“My creativity is so inherently connected to discovery.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
KA: Do you have any questions for me before we get rolling?
AM: I guess not. Just congratulations on all the recent hoo-ha awesomeness.
You’re very kind. It’s been a weird little moment.
It’s so rad!
Yeah, it’s cool. It’s this thing where, you're doing the same stuff you were always doing, but one day people notice. You’re doing it for so long and it’s like nothing, nothing, nothing, and then all of a sudden people are kind of tuned into it.
When I was working on my second book I remember getting this feeling and thinking, "Oh, even though I’m not hugely known or anything I know that there are people out there who will be excited to read whatever I’m putting in a book." And it changes how you come at your work, you're like, "Uh, how do I write this? How do I shape this? How do I stay true to what it is that I’m trying to do when I know there is someone who is going to read this?"
Richard Howard has this quote where he says “being a successful poet is a lot like being a successful mushroom.” I’ve always really loved that. It seems exactly right to me. I’m sure there are mushroom nerds out there who get really excited when they see a morel, but most people aren’t tuned into that. I’m stretching this metaphor really thin, but I feel like that has certainly happened for you. You've become a really beloved mushroom.
Haha. Well, it’s definitely a nice thing. It's something I’m happy about.
It’s exactly what you said—as a book of images and prose poems, The Pocketknife Bible is very non-traditional, but people were really excited to read it.
Yeah. At times that can be very constrictive, or feel like you’re chilling in a Petri dish under a microscope, but in another fashion it’s completely freeing and opening. I'm not saying that people will just flock to the work no matter what I do, but you are able to shake off any yokes you might not have even realized were around your neck. You are sort of like "Oh. Well there are folks interested in what I’m doing here. They're going to show up to eat just because they are curious about the meal that’s been prepared. Alright, let’s see what I got in the cupboards."
Yeah. Because so much of your work seems driven by an engine that runs on wonder and curiosity, it seems like it'd be easier for you than it might be for a different writer to avoid the stagnation that might come with knowing that what you put out will be checked out.
Yeah. I definitely have struggled over the years with feeling like I’ve got to constantly reinvent the wheel. When I engage with my work there’s this feeling that all of this is just kind of trying to define and describe the exact same thing. On one level, that’s completely fine. That’s probably something very natural and real for a lot of artists—they are describing their life. They are describing whatever they are engaged with in the universe. So if there are things I’m continuously writing about and exploring, then those are things that I’m either still very much interested in digging deeper into or that I haven’t yet fully discovered what it is about those things I’m seeking to discover. I’m fine with continuously writing about childhood. I’m fine with that, but there’s definitely a stagnation. Like, I’ve been digging in this part of the yard forever. I’ve dug down ten feet and I’m just moving dirt around inside of this ten by ten by ten foot hole.
That’s a really great way to say that.
And I’m not quite sure how to widen the hole or how to ultimately dig deeper into the next level of earth. It's about trying to find ways to be okay when you don’t necessarily feel like there’s tangible moves being made. It's also learning how to go about the unearthing of something that feels in the same yard, but is still a different part of the ground that you haven’t mulled over. You start beating yourself up like, "Ah! Every poem I write is exactly the same. How do I make this different for myself and for others?"
I love that metaphor. I think that’s the perfect way to describe that very real phenomenon. I’ve not been doing this for nearly as long as you, nor do I have the body of work you do, but I come against that. I come against that idea of recognizing my own algorithms or, as you say, digging the same dirt. At the risk of stretching your metaphor too far, I think that because you work in different mediums you have the ability to switch tools. When you get to ten feet you can say, "This shovel isn’t working anymore. Maybe I should switch to my pickaxe." The Pocketknife Bible seems like an instance of that switching.
Yeah, and particularly with that one because—originally the book was intended to be very different than what it was. Originally it was just going to be like thirty poems with thirty pictures, but some of the poems didn't textually fit what the shape of the book was turning out to be, so I turned them into illustrations. So, there was definitely this element of "Alright, let me switch gears. Let me take these same ideas and see what it’s like if they work from a visual angle." Separate from The Pocketknife Bible, there are definitely instances where ideas that have presented themselves in my mind as a picture, or a collection of words, or a collection of sounds, end up taking shape in a different form or fashion. When I'm writing a poem, I sometimes have to get out of my head in this room of words and just doodle or pluck around with music. I have to do something that moves my brain in a different way, but still allows for that release, you know?
Yeah, totally. You're still trying to communicate experience or communicate some sort of emotional truth, and so the end result is the same sort of register of emotional responses, but you have a much wider, deeper tool chest than the average poet.
Absolutely, I hear you.
