“No one is telling me to work this hard.”


Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar

I’ve read that you write exactly four poems a year, every year.

That is actually true. I have pretty much produced at that pace since probably about 1996.


When I was a graduate student, I had to write poems so I produced a lot, and what I found is that, by the end of the year, I usually had four poems I felt were actually done. And that most of the other stuff that I wrote, I was writing because I had to write it. I had to turn in a poem for workshop, or I had to get stuff done for my thesis.

When I went to medical school, I panicked at first because I thought, “I’m never going to get any poems done.” Essentially what happened was that I found, at the end of the year, I had four poems. The only difference was that I didn’t write tons and tons of drafts and dump them to get the four poems. So I don’t know why that is; I think that’s just my rate of production. I have lots of friends who write two or four poems a month, and I always feel immensely jealous.


It’s funny. When I went to MacDowell years ago, I really didn’t do anything except write, and I think I ended up with fourteen poems in the two weeks I was there.

So three-and-a-half years’ worth.


What a gift that was! For you and for us. That’s crazy. Maybe your not having a university teaching load helps ease the burden of that publish-or-perish mentality.

That’s definitely true. Not being formally in the academy, I don’t have any of the pressures of that. It can be painful sometimes to talk to some of my friends who teach. They’re under so much pressure to do the service requirements and publish another book and supervise this many theses. Many years ago, I used to look at some of my friends teaching and feel jealousy. But I have to be honest, as the years have passed, I don’t feel that very much anymore because teaching is a lot of work. It has to be incredibly hard to balance the demands of the academy and writing one’s own work.

Absolutely. And I think the concerns of a poet in that environment can start to become extra-poetic. I think for many people, anxieties that have nothing to do with the poems themselves, but have everything to do with the world of poetry, with poetry-as-profession, can begin to pollute the poems.

I’m not too sure about that. I doubt many of my friends who teach would actually admit that if it were true. But I can certainly imagine how that could be possible. One of the good things about working completely outside of poetry is that I have a different amount of freedom than my friends who teach poetry writing full-time.


I never have to worry that my students are going to look at me and think I’m a fraud because I haven’t published something recently. Maybe some of my students at Warren Wilson think that of me, but I don’t think so. I think we live in a very odd time in that most people going through graduate writing programs are given the impression that in order to have a full life as a poet, they need to go on to become teachers.

That was certainly the case when I was in graduate school, but I think it’s gotten even worse. I just find that very odd because if you look at poet’s biographies over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, up until the current time period very few of them were teachers.

Right, right.

I’m not sure why it seems so engrained now, this idea of becoming a teacher. Being a teacher is hard. It’s difficult work. Not everyone is cut out for it. The idea that because you are able to write poetry you are also, by virtue of that, automatically able to teach poetry is really odd to me. I don’t really see that in the other arts as much, but I definitely see that in the literary arts.

That’s really interesting. Don’t the students at Warren Wilson have to learn a trade, too?

The undergraduate students at Warren Wilson all have to do work on the campus as part of their studies. But that does not carry over into the graduate program where the MFA students are only on campus for ten days twice a year.   That said, the vast majority of the students in the graduate program at Warren Wilson have jobs and have lives and have families, and they don’t really leave those things behind to get an MFA. And in some ways, they leave graduate school with a very strange and different set of skills than a lot of people that do residential programs. For two and a half years or two years or however many years, many students in residential MFA programs haven’t had to incorporate writing into the lives they were already living. So many of the students I meet coming out of these MFA programs have the same sad tale of, “Now I have to work, and I don’t have time to read, and I don’t have time to write,” and I always look at them and think, “Are you crazy? You have tons of time, you just don’t know how to use your time.” I think someone that goes to a low-residency program, especially one like Warren Wilson, has to learn very quickly how to use their time because they do not leave their every day lives to study for the degree, and it serves them well when they leave the program — they keep writing, they publish books. For a program that’s forty years old, the Warren Wilson alumni bibliography is outrageous. Huge.

I agree. I think most of the people reading this will know that you are a doctor—an oncologist, right?

That is true. I am a radiation oncologist. I treat cancer patients using radiation therapy.

So you’re working this job that’s intensely intellectually and emotionally demanding, and then you're able to still put your psychic and temporal resources into poetry. I think there’s something deeply admirable about that.

I have to make time for poetry. That’s the major thing. I get up at five so that I have an hour to read.   I have an hour to work on a draft of something. I have that hour to get things done that I know I can’t get done during the rest of the day, because for the vast majority of the day I’m a physician. So from about 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., that’s what I am. I don’t have any real relation to poetic things during that time.

