“We’re a complicated big old mess, singing and wasting at the same time.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You’ve said the oldest poems in Scavenger Loop are fifteen years old, is that right?
Yes, that’s probably so. It takes me forever to do a book because I don’t really do books of poems, as such, at first. I just write poems one by one, and at some point I begin to look at the math of it all and try to shape something out of what I see there. A couple of pieces in this collection, and little bits and snatches of the really long title sequence, go back fifteen or so years. And of course several re-re-re-re-re-re-revised poems.
I don’t think that sort of patience is very common among poets today, especially considering the way the job market often depends upon publication.
You might be right. I don’t know how it’s all packaged and sold and I’m not a particularly enthusiastic market person anyway. I don’t like thinking about books as commodities and packages and products but I know they are. I get that. A few years ago it dawned on me that the purpose of this present book was to scavenge. I wanted to pick and remember and reprocess and regenerate and sample and find language from all over the place rather than trying to make a group of really shiny polished perfect poems. To let some of them get a little funky or a lot funky.
The title poem is a good example of that. It opens with a seasoned garbage picker and just feels very much like scattered aggregation of found material.
That’s what it wants to be. It wants to be in some way unprocessed. Part of the concern of the poem is the processing of seeds and feeds and of agribusiness, things that are so refined, so manufactured, and so chemically enhanced that they become kind of unreal. I wanted this poem to be raw and unfinished and unprocessed. I wanted some of the emotion to be unprocessed.
One of the ways you do that is by playing with voice. There’s the moment in that poem where one voice says “I’m up to 100 Likes OMG” and then immediately after, another character “apologizes to the doctor that she’s dying.” The gulf between those two utterances is so wide and unexpected.
That’s right. There’s no transition in a lot of these moments. “Apologizes to the doctor,” that was my mom. Part of the narrative of the poem is my mother’s death. She apologizes to the doctor that she’s causing trouble. He can’t even say anything about that. A cool side note about the line that you just mentioned that no one will ever care about: “o-m-g” means “oh my god” in text-talk, right?
What’s that backwards? G-M-O.
Ha! That’s hilarious.
I really like that. I’m probably the only one who likes that. Oh well.
That’s perfect because this is a poem that’s ostensibly about Midwestern farming and agribusiness but what it really secretly is is a wrenching elegy for your mother.
Exactly. I think it wants to be both of those things. I was writing a long poem or series of poems about Midwest villages and farms and agribusiness and I thought it might be called “Scavenger Loop,” and I think I had a lot of the science stuff already in there, and then my mother got sick and I went to be with her in the last month of her life. When I came back home, in the summer of 2013, I reengaged and rewrote this piece instead of writing another new poem. At some point, amidst the grieving, I thought, “Okay, this is the last element to go into the poem to turn it from a pastoral complaint into a pastoral elegy.”
It’s staggering. It’s a gorgeous poem with great scope and ambition.
I still don’t know what it is but I’m happy with it. It does a thing I’ve never been able to do before and it even let me be a little more politically direct or articulate. There are bad guys in this poem and I say so. I name names, some of them at least.
I read an interview you did where you quote both Carolyn Forché saying, “There is no such thing as nonpolitical poetry,” and then also W.H. Auden saying, “Why writers should be canvassed for their opinion on controversial political issues I cannot imagine… literary talent and political common sense are rarely found together.” You talk about how one of poetry’s great beauties is its ability to accommodate this range of belief.
Absolutely. I find both statements convincing. I tend to be that way about a lot of polarized debates anyways. There are some flame-y things going around the poetry world just now—at least the social media poetry world—and I find myself convinced and sympathetic and affiliated with almost everybody instead of nobody.
I can relate. I think that one of the things that I have a reflexive aversion to in poetry and in all things is absolute certainty.
Absolutely, yeah. I’m certain you’re right.
Hah. Something about unmovable certainty in any doctrine or belief or opinion makes me immediately distrustful.
I think that tends to be the case with most poets I know. In fact, I think that tends to be one of the reasons why we like our particular art form, where you know it’s going to be the case that option A and option B and option C don’t cancel each other out; they all kind of exist together, whether comfortably or uncomfortably.
I have talked about those two passages side by side a number of times. I end up getting a little fed up with the Auden, although Auden was a terribly engaged political character. He wasn’t an apolitical person. And Forché’s formulation is pretty hard to deny with what we think and know about language itself, which is a culturally invented and invested tool. How can it not express political beliefs and certainties and uncertainties? It’s the point where language gets used as a weapon, a bludgeoning tool or a divisive thing, where I really pull back.
Absolutely. To write a poem that aspires to divide or keep out or damage in that way flies in the face of what it is to write in the first place, which seems to me to be a gesture toward inclusivity, toward sharing an experience or perception.
