“The lesson in all of this is patience.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I thought we could start with talking about Madness, Rack, and Honey. It seems that book has had a rich life even outside the poetry world. I know a number of non-poets who love and teach that book.
That is absolutely true. Madness, Rack, and Honey has sold more copies than any book of poetry or prose I’ve ever written. It goes to prove a point that I make in the book, which is that people would rather talk about poetry than read it or write it!
It’s circular, though. The real strength of those essays is the way they sort of behave like poems. They have that associative movement.
They do, they do.
Can you talk about writing prose, writing nonfiction that way?
I’m a very nervous, perfectionist type of person and when I had to deliver lectures I was not comfortable just standing up and doing something spontaneous, and I was not comfortable just giving an audience of graduate students exercises, which they love and crave. They don’t like formal written things, which is bizarre to me since they are writers! I simply faced the fact that I had to do something that was interesting for me and was off the cuff in my own way. So I sat down and composed them. I mean, it was all done out of nervousness.
That’s great though. The anxiety of the moment was the mother of invention there.
"The anxiety of the moment was the mother of invention." Absolutely. I always have a desire to talk around poetry rather than talk about it. I always have the desire to talk about life and death and the world. That is more important to me than giving a lecture on how the image works in poetry, which holds no interest whatsoever to me.
That makes total sense.
I would just pick a subject and write about it.
Yeah! I feel like sometimes the essays illuminate the way you come to write them. The section of essays you never wrote—
Right, that’s one of my favorite sections of the book. You come from all these different directions and it creates a sort of impressionistic image of who you are as a writer, how you write. It’s looking inward and outward in a really interesting way. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a text like it.
That was no different than the others. Anxiety is the mother of invention. I simply, literally, had a thirteen-inch pile of notes for lectures. The idea of continuing to do it wiped me out, so I decided to go through them and talk about why I would never write a lecture on this or that. I know some people love the book, I’m aware of that, but I really think being in the audience when these lectures were delivered was a better experience, because it’s really true that at some point in the middle of that particular lecture, I passed out all these notes to the audience. I just passed out pages of my own notes.
Ah, that’s so great!
Everyone walked away with a page.
That’s amazing though. Maybe in a tenth-year anniversary edition you could print some, though I guess you don’t have them anymore.
Oh no, they’re gone, they’re gone for good. They weren’t copies I was passing out, they were the originals. Some of them were xeroxed passages from books and others were hand-scrawled notes in my own handwriting.
That would be a cool project for Wave, trying to find people at that lecture and round up some of those notes.
I can assure you they all got thrown out on the way out of the lecture hall.
I bet someone’s still hanging on to it! I would’ve hung on to it. I for sure would have hung on to it.
Maybe someone did! I would have no way of knowing.
In that section you quote the Japanese writer Kurahashi Yukimo who says, “Just as the mouth takes in food, my eyes avidly devoured everything. No doubt my brain was swelling up from its morbid, chronic hunger.”
Oh, the one that grazes through books like sheep…
Exactly, exactly. When I imagine the sort of mythological Mary Ruefle’s life, I imagine it being a lot like that, just you voraciously devouring all these texts.
Well, it’s true. How old are you, Kaveh?
Alright, make sure you put that in the interview. By the time your age has doubled you will have no memory, almost no memory of anything you’ve ever read. Only the stuff that has really, really, really made an impact will stick with you and the rest, well, you’ll realize you’ve just spent your life eating books like grass and obviously they mattered at the time, but later you won’t remember any of it, any more than you remember what you ate for lunch last month.
That’s interesting to think about.
We love it, we’re addicted to reading, we can’t help ourselves, but over a lifetime you look back and you realize how quickly it has decayed. Your memory of it has decayed. It’s more obvious the older you get. I mean, when I was young, every single thing I ever read was in the forefront of my mind. It was there and I was aware of it and I talked about it all the time and now it’s like, yeah, I remember reading that but don’t ask me who the main character was, I can’t tell you.
I love that metaphor of thinking about it as this sort of rote sustenance for a certain breed of person, you know?
It’s like food.
Yeah, reading as animal act.