I love poetry, so I make time for it. Also I get kind of prickly and testy when I hear people say they don’t have time. I always crack up because I think: “Well, you have time to watch television and go to the movies, and go to the bar, and go to a café.” But I think that so many people have this idea that you have to have days and days or huge blocks of time to write, but that’s not necessarily true. Some of that is just your own training or lack of training.

Totally. I’m in a Ph.D. writing program right now, and the availability of temporal resources is a constant topic of conversation among everyone in my cohort. In order to juggle Divedapper and taking classes and teaching my own classes and then also doing my own writing, I have to wake up unnaturally early six days a week to write or revise for a few hours. It’s a plate-spinning act like what you’re talking about, but it comes down to the same thing, that poetry is the thing I love most in the world. You always find ways to make time for the things you love.

Yes. I always go back to a moment in my life where I thought poetry was over for me. I was finishing my MFA program and starting medical school in a few months, and I actually had a moment where I thought about not going to medical school and getting a Ph.D. in literature, instead. I thought maybe that would give me more time to write. In hindsight I laugh at this, because it’s not as if getting a Ph.D. magically grants you extra time.

I remember going to see one of my teachers, Donald Justice, and having a little mini breakdown. He just kind of sat there listening to me, and then he just quietly said that we always find time to do the things we want to do. And I’ve never forgotten that because I think that, you know, that is the essential thing. I constantly tell students of mine, MFA students of mine, that it’s not just about making time or putting aside time. It’s also about figuring out when you do things with the least amount of energy. I can read a lot in an hour early in the morning, but if you ask me to read the same amount of material at 8:00 at night, it would be virtually impossible. Likewise, there are things that I can do late at night, such as replying to correspondence, that I couldn’t do as well early in the morning.

I totally get that.

The thing everyone has to figure out is when in a day do you do things most easily? Because that is when you not only use your time, but also use it more effectively. It seems like magic, but it’s actually not magic; it’s just time management.

Absolutely. That’s well said. You mentioned studying with Donald Justice, and Torn was dedicated both to Justice and to the physicians who taught you medicine, right?

That is true, yes.

It’s a nice little bridge there. Did you maintain a relationship with Donald Justice after graduation?

I did, and the funniest thing is I would not have expected that when I was a graduate student.   But a big part of it was that while I was in graduate school I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where Don was also teaching, and I got to know him in a different way. There, I became somewhat friends with him. It’s very hard to become friends with your teachers because there’s always this element of they-are-my-teacher.


And it certainly was difficult with him because he was Donald Justice. I joked with someone once that you could never suggest a poem to him that he hadn’t already read. Sometimes he could quote from the poem or even recite it in its entirety. So, at first, I found him immensely intimidating. But after I graduated, he was still in Gainesville, then he retired and eventually moved back to Iowa City, and we started corresponding. I don’t think anyone sends post cards or letters today, but I have an entire box of post cards and letters from him. Nowadays people send an email to be deleted and lost.

That’s wonderful. I think that he is sort of one of those seminal figures in twentieth-century poetry. Just about everyone you talk to has a major meaningful Donald Justice story.

  Well, he taught for a very long time, and he taught several generations of American poets. It’s interesting, though. One of the things I pointed out to someone shortly after he passed away, which is quite a number of years now, is just how different those poets are. It's a testament to him as a teacher that they don’t all sound like Donald Justice. I don’t think you could say Ellen Bryant Voigt or Rita Dove or James Tate or Mark Strand or Charles Wright or Brenda Hillman or David St. John or Jorie Graham sound like they all had the same teacher. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t surprise me. I can distinctly remember Don saying, “You know you’re not a very good teacher if your students all sound like you.”

Totally, yeah.

So I think that he had a major presence in American poetry. Not just because of his poetry, but because he taught for so many years at the University of Florida, the University of Virginia, and Syracuse and, of course, Iowa.

I love those sort of trickle-down effects of teaching. All of his disciples and then their disciples. It’s one of those really fruitful branches of American poetry. I want to pivot to talking about the actual poems—maybe we can start with “The Bridge” from Torn, which is one of my favorite poems in any of your collections. I like the formal conceit, where the sentences are all kind of chained together by a word. And then just the poem, which is dedicated to your husband, and is a real celebration of joy. It reminds me a little of Ross Gay’s new book, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude.

Ross Gay’s book is a beautiful book.

It’s one of my favorite books of the year. It’s incredible. I think it can be very difficult to write earnest, compelling, formally interesting poetry from a place of joy. Your poem does it so well.