To bring another of your poems into the conversation, “What Is A Weed” reminded me a lot of the title poem, though it’s much much shorter and maybe more traditional. It’s in rough pentameter, I think, but it moves in a similar way, starting out very scientifically and then in the final section transforming into a gorgeous poem about a daughter, with the trees growing wings as she pedals away from you. I see those poems as being very much in conversation with each other even though they are very different, formally.
I think you’re right. They’re both trying to be attentive to the growing world, the green world, the natural world, and the damage we do to it. In both of these poems, underneath the natural, environmental narrative is a family narrative—my mother in “Loop” and my daughter who shows up in this poem in the second section and then refigures in the fourth section. It’s very hard for me to think I’m going to write only a personal poem or I'm only going to write a nature poem or I’m only going to write a political poem. Especially in this book, I have wanted those things to braid in and out of each other. That’s the main trope of this poem, that the tree braids in with these other two trees.
I like the word “braiding” to describe this kind of formal technique.
It’s one of a couple useful compositional tropes I like to use. A braid is one of them; that’s an interesting way to think about putting two or three or four narratives together. A strong strand made of several slender ones. Another trope I like to think about is a double exposure. You take a picture and you don’t wind the camera and then you take another picture on top of the first. It makes for bad photos but great poems.
Oh, I love that. That’s a really great way to think about it. You talk about music too, how you started writing poetry as a “quieter and more personally suited way of continuing to be a musician.” You talk about how you’ve been a musician your whole life. I just spoke with Ellen Bryant Voigt and she had a lot to say about the way the poetic form becomes like the musical line, and as she stripped away punctuation and things like that from her work it became more like a melody and less like a bunch of staccato bursts.
That’s beautiful. I’m celebrating from afar this week the great news of her recognition by the MacArthur Foundation. They got it right, by god. She’s terrific. And yes, she’s a terrific musician. I’ve played with her.
Yeah, she’s a fantastic pianist. And that last book of hers—
Yes, it’s just beautiful.
It totally transformed me. It’s one of my favorite books, period.
I wrote about it for Los Angeles Review of Books. I read it all the time.
Me too, me too. I’m glad to hear that we’re simpatico in our love for it! I was wondering if you might be able to talk a little bit about your idea of writing poetry as a way of continuing to be a musician.
Yeah, I started playing music when I was eight or nine. I played a lot, then I started teaching guitar and bass. I was good. But there are a couple of factors that made me turn to writing—I didn’t want to be a professional musician. I didn’t want to be the guy who comes home at 6:30 in the morning every morning, you know, smelling of smoke and dead by the time I was 40. I didn’t want to be that guy. As much as I like playing in bands, I am shy. I don’t comfortably get up in front of people. I could do that with the guitar, I could play and I didn’t have to talk, so that was okay. Even still I much prefer solitude. I like the flexibility and the solace and the silence of writing. But all that stuff I learned and still think about when I play—you know, harmonics and phrasing and sound and counterpoint and fugue—all that stuff I learned in music directly affects me as I write poems.
So I just transferred a lot of what musicians do and think about to the page. That’s some kind of answer.
That’s a good answer. I like thinking about the way those same musical instincts can transfer into other mediums. I also wanted to ask about a note I have here, about how you’ve called W.S. Merwin your favorite contemporary poet.
We’ve all got a favorite. He’s mine.
I love Merwin too, but it seems relevant as he shares some formal sensibilities with Ellen, especially in Headwaters with her unpunctuated lines. Do you want to talk a little bit about what Merwin does for you?
Gosh. I think he’s been with me ever since I first started to write. I don’t know a living poet who has been so good for so long. And who has been a step or two ahead of what everybody else is doing. In 1962, ’63, and ’64, he was writing a kind of later romantic imagism that everybody else was doing five and ten years later. And when he made a turn back to syllabics in 1973, ‘74, ‘75—a lot of people did that later. He seems to be often a step ahead. More simply, he’s just a better writer than anybody else. For the most part, while there’s not punctuation per se in his poems, he writes better sentences than anybody else. Just gorgeous, beautiful, complicated pieces of syntax. Music.
That’s another commonality between Ellen and him, their gorgeous complicated syntax.
Right, exactly. With Merwin it’s this capability he’s got, back to the braid, to be politically astute and also deeply personal and deeply invested in environmental issues and deeply invested in translation and global poetry. All these things that other poets may claim as the single claim to fame. Merwin does everything. The other reason is that I just love his poems. I know more of his poems by heart. I’ve taken more of them deeply into me than anybody else’s. Before I was even a poet, when I was first starting to write poems, I was reading Merwin. I wrote my master’s thesis about him.
I didn’t know that, that’s great.
