“I'm really enjoying being illegitimate.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You’re at Litquake right now—I've never been to Litquake, though. Is that a fun one?
It's fun because, unlike AWP, it's right here in San Francisco. So you can go to what you want. You can escape as soon as you need to.
Yeah, that's the dream of dreams. Last year, for AWP in Los Angeles, I had a friend who lived just a couple of blocks away from all the shenanigans, and he just gave us a key to his place and it changed the entire experience of being there. We could just duck out, take a nap for twenty minutes, and then duck back in.
Yeah, if you're staying at the conference hotel, it's good in that way. Although the conference hotel has its own problems. You can't come or go from your room without running into people.
Right, I imagine that's more of a problem for you than it would be for me, but I totally get the idea of that.
Well, when it becomes a problem for you, remember that we had this conversation.
I will. I'll cite it, and then I'll know that I've truly arrived.
Haha. Right—"When I can't get out of my room without having to talk to somebody I don't know."
Totally! Okay, I thought that a way to dive into things would be to talk about Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, which came out in 2012. How old is the oldest poem in that collection?
Oh, that's a good question. I don't think they're all that old. I mean they're old now because the book has been out a while, but I don't feel like there's anything that predates the publication of the book by more than a couple years.
Oh, really? So it came together pretty quickly then. Does that mean you were writing the poems pretty rapidly, or did you have them kind of stockpiled?
I guess I did write the book pretty rapidly, it even felt rapid for me. And I also did start making a conscientious choice to not worry about everything fitting together, or feeling finished, or polished. I really wanted to give myself permission to break whatever rules I had for myself.
That's interesting to think about because there seems to me to be a real sense of cohesion in the book—with the broadness and expansiveness of the first section and with the quotidian, experiential second section. Those feel very tight to me. Are you saying that that arrived after the fact?
No, I began to see, in the course of writing, how the work was speaking to itself. How the poems were speaking to each other. After I had about seven or eight poems that all had these landscapes in them, then I started thinking of the collection as a useless landscape, but I didn't want to use that title. I was also buying these books with titles like, 50 Lessons in Woodworking—you know, all these how-to books for young boys. And I was like, "I want to write a poem that's called, 'Guide for Boys.'" So I wrote a poem called, "Guide for Boys," and I really wanted that to be the title. But then that felt like it left out all of these—so I had, from an early time, the two titles pulling in different directions. And then finally I began to see how they could be the same book. Like, one really is the flip side of the other.
I love the impulse to keep them together and not just write—you know, it's a longer book, it's 100 plus pages, and I think that some poets might've been like, "Oh, I've got two books here." But I think that there's a real charge that exists between the poles.
And hopefully stylistically because it's a map-less book. It's got so many different locations that seem bizarrely unfitting, or uncharacteristic, in relation to the whole, and that's precisely why they do work because it's a landscape of difference.
Right, and it's fascinating to go from a poem about internment camps to a poem about donkey basketball to a canticle. The movement between those things is so unexpected, but I like the idea of saying, "These are all things that exist in the landscape of human experience. And my singular experience, but also the human experience that we all have common to us."
Yeah, and also all tied to a particular place—the Central Valley of California.
Yeah. I do want to talk about your three-line poem, "A Brief History of Internment." In it you say, "We've made the landscape mean here." Right now we're in a moment where there are so many white writers struggling with how to acknowledge the existence of horrors to which they are not necessarily vulnerable—but they want to acknowledge the existence of these things. And you see a lot of attempts at this that are sort of mired in personal exoneration, like, "This is something that my grandfather did, and I'm condemning him for it."
Yeah, they're trying to claim the material as subject matter while disavowing, or disowning, or distancing themselves—all this dissing going on.
Yeah, and it becomes this very negative thing.
Yeah, it's like, well, why can't you simply say, "This is a part of the community that I live in and it's something that has to be acknowledged, but it's not necessarily my right or duty to write about it," which I think makes it an even more noble, pressing, and difficult pursuit. Just because you don't feel like it's your subject matter doesn't mean you can't acknowledge it, or can't work with it in a way. My ambition, of course, was to write a long poem about the Japanese internment in California, and I just thought there was no way that I could do that without appropriating someone else's story. It happened twice, there's the story of Mr. Nakagawa, who shows up in the poem, "Seven Sketches for a Landscape, Unfinished," and then the actual internment poem which follows it. At the end of "Seven Sketches for a Landscape," I've left it up to the reader, or to future writers, "[Here's where you imagine the rest.]" And then I immediately come back to this subject that I claim to have abandoned and write it as a haiku. A haiku with one extra syllable—intentionally extra—because you can actually read the haiku and think, "Well, all you have to do is leave out the word, 'and,' and it would've scanned perfectly." But I didn't want it to scan perfectly. I didn't want it to be tidy.
That's fascinating. I like the idea of that sort of formal reward for close reading. It's not like, "Look at me writing a perfect haiku!" And I like the thoughtful subversion of the expectations of the conceit, too.