I think that’s really interesting. It’s not like you’re allowed to get away with writing a worse poem because you can also draw a picture for it. I love every word of that book. There are images in there that would be the stand out image in any poem by anyone in the canon. There are just startling, staggering images, like "12 kings are pulling out their wings. / I run through the yard to catch the feathers."
Well, thank you.
You’ve said, “I liken my creative process to running down a hill. The more I run the more my speed is taken out of my control. The more I write, the more I can write.” That just strikes me as true to my experience too and I wonder if you might elaborate on that.
For the most part, that’s the biggest nugget of work ethic for me. Definitely when I was younger, with regard to writing, my pistons would start firing from anything and everything. I would just have words coming in while walking around and then I would scribble them down. I think a lot of writers are very much like that. You are just very directly inspired by direct and tangible things, and as I progressed with my creativity and my work, a lot of it became rooted in just that, being work. And finding different ways to stay with it and tap into it rather than just waiting for something to hit. I’ve definitely found that when I’m in a routine of work, it allows me to keep going further and further. Particularly if I’ve arrived at a place where I’m like definitely working on something. Then I have a reason to show up and I’ve got to try to make my way to the finish of this thing. I’ve got to get to the bottom of this mountain. The work that I’m writing, it’s opening doors. So, it’s like you walk in a room and there are three other doors. I could be like, "Ah, I see what’s in this room, I guess I’ll go back in the room I just came from and have a cup of tea," but my creativity is so inherently connected to discovery that if I walk into a room where there are multiple doors, I want to run into each of them and see what’s on the other side. And then there are more doors. And more doors. I wish there was a hobbit joke I could make.
But doing that is a thing that excites me. And so that makes me want to build more and go further. In the other forms of art that I involve myself with there’s definitely a connection with that as well. I don’t draw, or paint, or make visual art as much as I used to and a big part of that is simply that it’s not as present in my life as writing poems has been for the last ten years. Case in point, when I was working on The Pocketknife Bible one of the biggest hurdles was simply trying to find my way into creating work and building up the steam that I needed to get to where I wanted to get to. With writing poems, even if I’m not in the headspace of something specific, I know that my job is to get out of my house, go sit at a coffee shop, and open my computer. It becomes much easier to do those things when I have a poem that I'm intrigued about.
Totally, that makes total and complete sense to me. And I love hearing you talk about the way that it’s a process of discovery, and walking through the rooms, and finding the doors, and then you get to go through those doors. It reminded me of that Frost quote, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
The thing I privilege in poetry above just about anything else is surprise, which I don’t think is that unique. I want to be surprised by language. I want to have a new encounter with language and I don’t want to hear some rearranged version of the same story or the same sort of clichéd or overwrought language that I’ve heard a million times, used in day-to-day speech.
In your work, that process of discovery and of, I’ll use the word again, wonder, is so on the forefront of things. “I know the fastest animal is a bird. / And that the most ferocious animal is small like me. / And that the biggest animal that ever was is not a dinosaur. / That 28.8888889 of me can fit inside a blue whale's heart.” It’s just this constant open-eyed bewilderment at the world that is such a load-bearing element of your poems. I don’t want to say that that’s uncommon in poetry, but I feel like it’s often cloaked in more irony? Or more self-effacement?
I don’t know, irony is such a weird thing to me. Irony is awesome. It's super rad, but it’s also like what David Foster Wallace I think says about irony—something about how in this day and age irony is the opposite of vulnerability. It’s really easy to just put a distance between one's self and what is real and what is an observation. Whether you are observing something or picking it up in your hand and smelling it. There are a lot of poems and poets over the last x-amount of years that I think the work, even if its not necessarily written from an ironic perspective, there’s a tonality of irony in its foundation. I appreciate those poems and there’s plenty of poems that I love, but I think it’s also paved the way for it to just sort of be easy. I’m not saying that my work is super difficult and challenging to create and write or anything like that, but we live in a world where it’s "easy" to write a poem. All I have to do is write some shit and call it a poem. One can do that or one can try to keep breaking open the ribs to really see what’s inside and see what comes about. I don’t feel like I get to the heart of what I’m trying to get to all the time, but I keep trying to. Trying to, even in the spaces in some of my writing where I’m coming at it from an ironic perspective or with a strange humorous juxtaposition between its elements, I’m still trying to balance that out by weaving in things that are of substance.
I think that to write, to build these little structures that serve to house a living piece of wonder, I think that’s the highest calling of a poet. I count you among the great living architects in this regard. Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil leap to mind as other poets who do that. You read a poet like Frank O’Hara, who I love too, but who will say a really sincere vulnerable line, but then will follow it with a kind of, “I didn’t really mean that.” It’s almost like you can’t get away with saying something sincere without undercutting it. Or they won’t believe that you’re an intelligent person unless you can acknowledge that what you just said was corny. Does that make sense?