Back when there was such a thing as a master’s thesis! For my M.A. I wrote about his book called Compass Flower and a book called Writings to An Unfinished Accompaniment.
It sounds like he’s been a wonderful companion for you. Have you ever met him?
I have. I met him first when I was twenty-three years old and I was teaching high school English in Missouri. I was invited to Kansas City to introduce him at a humongous reading because I had just finished this thesis about his work and somebody knew about that. So, I got to spend two days with him in Kansas City when I was twenty-three and I was getting ready to go back to school. He tried to talk me out of it. I had just gotten into Ph.D. programs in a couple of places and he said, “David, don’t go. Ezra Pound told me not to go to school anymore and I don’t think you should go. I think you should translate. You should do something else. Play your guitar. Write. But don’t go back to school.”
And then I didn’t see him for twenty years. About ten years ago he came to Denison for a couple of days and met my horses, and then I saw him again three or four years ago in New York. I interviewed him; we awarded him our lifetime achievement award at The Kenyon Review. It was cool, I got to go to the Bloomberg studios and talk to him there.
So those have been the three main times when I’ve been in his company. And you know, this will sound like I’m a fanboy or something, but when I’m with him, I feel like I’m looking at somebody who has evolved a little farther down the road than the rest of us. There’s this remarkably beautiful sweet spirit about him, but also very acute, very tied into everything that’s going on. I think he’s fantastic.
It’s fun to hear you so excited about him.
He’s one of the great American poets. He’s still among us and he’s a national treasure.
Yeah. Reading his books or watching one of those specials on his pineapple plantation—
He’s got the most beautiful palm trees.
You really get a sense of that gentleness. That sort of graceful way he carries himself. I like your phrase, “he’s evolved a little further down the line than the rest of us.”
It feels like that. I wish there were more people like that. I wish his type of vision and peace and hope and devotion could be our dominant feature. We might be a lot better off as a species.
Right. You guys both have that attentiveness to how we’re doing as a species, how we’re doing as inhabitants of the planet. But for both of you, it seems so intimate.
Yeah, I think that may be the case. It’s very personal. It had better be personal for a lot of us or else we’re going to be even more screwed than we are.
By the sounds of things, it seems like even if we amend and atone in every way possible right now, if we just reversed everything we’re doing to the natural world, the damage will have still been done.
Well, we can’t reverse everything. We’ve gone way past the end point for a lot of things that are going to change or expire. I was just reading an article an hour or so ago about the measurable fact that the rise in sea level is so much more quick than we even anticipated three or four years ago. Something like a hundred feet in the rise of sea levels in the next 1,000 years. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot, but that means there is no New York. Half of the Florida panhandle is gone. Many of the big cities in the world are gone. Rome is gone.
That’s just the human part of it, and that may be a negligible element. It’s more heartbreaking and more tragic to think about the loss of millions of species and icecaps and glaciers and trees. We’re a brutal, barbaric species. And it’s nuts because we have the capability to see what we’re doing and we have the capability to sing. We’re a big old mess. We’re a complicated big old mess, singing and wasting at the same time.
Well said. It’s really hard to even think about. In the interest of time, I want to talk a little bit about your role with The Kenyon Review. How long have you been there now?
I don’t know. A really long time. I love the fact that I can do The Kenyon Review. It’s one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. I first started working for that magazine in 1983. I finished my Ph.D. and took my first job at Kenyon and walked into the office of Phil Church and said, “What can I do?” So Phil put me to work reading fiction that year. I left Kenyon and came to Denison to teach, and I’ve been much happier here in Granville, but I stayed with the magazine. At different times I’ve had different jobs and there have been years when I just said leave me out of it. But when David Lynn came on—first as acting editor for a year in the late 80’s, then when they hired him full time, I think it was 1994—he asked, “Will you be my poetry editor?” And we’ve done that now together for twenty years. He is a great friend.
You’ve certainly been there long enough to see the poetic sensibilities du jour change time and time again. Do you have any insights as to the sort of algorithms of those changes?
Well, I’ve learned to look at those season by season fashions as just that. And I value the way the art changes, especially these days, and how completely plentiful and diverse and complicated it is—I love that. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in our literary history when there’s been as much aesthetic variety. I think that’s fabulous.
But we do receive so much work now it’s almost hard to summarize. We see a lot of everything. I can’t say people are doing this or this or that. There are tons of people writing very traditional stuff. There are tons of people writing politically engaged poems. There are tons of people doing everything. Of course there are only a few people doing any one thing brilliantly. And those are the people I’m more interested in. I’m much more interested in the work of an individual poet than I am in a movement. I don’t want my part of the magazine to be easily affiliated. To say, “Oh, that’s The Kenyon Review, all they do is publish nature poets, or all they do is this or that. I really want to find exceptional work. Though I know, of course, I’m just one person and I have tastes and preferences and so many limitations; still, as an editor, I try to have a larger aesthetic imagination than I do as a writer. As a writer, I want to do some pretty specific things. As an editor, I want to have my antenna up to hear what a whole lot of people are doing and find, to my mind, the best or most representative of those.