I was very much taken with the anonymous artists who did illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages, and how they just couldn’t help putting their own personal flourishes somewhere in the margin—some sign that they were there. I have this love of buried treasures, so you can go back and read through my books and find all sorts of hidden things that I put primarily just for me. It's like when you walk through Robinson Jeffers's Tor House down in Big Sur. Most of it is built of rocks, but every once in a while you'll find that he stuck another object in there that looks like a rock, but upon closer inspection is actually something manmade.
Oh, that's really cool. I've never heard that about his house before, but I like that very much. I think those ideas are prevalent throughout your work. One of my favorite poems in the book is "Space Junk," which is a poem that's kind of a villanelle, but quietly so.
Haha. Yeah, because I hate villanelles. I was like, "Well, this poem really wants to be a villanelle, but I don't want it to be."
Yeah, it's kind of buried in there like it's ashamed of its villanelle-iness.
Haha. Maybe it's the first honest villanelle.
That's good, that's good. Well, that's your new form—an honest villanelle. I was reading an interview you gave with The Rumpus, and Catherine Brady asked you about poetic constraints. She was talking about starting all your poems with the letter C, and having no titles in your first book, and those sorts of things. And you gave this beautiful answer, but the part that really stuck out was that you said, "If we have no other constraints, we have the constraint of time. And the constraint of attention is right behind that." And I think that that's such a staggering thought, and I think it's strange that I'd never heard that mentioned before. As human beings trying to make this art, we're always thinking about time.
When I was working on my first collection, I started that book the day that I arrived in Iowa for graduate school. I had not written for a year and a half up until that point, and I thought, "Well, I better start working on something." Rather than going out and getting an apartment or anything practical—"I'm going to sit down and start filling a notebook." And so I worked on those poems and almost nothing else for two years and stopped working the day before I left Iowa. So not only is that entire book constrained by the time period in which it was written—one two-year chunk of my life—it's also constrained by the time period that it refers to, and it's also constrained by the landscape of Iowa, where it was written. Even though there is nothing in the book that says, "This is about Iowa," Iowa permeates the collection in all sorts of ways. Like the workshop jargon, which sort of shaped the way that I started thinking about vocabulary. The looks of the poems, you know, they all look like fields in Iowa, the big long rows.
Yeah! Those really long lines. I never thought about that, but that's a cool notion.
Yeah, so I think that one of the things that we do to develop as artists, as poets, is we become aware of the constraints that we're not aware of. We start thinking, "Okay, what's the boundary that I have not acknowledged to myself that I need to push past."
I love that.
It's like coming out of the closet every day.
Haha. Well, it's National Coming Out Day, so that's perfect.
Haha. I know, that's why I said it.
Another way to orient that towards the work is to say that it seems like you're speaking in more grammatical, full sentences in this new book.
That was a constraint that I had adopted. I was very anti-sentence. And then in Useless Landscape I was like, "What if I used sentences?" Haha. It just seems like the stupidest discovery to make for myself.
No, it's huge, it's huge! I can totally relate to that sort of impulse. And the real achievement of it in this book is the way you maintain that inertia, or that rhythmic energy that so marked the books that came before it. It seems like, in a lot of the poems, the ostensible conceit of the sorts of grammatical subversions that you were using was to achieve this sort of momentum, to achieve this inertia. And that you were able to maintain that while using all the stop-starts of traditional grammar seems to me to be a real achievement.
Thank you. I think what happens is—when you're working on a poem, or a book, or whatever it is, you're so focused on the things that you do want to do, that you forget about the unmentionable list of the things you don't want to do. With Useless Landscape, I thought, "Okay, I really want to conscientiously do many of the things that I don't ever do in poetry." Like, write a sestina, or write a villanelle. I hate repeating forms, so I wanted to force myself to use repeating forms. It's like, why have a hang-up about it?
That's interesting too because in your earlier work you point out the camp of sacred, somber things like the Bible. You point out the goofiness, or the ironies therein. You sort of do the same thing with the villanelle here. You talk about hating repeating forms, and I think a big part of that is that the artifice seems so pronounced and obvious. So in a poem like, "Space Junk," you're kind of playing with that.
Yeah, yeah. Hiding the artifice as best I can.
Yeah. It seems like the vast majority of these poems are in the first person, but addressing a second person. I don't know to what extent that that's just an unconscious preference, or if it's a deliberate orientation, but I was wondering if you might illuminate that a little.
Yeah. I'm not sure. To give a John Ashbery answer there. I don't know. I haven't really thought about that.
When I think about your poems I think about them as being oriented toward this sort of spirituality that has its roots in compassion. I've had conversations about your work with friends and I always end up coming back to this idea that you write these deeply compassionate poems. And I think that compassion distilled to its core essence is just this longing for mutuality, this longing for—I'm making this gesture of hugging a person, but you can't see it—but there's this strong desire for mutuality, that, like, all people may be the beneficiary of the same sort of love, or the same sort of light. But there's also this deeply erotic, sensual component to mutuality, too. Like someone who wants to include everyone in their long-armed hug, you know?