There are certain minds that need reading the way a body needs food. But just like food, it feeds us and gives us energy and then we don’t remember it, yet it’s essential, we couldn’t live without it.
To take the metaphor one step further, the food breaks down and becomes an unseen compositional element of us, but then our entire body regenerates all of its cells every seven years, right?
Yes, I agree with you. Absolutely. It feeds us but we’re not quite ever aware of it, no more than we’re aware that what we ate last week is becoming muscle or fat this week. It’s an alien thought to us. The same is true of reading.
Ah that’s wonderful. I love thinking about it this way. You’ve also talked about how books can be like photo albums.
Oh, that’s very true and very sad and something you will live your way into. You’re too young but eventually when you look at the old books you’ve read it brings back whole periods of your life just like a photo album. Much the same way, and this you can directly relate to, you hear a song from high school and it brings back those days.
It’s like music — you hear a song and it immediately takes you back to when that song was seminal in your life. Books become that. Books become a photograph album of your past. Oh, I was living here when I read that book. This is how I was feeling, that was this time in my life.
I totally get that, I think. I just moved across the country and for the first time I was able to move all of my books into one place. So all these aggregated artifacts of my literary life came with me. I’ve been building bookshelves. That’s been the primary non-school non-teaching thing I’ve been doing for the past several weeks, just building bookshelves in my apartment.
Aww, that’s so sweet.
It’s wonderful, it’s incredible! I can’t describe to you after a decade of not having all my books in one place, ever, how good it feels to see them in this new place. Just this last weekend, I built the final bookshelf that could house the final box of my books so now I can walk into my place and see all of my books. It’s just something that really resonates with me.
That’s the sign of a true writer. I mean, you’re in it for life. I recently, well not that recently—a few years ago, maybe two, three—unpacked all my books for the first time in fifteen years because I hadn’t had the shelves for them and they had been in boxes. But at the same time I was in a position of being older and found books from college with my handwritten notes in them and I would say, “I’m never going to read this again, I know I’m never going to read this again, I should get rid of it,” and not being able to. I thought I was going to be able to unload boxes and boxes of books, but I couldn’t.
It’s like throwing away a picture of an old lover.
Exactly. Actually, I was brave, I got rid of a lot. But there were certain books I couldn’t part with, like Ulysses by James Joyce, college copy, filled with notes, I’m not going to read it again, not because I don’t want to but because I don’t have enough time on earth. And despite this, I had to keep it.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, you talk about a time when you didn’t read a book for three years. For someone I think of as being this sort of hungry literary locust, I imagine that must have been excruciating.
I was very, very depressed and I couldn’t concentrate or read. I mean, it’s as simple as that. Often times when we’re depressed we can’t do things that we love to do when we’re non-depressed.
What was it like to start reading again?
I found a book by Emily Brontë on the sale table outside of a bookshop.
It just caught me at the right moment, at the right time. The book flooded me and I was engaged again, I reentered the world of reading.
I’m so glad for that book being there at the right time. You talk also about the understanding some artists have of the ways wasting time or loafing can be useful, how it can either lead into “melancholy or creative fervor” and how you’re very interested in the way those scales tip. What tips the loafing into the melancholy or into the fervor? What force is it that pushes it one way or the other?
Whichever way it takes, the lesson in all of this is patience. For instance, the story of my not being able to read for three years and then encountering a book of poems on a sale table leading me back into reading is typical for young writers who can neither read nor write. Not being able to read or write can coincide, or they can be separate. I do know in the period I was unable to read, I was still able to write. But, you know, it’s all patience. It’s learning that there are cycles and you have to go through them and it has to do with faith. Patience has to do with the faith that you will go back to reading, or if you have some kind of writer’s block that you’ll go back to writing. I never myself suffered from writer’s block for more than an inconsequential amount of time, but it’s all patience and faith. Wasting time has to do with the patience and faith of knowing that it’s essential. Wasting time—I write when I waste time. But there are no rules. Sometimes we write when we’re at our busiest and think we have no time.
And that’s when you’re in the middle of the party you’re throwing and have to leave the room to write.