Well, I’m glad you like that poem. It’s actually one of my favorite poems.   I don’t really like or love a lot of my poems. It’s not that I dislike them, but I see them as the result of work, I see them as a result of ideas. But I do have a handful of my own poems that I love. They are not often poems that other people like. “The Bridge” is one of them.

I think part of it comes out of the fact of how it exists. I do have a predilection toward darker subjects; I always have. It goes all the way back to my earliest poems. I had a conversation with a friend who joked that he couldn’t believe that I loved the work of Frank O’Hara because he had never seen me be remotely playful in a poem. I have several poems that arise out of these odd challenges that friends, even if they don’t realize they are making a challenge, have made.

I really don’t play a lot in poems. I tend to be playful in conversation, but I’m not that playful in poems. And I thought: “Why is that? Why am I able to be playful having a conversation with someone, and yet in a poem I revert to a kind of, not necessarily somber, but a kind of authoritative dark presence?” And in the end I decided that I was afraid to look hokey. I was afraid to look silly in a poem, and I had to get over that. The poem essentially came out of the fact that I said to Jacob, my spouse, something about the word “parallel” and he laughed and said, “Only you would notice something like that. Very few in the world would notice something like that.”

So when I sat down to write the poem, I felt that the way to try to write it was to almost pretend I was having a conversation with Jacob. And that’s probably why I love the poem. But I’m very glad that you like the poem. I know that in a review of the book a few years ago, someone singled the poem out as being sappy and completely obnoxious.

Oh really? That’s too bad.

And I thought, “Okay, well fine.” I guess if it were another poem and I didn’t have the same relationship to it, I might have felt pretty sucky. But I didn’t have that response at all.

I’m glad that you didn’t second-guess yourself, because I love it. I love what it does for the collection, it ties in with the idea of torn and what it is to be torn and what it is to contain these dualities. It’s an opportunity for grace and joy amidst the tumult and darkness. In the title poem of the collection, you’re stitching up the face of a victim of gay-bashing and you’re also imagining yourself having to stitch up his assailant some day, and it ends with that line, “I sat there and sewed them up.” And it’s this instance of you healing, which is a generative creative act, of putting something back together and being really meticulous about it. But there’s also the epithet that another doctor levies against the victim. There’s also the miserable socio-cultural fact of why he has been hurt in the first place. It’s got that duality there. And I think that that’s something your work seems to be very interested in.

I don’t know why it is that way, but it is. I don’t know that I would’ve come up with that on my own, but I’ve heard it enough times over the years. You know, I almost threw that poem away.


I wrote that poem after a year of not writing any poems.


My first year in medical practice was unbelievable, to say the least. I joined a medical practice that covered three hospitals. I had to learn three different staffs. I had to learn three different sets of referring doctors.   I had to learn how to practice without the shield of an attending doctor looking over everything I did, and I was studying for my specialty boards. In Radiation Oncology, we not only have written boards, but oral boards. Oral boards are unbelievably difficult. And so I just didn’t write any poetry. It’s the only year of my life that I have no poems. If you look at my files—I know this will sound completely nerdy, but I actually have folders—and you look at the years 2002 and 2001, you’ll see two poems in each of those years’ folders because for half of each of those years I wrote no poems.

That’s crazy.

I took my specialty boards in Kentucky. They make you fly to Kentucky to take these oral board exams in a hotel that is seedy and horrible. I came home, and I was so relieved to have it done with that I sat myself down. I just needed to do something for myself as a poet. And I was reading, actually re-reading, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book Song, and I became sort of obsessed with the title poem, which is a poem I’ve always loved.

About the goat head.

Yes! I actually wrote it out in long hand. And it was writing it out in long hand several times that prompted me starting the poem “Torn.” Once I actually finished the poem and I read it, I was pretty horrified by it. I thought it was one of the worst things I’d ever written. It’s indulgent; it’s all kinds of things. I showed it to a poet, a woman named Carol Frost, and she said “No, no, no this is definitely a poem,” and I still didn’t believe it. But I went to Bread Loaf as a fellow, and I freaked out about having to do my reading. I called Jacob, my spouse, and I said, “I don’t know what to read, I’m freaking out. I have to get up in front of all these people that I admire, and this is not good.” And he said, “You should read ‘Torn,’ it’s an important poem.” So I did, and the response was very surprising to me. That’s when I actually realized that it was a real poem.

