems in your book, “Half-Finished Bridge,” seems to have been imagined there. Talk about the hammock and its importance to your work. To me, it makes me think of Whitman’s "Song of Myself": I loaf and invite my soul,/I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Oh, and talk about that half-finished bridge, which seems to be about your own father, not to mention something more existential.
JT: Why do your questions always seem to have multiple parts? Okay, the hammock. I was actually thinking of calling the book, “The Hammock Poems.” And I had to decide whether to juxtapose various hammock poems or separate them. There are two key “literal” hammocks in my life—one on the terrace at the back of our principal residence that looks out over miles of hills, and one strung between two oaks in the backyard of my wife’s place in Cape Cod. I often go to a hammock to read. Reading often spurs a new poem; digesting another writer’s words seems to open the flow of mine. “Half-Finished Bridge” was written in the hammock at home on a cool fall day that was getting colder quickly. My journal was handy, as it always is when I’m lying in a hammock. I was writing with a Poets House pencil that had Bashō’s haiku, first snow falling on the half-finished bridge, inscribed on it and I was thinking about my aging father and all the things he feels are unfinished in his life, particularly his academic oeuvre. And I was thinking about the futility of roads to nowhere, roads that could end at a half-finished bridge—wars we shouldn’t start and marriages we can’t finish. But I wanted to end the poem on a more hopeful note and get back inside the house before I froze in the hammock as the season’s first snow was beginning to fall. So I wrote about erecting the rest of the trestle and walking together with my father to the other side.
CC: Another prominent theme is death, which makes me think of Dobyns’ poem in Pallbearer’s Envying the One Who Rides, “Oh, Immobility, Death’s Vast Associate.” This is an implied, vast, open-ended question, so answer it at will, or not at all.
JT: A vast, open-ended question calls for a rather shorter answer, don’t you think? I suppose you could say that death is one of those “big questions” to which I refer in several poems in the collection. As my wife keeps pointing out to me—correctly—I’m not comfortable with death, not so much that I’m afraid of dying, but uncomfortable with separations, transitions, and the discontinuity that comes with endings. I seem uncomfortable even exploring this subject. Regarding the matter of death, I’ve been lucky—my parents are still living, my children are healthy, and few close friends have died. The next ten years won’t be the same. You can be sure that I’ll be writing much more about death.
CC: The other thing I learn from a close reading of your poems, is the power of denotative and connotative language. Take “Empty Casings” for example. There’s so much that comes out of your meditation on empty shell casings, worthless to a police officer, but under your steady gaze, explode on the page. What did you learn about humanity in that archaeological dig?
JT: You’re spot on about the power of language for me. “Empty Casings” is a good example. The poem was spawned by a dinner that my wife and I had with a close friend of mine, now ours, from my work days. He was in the process of getting divorced and talked not only about the usual squabbles and battles in a divorce but how difficult he was finding it to extract his family heirlooms, such as the brass and copper menorah his father had caused German POWs to make from empty shell casings during World War II. To me that was a poem. When I got home, I googled “menorah shell casings” or something like that and up popped the story about the children of the Bais Chabad synagogue in Santa Monica making menorahs from their police department’s empty shell casings. The poem went through many iterations as I played with the metaphors of “squeezing oil from olives,” “so much light from so little oil,” “the heritage wrought by turning weapons into ploughshares,” and “empty casings.” A metaphor is all about the denotative and connotative, isn’t it?
CC: I remember your elegant explanation of fractals, drawn out on a napkin I might add. I still have that in my journal but can’t figure out what the hell it means. I’ll need another tutorial. Anyway, if my math teachers had been poets too, I’d have learned a great deal more in my impressionable years. Since you’re such a math geek, and I mean that affectionately, with a modest amount of envy, talk about the ways math shows up in your poems. Talk specifically about “In Spring, Mathematics Are Yellow.”
JT: It’s impossible for me to keep mathematics out of my poems because it’s always running through my brain. It’s one of the ways I gaze at the world. I do number puzzles more than I do crosswords these days. “In Spring, Mathematics Are Yellow” is a poem about a speaker in a funk about his life. He’s standing outside his house on an early spring day when everything is yellow. He looks at all those yellow objects in a different way, and from that experience begins to accept his malaise. The speaker derives a certain comfort from seeing daffodils as hexagons, from admiring the fractal nature of forsythia bushes, from considering the number of petals on each pansy he’s potted for his wife, and from understanding that he will never be able to defeat the dandelions in the lawn of his life because all their fluff will tunnel into next year’s plans whether he likes it or not.
