“Why pretend we're original?”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How old are the oldest poems in The Do-Over ?
Oh, that’s a good question. Let me think about that—they probably go back to 2007. I can date it pretty precisely because there’s this narrative spine in the book: a person very beloved to me died.
Right, Andrea. She was my step-mother-in-law, and she died in 2008. There were a few that were written before she was dying, when she was sick, and then poems written after she died up until the book was accepted, except for one lone poem that I stuck in at the last minute right before the book went to press in April 2014.
Oh, which poem was that?
That was “A. in September,” the last of the A. poems. Like pretty much every poet I know, even if they’ve published seven or eight books, I tend to need readers for my book manuscripts. I’m not very interested in getting feedback about individual poems, but when I finish a book manuscript I need readers. I can’t see the big picture.
I had four readers read the manuscript before I sent it into the publisher, and I think all of them mentioned that they felt the lack of one final A. poem in the last section of the book. So I finally saw my way to doing that at the last minute.
I’m so interested in those acrostics. There are three for Andrea, and then you had the five acrostics that were in Poetry too, about the celebrities. How did you find that form?
Well, there are a couple of things. First of all, I think we have a mutual friend in David Baker?
Yeah! He was just on the site.
I studied with him the one and only time I went to Bread Loaf, which was a long time ago, in 2001, before my first book was accepted. David was my workshop leader, and that was one of the luckiest meetings I’ve had in my life of poetry, because he was so great and so intuitive about poets. When I had my individual meeting with him he said something that was a life-changer for me, in the way that attitude-changers can be life-changers. Every time I see him since then I tell him how important and meaningful it was—and I think he doesn’t get it because it seems so innocuous—but the first words out of his mouth were, “I can see you’re the kind of poet who needs a form in order to write.” And I was like, "Yes, I am that kind of poet!" And I had always been kind of ashamed of that. I would think, "Oh, if I were truly an inspired poet, then I wouldn’t need these puzzles or games in order to write." His saying that to me was a liberation, and I am really grateful for that.
So that’s one thing, I often need to trick myself out of my inner resistance in order to write a poem, and form is one of the ways that I trick myself. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t then, that tricking myself isn’t just trickery or gameplaying, it’s a way of getting to another place, another state of consciousness, where the poem becomes almost another intelligence, wiser than my own “deep thoughts.”
But that’s not to say the gameplaying isn’t also deeply pleasurable, for the writer and the reader. The very first poem that ever gave me the shivers, or took the top of my head off, was that little poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass. I don’t know if you remember it, but it was an acrostic poem written by Lewis Carroll about the occasion when he first told the Alice story. He told the Alice story to this little girl whose name was Alice, and the poem he put at the end of Through the Looking-Glass was an acrostic that spelled out her name: Alice Pleasance Liddell.
Oh, I don’t remember that at all, actually.
Yeah, look it up. When I saw the little note at the bottom that said that the poem spells out the name of the original Alice, I was in awe. I was like, "Wow, you can do that with words? I want to do that." I think I always wanted to try acrostics, but I never had until this book.
That’s fascinating. You don’t hear a lot of poets citing Lewis Carroll as an influence.
I guess not.
I remember reading the celebrity acrostics in Poetry, and I don’t think I realized they were acrostics at first, but I figured it out on a second or third read. It was just a very cool thing hiding in plain sight. There are other form poems in the book, too. You have the sonnet for A, which I love.
Oh, thank you.
It has the lines, "A song of love and death makes its own / bitter symmetry, that’s the myth of achievement."
That was one of the first poems that I wrote for the book. It was written while Andy was in her last stage of dying. The sort of fulcrum that I made that poem on was the line, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do isn’t hard to master." It’s a mash-up of the Bible and Elizabeth Bishop. I like to do mash-ups of all kinds, and I don’t remember how that one occurred to me, but it seemed true when it did.
I started building around that line. I didn’t intend to rhyme when I was writing it, but then it seemed like it was falling into rhyme. I sort of polished it up a little. Stuck a few more rhymes in.
I think that happens sometimes for people. They realize they unconsciously rhymed, so they just go back and rhyme the rest.
Definitely, yeah. It's interesting because, to me, that’s such an obviously rhymed poem, but one of the reviewers called it an unrhymed sonnet. It just goes to show you, you think you’re being so obvious, and then you’re not being quite obvious enough.
I am a big fan of borrowing, and I feel like all language is borrowed language, anyway, so I just use the stuff that’s in my head, or the things that I’m smart enough to write down when I hear them, things that sound like poetry, or sound like they’ll eventually be useful. I think it’s frugal to use what you have rather than make up something new.
I love that word for it, “frugal.”