Well, I’m grateful to Carol and to Jacob and to Bread Loaf for helping you believe in the poem. I think that there is a way in which it kind of leads into The Halo. Torn’s speaker is a healer. And then the speaker in The Halo is this victim who starts out in the hospital. He’s been hit by someone who ran a red light, right?

That is true.

And then he’s sort of got these wings that he’s desperately trying to hide. I’m not too terribly invested in taxonomizing works like this, but I think some might push to call it a novel in verse, and some might just call it a collection of poems.

I don’t know what it is. I know that will sound incredibly dull of me, silly of me, but I actually don’t know what it is. I have a very odd relationship to this collection, which might also sound kind of silly since it’s imminently to be published. But in the summer of 2008, an elder poet who I guess was not very happy receiving a rejection from me when I was editing at New England Review, went online and posted a screed about the fact that I was dilettante, that I do all of these different things, and I do none of them well.

I don’t normally take stuff like that very seriously. In fact, I usually don’t pay attention to it at all, but it did strike me in a very different way and, in retrospect, I realized why. And that is, there is an element of truth to it. I do, in fact, do too many things; and part of the reason for this is that just before I started college I was driving to work and a woman who was driving her car drunk went through the intersection and hit my car. I woke up several days later with a broken neck.

Oh wow, really?

Since that day I woke up with a broken neck, I've lived with the sense that I’m on borrowed time or extra time. And I think admitting that was actually very important for me to understand why I do the things that I do. No one is telling me I have to do these different things. No one is telling me to work this hard. But I think I work hard and do all of these different things because I know that I have only so much time. I know it in a way that other people, even though it’s true for them, might not realize.

And I wrote the first poem, the title poem, “The Halo,” in a state of anger about all of that. And very quickly thereafter, I wrote another poem, and I became very disturbed because this character was starting to take a shape that was not me. I do not have wings. At least not that I know of.


There were all kinds of things happening with this character that I don’t normally think of when I think of poetry. Usually when I write a book of poems, I don’t write a book of poems. I just write poems, and because I’m a fairly obsessive person, eventually they add up to something larger. But with this book, I did not want to write any more of these poems. I actively didn't want to write any more of them. But despite my desire to stop writing them, they kept arriving. For seven years. And I still don’t really have any way of explaining them.

I realize now, as I look back on it, that I think my brain was trying to work in larger constructs, something larger than the lyric poem I typically write. In the same period of time, I wrote a collection of stories. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I would have ten stories that are all interconnected and linked written in the same exact time period that I was writing this crazy bunch of poems that are all linked by the odd character of the winged man-monster. I have friends who say it’s one long poem in sections. I have other people who say it’s a novel in verse. I have other people who say it’s just a collection of poems, but I honestly don’t know. I don’t really know what it is.

That’s so interesting. I didn’t realize it sparked from an autobiographical moment, the car crash. I shattered my pelvis four summers ago in a similar sort of incident. I was on a bicycle and a car swerved in front of me and I shattered my pelvis and cracked a vertebra and was bedridden for a few months. Those early poems in the collection, the speaker’s sense of being trapped and unable to move really, really resonated with me. I also think it’s interesting that the first poem you wrote for the collection, the title poem, is the last poem in the collection.

Well, that lends credence to the people who think it’s one poem in sections, because I usually know the last line of a poem first. I’ve never written a poem without knowledge of the last line. I usually have the last line long before I have even the first line, and most of my poems are me working out, you know, the pathway from A to Z. So again, I essentially wrote the last line first, but I don’t know. I really don’t know. I feel like of all the collections I’ve written, The Halo is the one that I cannot really explain. I don’t have a way of explaining it. I call it my weird monster poem book.

It has that weird supernatural element with the constant bandaging down of the wings. And then, there’s the thing you do so often in your work, where there’s almost the conflation of the spiritual and the godly with the sensual and sexual. There’s the poem where the speaker is addressing a second person and that person is bending over to fix the bandages and then to kiss the bloody stubs of the wings, you know?

Yes, I guess that is true.

And then there’s the long poem, “The Wolf,” which says, “we lose so many things in this life but we never lose ourselves.” That’s a line, and a poem, that seems load-bearing for the collection in a lot of ways.

Well, again, that’s another challenge poem. I had a very long conversation with a friend of mine, the poet Rick Barot, about discursiveness. We talked about how most of us are afraid of being discursive in poems. We’re afraid if we go on for too long the reader will get bored, the reader will think we’ve lost our minds.

I started that poem on my fourth day at the MacDowell Colony. I have all of the various drafts of it recorded and the first, the very first draft, was essentially about the speaker losing his cousin who went out swimming and drowned. Originally, it was a fairly short poem, and I was very excited because I thought, “Oh my god, I finally stopped writing these crazy winged man-monster poems!”