There are lots of bad manners right now. People are simultaneously submitting everywhere. People are writing too quickly. People ask me why I reject stuff. What makes you turn down a poem? And they expect a complicated answer like, “Well, the percentage is like .02 that anybody will get published in KR,” but the fact is that you get turned down because your stuff’s not good enough. That’s all there is to it. And I try to be sympathetic and demanding both as I make that determination about what is good or what is valuable or what I want to represent with the magazine. People are too hasty. If they would just give their poems another month, four more revisions, and then send the work to me, they’d be so much happier. I’m not interested in looking at stuff and working for a long time on somebody’s poem. Well, that’s not exactly right. I’m interested, but it’s just not often possible, in this position, with so many submissions.
I think maybe part of the fact that people are less inclined to give work time to gestate is the dominant poem-a-week workshop culture.
And I think that’s just a terrible habit. There’s something people do now, where they write a poem a day for a month—that’s awful. I just want to beat them over the head and say, “Stop it.” Good, work on poems every day but don’t write a poem every day. Write poetry every day. Work on one poem every day for a month. Let’s go with that. The hyper-professionalized aspect of the workshop is also damaging to the relationship that one might foster between an editor and a writer. It’s become very brutal and professionalized and I don’t like that.
How do you mean that?
Well, a number of different things. I read so many poems that feel like workshop prompts. I dislike prompts. I read many poems that feel packaged for easy consumption. Also, people will send me poems and say stuff like, “Here are my poems, I’ve published a couple of them, and if I publish two more in a really good magazine I’ll get tenure.” Or, "It’ll help my grant application," or "It’ll look good on my acknowledgment page." It happens all the time. It’s heartbreaking. I’m sorry that such things have to come into the formula at all. I don’t want to be the person who makes a decision about somebody’s tenure or somebody’s professional security. Not here. I just want think about their poem.
It’s a very strange position to put you into.
People don’t worry about that very much. I came home from a trip about a year ago and played my message machine and somebody was reading their poems over my telephone answering machine. I have gone to parties and walked out with poems folded up and stuck in my coat pocket. I’ve had them faxed to me. I’ve had them given to me in elevators at AWP.
On the other hand, I get to read everybody and that’s a great privilege. I get to read so much fantastic stuff. I complain, but really—what a great pleasure to put poems into the Kenyon Review. To have that trust.
I talked to Don Share for this a while ago; he was one of the very early interviews that I did. I remember when he talked about writing his most recent book, one of the things he said he tried to avoid was sounding like the poems in his Poetry inbox.
Absolutely, I get that.
And I don’t know who you could point to who is writing work like Scavenger Loop. Maybe Merwin shares some natural sensibilities, but in terms of how it’s written, I can’t think of someone doing similar work. Brenda Hillman maybe.
I hope that’s the case. And that may be a by-product of editing. As the poetry editor of Kenyon, I do get to see what everybody does wrong. I get to see the mistakes, the boo-boos, the stupid stuff they do. And, the most important thing: I get to see the clichés that people don’t recognize are clichés. I at least hope to avoid those. I probably have my own clichés, too, but it’s important to me not to sound like the slush pile.
I don’t know if that’s to my benefit or not, you know. I remember looking at this big long poem, “Scavenger Loop,” and thinking, “Jesus, David, what are you ever going to do with this thing?” But I believed in it.
Well, it ended up at At Length, which is one of my favorite homes for poetry. It’s one of my go-to’s.
I felt really lucky about that. I didn’t think that sequence was going to appear anywhere in advance of the book, and I would’ve been okay with that.
I could see it as a chapbook too.
I thought about that, too, but then there wasn’t enough time and I didn’t really care. And somebody suggested I send it to Jonathan Farmer and he was just great. He loved the poem and he also had a few suggestions. We cut it a little. I really appreciated his belief in it. Then Jill Bialosky, my heaven-sent editor at Norton, gave advice and was another voice of encouragement when we were putting the book together. I am very lucky.
It’s a great poem and a great book. I think we’ve just about run out of time—do you have anything you’d like to end with?
I’m just grateful for your time. I’m glad that you were paying attention and that you read the book. That’s all we want, somebody to notice the work. I’m grateful. I hope if people see this interview, they might be curious and go find the book, too. Or go find Merwin or any of the other people we’ve been talking about.
Interview Posted: October 5, 2015
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