I also feel like it’s honest because all language is borrowed language. Why not honor that and get the texture of our word-banks into our poems? The language we absorb becomes part of who we are. Why pretend we’re original when we aren’t? When we don’t have to be? Or why not be both original and unoriginal? That’s reality. I also feel it’s celebratory. The English language is such a gift. All languages are gifts, but the English language is the one that was given to me and it’s glorious. I love the idea of celebrating that and honoring it and showcasing it in my poetry. Not just the English language that comes out of my mouth, or my brain, but all of it.
Absolutely. I think the anxiety of influence is a big hang up for a lot of people. They have something written down in their notebook, and then they work for weeks to try to alter it just enough so they feel okay using it.
Just throw it in. Robert Frost isn’t going to come back and haunt you for it.
Haha, right. My students are really anxious about that kind of thing. Like, "Oh, I don’t want to read too much because then I won’t have my own voice."
Oh, that’s the worst.
You can’t avoid your own voice. It’s like fingerprints, you can't avoid the way you use language. Except that it is sometimes all too easy to be lazy and just piggyback onto received kinds of poetic language. The poets I love best are the ones who really listen to themselves, honor and amplify their language-fingerprints, and who then create their own idioms.
Yeah. This is something I keep coming back to in these interviews actually. You’re not training people how to move words around on a page or how to find inspiration, but you’re trying to train their instincts, you know? I keep coming back to this idea that what it is to try to become a better poet is just a function of training your instincts, and that happens through reading and writing a lot.
Are you teaching now?
Yeah, yeah. I’m not teaching poetry-specific classes this semester, but I incorporate a lot of poetry into the classes I teach.
I figure that if I throw enough at them, then at least some of it will osmotically absorb into their psychic ecosystems.
Absolutely. You're probably a bigger influence on them than you realize. I remember having teachers who may not have come into the classroom with this really rich agenda of what they wanted to teach, or even have us read, but I absorbed their love of poetry and the way that they lived their life in poetry. That was as important as learning how to write a villanelle or whatever.
Oh, totally. It was the same for me. I’ve been in school for a long time, and all of the seminal teachers that have led me to where I am with poetry have been ones that have modeled an element of that. They modeled an element of just living intensely for whatever they're passionate about.
Exactly. Something that I certainly didn’t know was possible. I didn’t grow up with people who did that.
Right, right. A life lived in service to poetry is totally attainable if you want it, but you just have to really want it.
It’s so true. In my—I don’t want to call them my darker moments, but I have thought, "Yeah, you can live a life in poetry, you just need to give up everything else." Which is unfair and a little ridiculous of me to say because I haven’t given up everything else, but the more you live through poetry, the more you want to and the more you become aware of ways to do that. And to create really—pick an adjective, meaningful, important, good—writing you do have to give up a lot of time and attention that could be spent on other things, social life, or really being present for other people sometimes.
"The more you live through poetry, the more you want to" is exactly what I’ve been finding to be true. I’m in this Ph.D. program right now, so I have the incredible luxury of being able to live this monastic poet’s life where, besides teaching, the only expectations are for me to do things in service of poetry. And I’ve got this interview project where I get to talk to heroes like you who are doing the thing I want to be doing, and then I work on my own writing. There aren't many hours in my week that I don't spend somehow in service of my poet-self.
Yeah, and there’s no way around it. That is a privilege.
Oh, absolutely. It’s the luckiest thing in the world.
To know that you have the leisure time and emotional and physical security to devote yourself to that is definitely a privilege, but I feel that that’s exactly why you need to pour everything into it—because it is a privilege, it requires your best efforts. And mine, too. Everyone’s best efforts.
Yeah. There aren’t going to be a lot of times in my life when I have a half-decade sprawled out in front of me where my job is just to be a poet.
Yeah, that’s fantastic.
We got off on a delightful tangent, but I want to loop back to The Do-Over. "Words for a Newborn" is one of my favorite poems in it. The whole book is circling around death and then we’re looking at the opposite side.
Well, thank you. I’m kind of surprised to hear you say that.
Yeah, because it’s actually not one of my favorites.
Oh really? It’s got lines like, "There’s much disagreement about the importance of you." It has this real beating heart at the end of it.
Well, it’s interesting. I have warm fuzzy feelings about some of my poems, but not that one. I don’t know if the reason why it’s not one of my favorites is the way it got written, but I did feel exactly what you said. In that final section there needed to be some sort of acceptance of mourning and death and a moving on, which does sometimes include birth.
It wasn’t written for any particular newborn because my own kid is very far from a newborn. I got to writing that poem when I cleared out my bookshelves and found some books that were from a time when I was very briefly, for only one semester, in a doctoral program. It was a very strange and disorganized program, but it was under the umbrella of education, and it was sort of all about different ways to educate other than in schools. These particular books that I was getting rid of were about technology; one of them was the book The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder, which is about the early days of computers.