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. I think that’s a fun thing to engage with. If I’m engaging with that—and this is the same thing whether it’s something from me or something from another writer—ultimately I want to be brought somewhere. If I’ve been brought somewhere that is on a note of "Hey guess what? Every step of this journey I took you on actually does not even exist. Where you’re standing is not substantial at all." I'm kind of like, "Well then this was a shitty poem." Even if I’m going back and forth between this place of corny sentimentality and acknowledging the corniness of that sentimentality, if I end up in a room of corny sentimentality, then I’m happy. The writer has brought me to something that they thought was important enough for me to hold, and smell, and investigate. If the poem arrived at a place of substance, I’m completely fine with there being a traveling back and forth between that which is of substance and that which is of irony.
That reminds me of that old T.V. and movie trope where ridiculous stuff happens and then at the end they cut away and you realize the person was dreaming all along and you think, "Oh, well that was kind of a cop-out."
What’s the point of any of this? Why did I go through this entire experience if it’s not even real? There are things like that that I think are able to be intriguing enough. I think of The Usual Suspects, where you go through this whole journey of this movie and you do arrive at this place and realize everything you just watched did not exist. It did not happen. On one level it’s like, "Oh shit," but there’s enough things in that that are intriguing enough, that still leave you with a sense of mystery where you are like, "Well what did happen?" There are definitely ways to do it without thinking you’re shitting on the agreement that you are stepping into. I do think that’s a thing. As an artist you are making an agreement with your audience about something. There are certain archetypes, and tropes, and things that exist within bodies of work in order to kind of give the reader, or the viewer, or whatever, little sign posts so that they are not lost. So they have an idea of which direction they are heading even though they don’t exactly know what is waiting for them there. And so as soon as you break that contract, it becomes a false piece of art to me. And it's very disappointing.
Yeah. I think you say that beautifully. If you’re breaking that contract, you better have a Keyser Söze level twist. You better have a really good reason.
It better be a really good reason, exactly.
Do you want to talk a little bit about what you are working on now? What’s in the pipes?
Sure. Nothing is solid-solid. Ever since The Pocketknife Bible came out I’ve been trying to—it was such a strange, difficult beast to get out of me, for a lot of reasons. I haven’t really found what it is I’m specifically working on right now. There are a lot of different things that are not my usual foray. Most of this past year I’ve been working on developing some children’s picture books and there’s a novel that’s been sitting in me for probably eight or nine years.
That’s awesome, I didn’t know about that.
I’ve definitely been working on it more over the last year than I have in previous years, but it still doesn’t feel like enough to be able to say, "Yeah, I’m working on writing this novel." But that’s what's been sitting with me these days, these picture books and this weird novel thing.
That’s awesome! So they are just kind of marinating. A novel is weird too because as a poet you can sit down and then six hours later you have a thing that is pretty—maybe it's not done, but you can certainly see what it’s going to be. You know what I mean?
Exactly! That’s what I always say I love about a poem. It’s very much like the three doors in the room analogy that I mentioned, where I make something and it’s made. Then I get to kind of tweak it, and explore it, and follow it down in different directions. With a poem, I get the whole thing out and then I get to kind of shape it. So this process of trying to get a whole novel out before I shape and tweak it is kind of like pulling out and unraveling my intestines for years as opposed to just like, "Oh, I just had to do that for an hour and now I get to fuck around with it."
That’s a great way to describe it. I feel like I would be a terrible novelist for exactly the reasons you just mentioned. I’m really deeply into the sort of instant gratification that poems provide.
That’s the wonder of poem. What are you working on right now?
That’s a very sweet question. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that in one of these talks. I sort of treated the month like a little residency. I’m starting to think about a second book. I have the shapes of poems. The poems that seem like they are going to be the load-bearing tone-setters are appearing to me. I’m trying not to think about it too much. I’m trying to just accumulate the poem lumber and then try to build something with it whenever it seems right.
That’s beautiful. And you’re in Florida, is that right?
Yeah, I live in Tallahassee. I’m finishing my coursework for a PhD in Creative Writing and I’ll be teaching at Purdue next year.
I’m excited. And you’re in Portland for the foreseeable future, right?
Yeah, when I moved back here it was one of those things where if something comes up that I really want to do, I have the freedom to follow those opportunities, but it’s also nice to have Portland be the home base. There’s nothing pulling me away from it right now. I’m here until whenever.
Interview Posted: June 5, 2017
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