But of course, as with many of the other poems in The Halo, that was not the case. I was re-reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose” at the time. And I thought I would love to be able to do something like “The Moose,” but I’m not Elizabeth Bishop, and there is no way I can do that hanging sense of delay that she does.

I started revising my poem. I decided that I wanted to write about a wolf, but not a real wolf. In gay lingo, a wolf is a hairy muscular guy, and I thought, "I’m going to have fun with Elizabeth Bishop. What if Elizabeth Bishop wrote a poem in code?" I started re-drafting and revising the poem, and I kind of got lost in it, in a very pleasurable way that I only usually experience when writing fiction, but I got lost in the poem.

At first I was very freaked out by that because I thought, “How do I get out of this poem now? I’m pages in, I’ve got to get out of this poem.” I put it aside and came back and revised it and revised it and, you know, felt more and more comfortable with it. I had someone read it and tell me that it is a very strange poem because there is no wolf. And I realized that many people, not knowing that gay lingo, might read the poem and think I am being coy because it’s titled “The Wolf,” but there’s never a wolf. There’s just some guy howling like a werewolf. But I kind of like that.

I do, too. I like that a lot. I think it works both ways. We’re beginning to push up against the edge of the time. I wanted to ask about your short stories—I’ve read one in Blackbird, which I loved, about the woman reading tea leaves and her prophecy about the murder in the garden, right?


When is that book going to be coming out?

Four Way Books is scheduling it for, I believe, early 2018.

Oh wow, so it’s still a good ways off.


It’s supposed to be out in time for AWP of 2018.   They originally wanted to bring it out in 2017, but that’s just too much for me. I think I’m the only author at Four Way Books to consistently ask for later release dates. I think at this point my editor Martha Rhodes just expects it because I have asked for a later release date on every book we’ve done. I usually get the acceptance letter and immediately write to her asking to push the pub date back a year. I just thought it would be way too much to have another book out that quickly.

The short stories are—they’re strange. They’re much weirder than The Halo. You know, when I started out I wanted to write fiction. I actually started a fiction workshop and was kicked out after two weeks and told to go back to the poetry workshop.

Really? That’s at Boston?

Yeah, and at the time I was crushed. But I also thought, “Well, this teacher is being good to me to push me towards what he thinks I can do better.” Years ago, I went to do a poetry reading at Oregon State, and a number of the fiction faculty kept saying, “I can’t believe that you don’t write short stories because you definitely understand how to tell stories. You tell stories all the time.”

And I had what I thought was a line of a poem, and I kept thinking it didn’t sound like any poem I’d ever written. It ended up being the first sentence of the title story of the collection. Writing fiction is very different for me. I never know the end. I just follow the story; I follow where the characters lead.

I can’t wait to read that collection. I loved the story I saw. Are you working on a new manuscript?

I mean, I guess I am. I don’t know. I have two years, eight poems now. I haven’t looked back at them. It’s way too early. But I suppose in a few years I’ll look back. Mostly, I’ve been working on a novel. I have a full draft of a novel.


It’s actually a prequel to the short stories, but the novel is really a lesson in patience because even if you can bang out the first draft and get 400 pages down in four or five months, it just takes forever to bring the whole thing up to the level that you want.

I can imagine, yeah.

  It just takes months and months and months of rewriting sentences and scenes, and it’s both great because you know it’s there and you can just reenter it, but, at the same time, every time you reenter you just want it done. And it doesn’t get done very quickly.

You can’t sprint towards the finish line like you can with a poem.

No. I mean, for someone like me that goes through so many drafts of poems, every time I look at this thing that is now 94,000 words, I just look at it and think, “This is going to kill me. This is going to take me years.”

Well, that’s great. I can’t wait to read those. I’m thrilled to hear you’re being so productive and that there’s so much new work on the horizon. Do you have any final words of wisdom before we close?

Ha, well, I just finished grading and marking up the final packet for one of my students, so I will leave you with the same words of wisdom, and that is that writing isn’t just a product, it’s a life. The way to really embrace that life is just to really learn patience and diligence. That was something told to me a very long time ago that I scoffed at because it sounded so completely hokey, but I’ve lived enough to see that it’s true. Despite all of the great excitement of publishing a poem in fill-in-the-blank magazine or publishing a book, that’s not why we keep writing. We write to re-inhabit that space we only find when writing. To have that life, you really do have to embrace patience and diligence.

Interview Posted: January 11, 2016


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