I don’t like throwing out books, but no one wants old books. The only thing I was able to do with them was recycle them, but before I did, I went through each book and plundered them for bits of language. I figured that even though I didn’t want the books anymore I might as well get a poem out of them. So that poem was written out of those books about technology.
That's a doctoral semester well spent if you got that poem out of it. It gave you the books that gave you the poem. In Stephen Burt’s New York Times review of The Do-Over, he kept bringing up Anne Carson. It wasn’t a comparison that I had made before reading the review, but it struck me as being pretty perfect, especially thinking about "The Glass Essay." There is this line in "The Glass Essay" that seems to be in conversation with The Do-Over, “You remember too much, / my mother said to me recently. / Why hold onto all that? And I said, / Where can I put it down?”
Of course. I love that poem. Everyone loves that poem. When I was getting my MFA, Anne Carson was very much in the poetry atmosphere. She came and read at the New School when I was getting an MFA there. Plainwater was just out and that was the book everyone was talking about.
I think she’s a marvelous poet, and I’m very flattered by the comparison, but I don’t really see it myself. If Stephen Burt wants to say that, I’ll accept it!
I think that you both share a sort of obsessiveness—and "obsessiveness" kind of sounds pejorative, but I don’t mean it as a pejorative at all. There’s also this confluence of emotional and sensual facts buttressed up against each other in both yours and Carson's work. I'm talking more about "The Glass Essay" than I am about Carson's whole body of work, but you're both interested in constraints, non-traditional constraints.
Well, thanks. Like I said, that can only be high praise. I’m flattered. I feel extremely flattered that anyone would think of putting my work together with Anne Carson’s. And I don’t think “obsessiveness” is a pejorative. I think all good poems come out of a poet’s obsessions. If she is an influence on me, the way that I think she’s an influence on me is because of her bluntness. I like how she comes out and says things directly, uses language for urgent communication, and that the things that she says directly seem to come from thought of a very rich quality, you might say “best thought,” and I feel, more and more, like that’s my goal.
When she came and read at the New School when I was an MFA student, and she read from Plainwater, that was what struck me. She seemed to have very little interest in ornamentation or elegant variation. Her language was clear and direct, and yet still strange because of the unique quality and depth of her thought. It seemed opposed to the period style of the time, where there was a lot of interest in surface lushness.
Yeah, your book has so many lines that ring deeply, like “No aspect of life is to be despised / though we’re still sitting cranky in the meadow.” The lines have this fundamental ideological outlook on the world that’s at odds with your present station.
Yeah, that sums it up. “A lover’s quarrel with the world.”
It’s wonderful. "Sadness flopped violently at my feet." There are so many of these lines throughout the book that are so true to the experience, and they are seemingly simply stated, but you can hold them up to the light and turn them around a little bit, too.
Thanks very much. It’s really funny for me to hear you repeat that line because I don't remember what led me to write every line I've ever written, but I do remember what led me to write that line. I came to write "Sadness flopped violently at my feet"—and this is again an example of the way I plunder everything—because of my first book, The Search Engine. Derek Walcott picked it for a prize and he had to write an introduction for it, and in his introduction he draws an analogy between this pile of manuscripts that he got from American Poetry Review and a net of wriggling fish that was thrown at his feet. He says something like, "And then I picked one and it flopped violently at my feet." That lodged itself in my brain and all these years later I used it in that poem.
Yeah, that's perfect. It’s a nice secret callback.
If I had to think about one trajectory that I’ve gone through, from The Search Engine up through now, it’s been the slow gradual journey towards directness. I’m still not that direct, and there’s a reason for that, but I’m trying. I’m trying to be as direct as I can while still honoring what being alive really feels like, how language can best communicate that.
When The Search Engine came out, one interviewer jokingly asked, "Why don’t you just say what you mean?" I was really surprised by that. I was like, "Hmmm, I thought I was saying what I meant, but I guess not." Like I said, I studied creative writing at a time and in a place where luster and ornamentation and wordplay and a certain opacity was encouraged. Ever since then, I’ve had it in my mind that I’m going to push myself toward directness. When I wrote The Cold War, I was really trying to do that, and I thought that was as direct as I could possibly be, but I think that The Do-Over is more direct than that.
That’s great. Your next book can just be grocery lists and diary entries and stuff like that.
Haha, maybe! I don’t know, it might be. That makes me think of Bernadette Mayer, a poet whose work is important to me.
It’s interesting because one of the anxieties that you acknowledge in the book is not wanting to repeat what you’ve already done in a way. There's the line "(can’t bear to look back, have done that in last book)."
Oh yeah. I have a very low tolerance for boredom. And the last thing I want to do is bore myself. That would kind of defeat the purpose.