Yeah, and maybe I come by that through poets like Walt Whitman. He has a lot of poems to 'you.' In fact, he has poems called, "To You." And his you always feels both very specific and very general at the same time. I have this sort of working fiction that the 'you' in my poems is often a younger version of me. And then who is the I? I feel like the I is the version of me that gets to say all the things that I never really get to say in real life.
Oh, that's fascinating, I love that. I think that self-deprecation is an important literary device in your work. Whether the speaker is making fun of himself for being older than the you, or whatever, but I think that that's a sort of refraction, or a hesitation—you know, Elizabeth Bishop would always assert something and then quickly correct herself, or quickly reframe that assertion. It was this rhetorical hesitancy that was a sort of load-bearing element of her aesthetic, and I think that your work has a similar kind of irony and self-deprecation.
I think that maybe I'm more in league with someone like Frank O'Hara. He'll make a lofty sentimental gesture, and then undercut it with, "But I hate all that crap."
Haha. Yeah. That’s how he got away with being mushy. It's hard to just leave the lofty sentimental gesture be. Maybe the romantics could do it, but in our current day and age it seems like the only way to earn a line like that is to—
To step away from it and point at it. "See what I did there?"
Haha, totally, totally. I guess that speaks to that way of refracting. I think that Bishop and O'Hara were both doing that, albeit in very different ways, doing that sort of hesitancy to stick with the initial assertion of a thing.
When somebody releases their collaborative work—
Haha. Oh man, yeah. Or when somebody reveals their letters. I think this is a good time to pivot towards talking about what you're writing now.
Pivot. Oh, I hate that word.
Pivot? You hate the word pivot?
Well, just because it's controlled the discourse of the last month of the election.
Oh, yeah, sure. I always thought the term "dog whistle" was a really clever way to say a thing that you were winking at. Like, there's a line in one of your books where you say, "I wore a green bandana as often as I could." And I like the term "dog whistle" used in that sense, things like the hanky code, but now I feel like it's just permanently going to be referring to "dog whistling" to the secret anti-Semites and the secret racists among us.
Right, as if they're the only dogs on the planet.
Haha. Yeah, they really co-opted that term and drove it into the dirt.
And it makes dogs seem like a dirty thing. Most of us really love dogs, and dogs are generally pretty good.
Haha! Yeah. Well, maybe now we can shift, not pivot, towards talking about what you're working on right now. Are you writing right now? You said you were on sabbatical.
Yeah, well I was on sabbatical and I'm back to teaching. Am I writing? I don't know what people mean by that question because most literate human beings are writing all the time.
Sure, whether or not they're actively composing.
Yeah. I think poets in particular are always writing. So yes. I guess the underlying question is, "What are you working on that we will see?" And to answer that—I'm not sure. Chronic was a book that took whatever time it took. And then when I finished it I really wanted to go into a completely different direction. That book closed off a relationship, as well as a part of my life, that I just wanted to move past quickly. So Useless Landscape, when you talk about how relatively quickly it happened—yes, I felt that speed, and that desire to be hyper-productive. And now I feel like I've got whatever time it takes to write the next poem, and then the next poem doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with the last poem. In other words, I'm not interested in the confines and constraints of bookishness.
It's partly because I read so many manuscripts as an instructor, as a mentor, as a contest judge, as a screener. And I've begun to see, even in the curriculum of the MFA program, how we put this emphasis on the thesis as a finished manuscript as if poets have always worked on finished manuscripts—or manuscripts, you know? It used to be that poets wrote poems and then, at a certain point when they had a trunk full, they'd say, "Okay, I'm going to sit down and put together a selection called, Green Leaves: Poems 1917-1935, and let the poems conversations develop naturally in the act of picking and choosing and collating and all of that stuff. We've sort of subverted that process and sped it up by getting everyone in the mindset of, "What book are you working on?" or "How does this fit in with your collection?" And we're teaching people to discard what might be perfectly good poems or perfectly good ideas because they don't fit in with the idea to which the author has already committed.
Yeah, I love that. And I love too the idea of a possible alternative being for MFA directors to say, "Okay, now turn in your trunk full of poems."
I would love that!
Haha. Yeah, and you would just spend the day sifting through them together.
Yeah. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful activity?
Instead of looking at thirty or forty poems, you’re looking at two hundred poems and saying, "Here are the forty best ones, now make a book."
Yeah. So I'm in that mode of resisting the convention of materiality and productivity. I feel like in a capitalist society we put so much emphasis on end product. Writers do it to each other. It's a kind of unconscious shaming that writers will sort of say to one another, "So, are you writing? Are you working on anything?" Like, "Are you an actual writer?"
Oh, yeah. As if to say no is to admit some sort of deficiency.
In every other aspect of our lives, we have periods of rest where we don't worry about the fact that we're not in our office. We take time off from practically everything in life, except, for some reason, in the arts we feel like we always have to be working. I think that we've made a kind of enslavement of our own creativity. Like it's a genie whose lamp we rub and summon, and we have to do it numerous times otherwise we're not legitimate. So I'm enjoying being illegitimate.
Interview Posted: December 19, 2016
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