CC: I’d say you’ve found a good balance between the left and right hemispheres of your brain. I personally despise the false dichotomy between art and science. I love the alleged quote by Churchill, more for the sentiment than its accuracy: During the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill’s response: “Then what are we fighting for?” Talk about the resonances you see between art and science, and how it informs your fascination with elegance.
JT: This question is hard. I’d have to say that I’m more left-brained than right-brained. That’s why my poems are more narrative than lyric, I think. But I love art, especially modern art. And I love architecture and photography and gardens and walks in the woods. I tend to see the mathematics and science in things. Certainly I wonder about why things are the way they are and why certain things happen and others don’t. That’s pretty much left-brained. But such wondering puts me into a state of awe and unlocks the right brain. I have enjoyed the happy accidents that come when those two views mesh, sort of like a stereoscopic image, don’t you think?
CC: We both share a passion for golf, and like poetry, it’s a game impossible to master. It always wins. Yet writing about golf has always been hard for me. Who do you think does it well without sounding overly pretentious or sentimental. I think you do a pretty good job in “The Ivy and the Brick,” but I know that poem was hard for you to write. Why do you think it’s hard to write that type of poem?
JT: I share a passion with you for wanting to play golf better. I am completely smitten by my good shots, holes, rounds that keep bringing me back despite my considerable inabilities at the game. I think it’s a personality trait that drives me to try to do better at what I enjoy doing. Golf and poetry both fit that. It’s hard to find poetry in the way I play golf. That should be less difficult for you—your swing is closer to a thing of beauty. Why is it so hard to write a golf poem? Because the subject is boring to most people unless it becomes a way to unlock something else that isn’t. That’s what I tried to have happen in “The Ivy and the Brick,” another poem that went through many incarnations before it finally split into the poem of that title and its companion, “The Clay and the Fire.”
CC: Killing-time and killing time in “Something to Celebrate” is a haunting pun, another hard thing to pull off well in a poem. Talk about how this notion haunts you, not the pun per se, but the idea behind this particular pun.
JT: Again, the pun happened by accident. It wasn’t there in the first several versions of the poem, but occurred while I was reading a draft aloud in our library. I realized it would be a hard thing to pull off without sounding corny. I’m not sure I succeeded, but decided to go with it anyway. The early versions of “Something to Celebrate” were much longer, more prosaic. I finally decided that less is better, that I’d overworked the metaphor of “things hanging by a thread.” What haunted me was the violence wrought by the dictator and then the violence in his death by what amounted to a lynch mob. In the end, I felt I could do the event more “justice” by chopping a 30-line poem down to its essence in a syllabic sonnet.
CC: Continuing on with this theme, and given all the chaos in the Middle East right now, your poem “One Would Hope” is as relevant as ever. Talk about the making of this heart-wrenching poem. If only we’d hear each other’s song. I mean really hear. It makes me think of a poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, where he speaks about the foolishness of names, meaning we’re all singing the same song, so why all this war? It makes me think too of Gregory Orr’s notion of how we’re all adding to the song that is poetry, his notion of quest. Do you remember that?
JT: Yes, I remember the craft talk by Gregory Orr in which he discussed his notion of “quest.” There is so much war in the world around us. With technology the world is much smaller now than it used to be and other people’s problems come closer to being ours than they used to. Still, I feel one can’t write about the details of war credibly without having lived them oneself. I haven’t and wouldn’t presume to try to write a “war poem” from that perspective. So, when I venture into that highly charged territory (“After Wine,” “Folding,” “Dislocation,” “Boys,” and “One Would Hope”), I try to use some closer-to-home device to enter the topic and then maintain an appropriate distance. In “One Would Hope,” the device is music, something we all share, and “hearing each other’s song” was the point I surprised myself in the writing of the poem. It stuck.
CC: Finally, I want to congratulate you on “The Art of Patience,” and its selection as the Wabash Prize in Sycamore Review. How the hell did you write that tour de force? Yes, I’m jealous.
JT: “On the Art of Patience” arose from seven failed poems, much shorter poems that never lived up to the promise I had hoped for, indeed expected of them at the time of their writing. Those constituent poems had been written over the course of a year and each one had been shelved digitally (I never throw away any of my scribblings). I had been reading a lot of Al Goldbarth. His pieces tend to be long, and most offer up several seemingly disparate situations, scenes, images that he successfully weaves together. I thought I might try that with the collection of failed poems, all under the umbrella of being stuck interminably on hold while trying to place an order. I reread each, then set them aside and sat down with my journal—at my desk, not my hammock! The trick, of course, was to make smooth transitions between the unrelated topics. An hour and a half later, “On the Art of Patience” was born, more or less as it appears in my book. It was one of those lucky, inspired moments that occurs too infrequently.
CC: And lucky for us too. Thanks for the interview.
JT: You're welcome. Thank you.