The poet Susan Wheeler, who is now a dear friend, was my teacher at The New School. She’s now at Princeton. I saw her this summer and she was coming off of five years of directing the program at Princeton, and during those five years she had virtually no time to write.
It makes me sad when I think of what she could’ve written in those five years because she’s one of my favorite contemporary poets—her work is indispensable to me, really. I felt that way about her work before I knew her, before she was my teacher. Anyway, she was saying she can’t wait to start writing again and I asked, "What do you want to write?" And she gave the perfect answer, "I want to surprise myself." That’s how I feel. I have very little interest in doing anything I’ve already done.
It's like Frost’s "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." That's the goal for anyone who's trying to write to illuminate. Speaking of having one's time be impossibly filled, in addition to teaching at New School and doing your own writing and being a parent, you also founded SCOUT this year. It’s something I’ve been involved with, so I’ve gotten to see it come up from a concept, from a Facebook post, to being a real mainstay of our community.
I would love to think that. I hope that’s truer and truer as time goes by.
Yeah, it’s one of my favorite poetry things on the internet. Anytime there’s a new review, I get excited to click the link.
Do you want to talk about how it started?
I can, yeah. You're right; it did start as a Facebook post. The Facebook post came about because I was reading a lot of poetry books in the summer of 2013—I do a lot of my reading in the summer because I don’t have as much time to read when I’m teaching—and I realized that I don’t really absorb and retain books as much as I could, or as much as I did when I used to write papers about them in a graduate program, or when I used to write reviews. And I thought, "I bet I could read a book a month and write a review of a book a month. And maybe I could make a website and post one review a month." And then I thought, "Oh, but if I got a lot of friends to write one review a month, then I could post their reviews on this website, too."
I was really excited about the idea. I love reading reviews, and literary criticism, and in some ways I find great criticism as inspiring to my writing as great poetry. In my excitement about this idea, I went to Facebook, of course. I was both excited by the idea and a little horrified by the idea because I don’t have any time to do what I’m already supposed to be doing. Why would I want to add this new thing to the list?
So I posted, "So I’m thinking of starting a poetry review website. Can you talk me down?" And as you would expect, all of the poets came on and said, "No, you have to do this, we want this." Because everyone wants their books reviewed.
And Spencer Short was one of the poets who responded, and he said he had been thinking about something like that and suggested that we get together and talk about it, which we eventually did. I have to say, he really had the whole vision for SCOUT. We didn’t have a name at that point, but he knew exactly what he wanted it to look like, and he knew that he wanted anonymous reviews. He wanted short reviews. He wanted frequent reviews. I hadn’t thought about it in that much detail, but all of it sounded intriguing and doable to me. Then we just started to put it together. It took a while. It took over a year to make it happen.
Right. One of the reasons I think it's great is that the reviews are all around 400 words, but they are all super well-written. A lot of that has to do with your editing. I know this first hand. I turned in some clunky reviews and you really polished them.
Thanks. From the beginning, my motivation was that, in various ways, I had been dissatisfied with other review outlets, and I knew I wanted our reviews to be three things: smart, open to all aesthetics, and sparklingly well-written. That’s kind of a lofty goal, especially when everyone is working for free and in the off hours, but I do feel like we’ve been able to accomplish those three things, more or less.
I think that’s why people keep coming back. That there is a steady stream is great and wonderful, but if it was a steady stream of mediocre reviews, I don’t know that I would be as eager to click the links whenever I see them.
It’s also great for people who don’t know what they want to spend their fifteen bucks on for their next poetry book. I think it’s a great place to kill an hour just trying to figure that out.
That’s the thing that makes me the happiest, when people say or post that a review made them want to read the book. It happens pretty frequently. That's the best. That's the goal.
Yeah, absolutely. It's a real positive wonderful thing for our little community.
I hope so.
I don’t want to keep you for too much longer, but I do want to ask what you're working on now. Do you have a manuscript in the works?
Well, to my surprise, I do.
I really thought The Do-Over had squeezed me dry, and I felt it would be a while before there were any more poems, and that was fine with me. But I have been writing quite a lot, actually. I wrote a lot this summer, and I’ve been writing this semester even though I’ve been teaching a lot, and I've had that magic moment where I can see where things may cohere into a book.
That’s a very exciting moment. The Cold War and The Do-Over were thematic books and I'm not sure, but I think this may be one of those good old-fashioned unruly collections of disparate poems.
That’s great. Those are often my favorite books because there is a poem for any mood that I’m in.
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
Any final words of wisdom that you want to leave us with?
I have no words of wisdom whatsoever. I distrust wisdom even though I crave it. How about a wish instead? I wish us all a beautiful week.
Interview Posted: January 25, 2016
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