Yeah. I’ve certainly experienced that phenomenon as well.
It works both ways and it never ceases to amaze me. It’s totally unpredictable.
Right, and it’s interesting to hear you talk about having faith in the process, having faith in writing because it seems to me writing is a very spiritual act for you. So often you’re exalting what it is to be alive and to be curious.
Yeah, but the word “exaltation” is a bit prideful. Maybe I don’t think it’s a spiritual activity except insofar as I think the spirit is inseparable from every day life. If you can go there, then maybe you can’t call it spiritual anymore, it’s just every day, it’s not an exalted, separate space. I don’t know, I realize that’s a hazy answer. I can’t respond in a very articulate way to that except to say that I’ve reached a point in my own life where the spiritual is no longer in a compartment of its own, and writing is no longer in a compartment of its own.
What do you mean by that?
It’s not like, oh, now it’s six-o-clock, I’m going to write.
It’s not like that at all. It is part of the stream of my ongoing everyday life. I don’t compartmentalize it. I think many young writers do, but that’s based on their given life at a particular time. Basically, what I’m saying is that I’ve been retired my whole life!
Haha, that’s great. What does a day in your life look like?
It would bore you to tears.
I make the coffee, I water the flowers, I trim the wicks of the candles that I burnt the night before, I put away the dishes in the dish holder—what are those things called?
Dish rack? I’ve just always called it a dish rack.
Yes. I take my dog out in the back yard to pee and poop. I do all those ordinary things. You know, we all have morning rituals. I do work on erasures every morning. When I’m home, that’s the set routine. It can take anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours depending on the page. And that’s really been the only creative ritual I’ve ever had and I love it so—but you know, it’s separate from the writing. Still, I do that faithfully every morning.
It’s interesting that you have it partitioned in your mind as being separate from the writing. It seems like you’re drawing from a similar sensibility, similar sort of impulse.
Very similar, very very similar. But it is a form I can attend to in ways that I can summon, unlike the summoning of an extemporaneous poem. Most of my poems arise extemporaneously.
I don’t exactly sit down, face a blank page, and think about writing a poem. But I can do that with the erasures. The rest, I just let arise when they will. Does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. I loved A Little White Shadow. I love seeing your erasures, I think it’s a wonderful project.
It’s become an obsession. I’ve done 92 of these books! They are only seen by a very few people. Only A Little White Shadow has been published. Actually, about three weeks ago, a second one was published by a small press in Minneapolis, See Double Press. You can purchase it on their website.
But because it’s a full color art book, it’s expensive…
I love the idea of the dailyness of this for you. You talk about how you see the erasures as books of poetry without poems in them.
Yup, I do. I really do.
That’s fascinating to me. Can you sort of elaborate on that idea a little bit?
Well, I’m creating poetic texts, but they don’t have beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s page by page. Some of the books are constructed as a continuous narrative, but most of them aren’t. It’s just something I love to do, and it feels like me. Maybe to a reader of my other books it doesn’t feel like me but to me it does.
You have that line in a poem, “I no longer care what I say.”
That’s for sure.
This all seems like such a sincere enactment of an impulse for you. It seems very to the point of your having this internal engine that isn’t driven by reception or critical acclaim.
Well, if you don’t find that in yourself then you’re going to be miserable down the line because nobody cares. You have to love what you do so much that you don’t care what people think. So long as you care what people think, you’re all caught up in some kind of tremendous loop. That’s an easy recipe for unhappiness.
Right, right. And it seems to me that in poetry, the fact of the stakes being so low, the fact no one is going to become a millionaire or a celebrity by writing a great poem, that should absolve us of some of that anxiety.
I think the stakes are a lot lower than young graduate students think. In graduate school, they tend to be all starry-eyed thinking the stakes are really high. I guess it serves some people, but basically the stakes are pretty low. Realizing this might cause some major readjustment that might actually help someone.
It’s important to maintain that perspective, I think. I sometimes remind myself that Billy Collins and Claudia Rankine and Robert Pinsky could all walk onto the same bus without probably anyone batting an eyelash.
Or even offering them a seat!
Haha. It’s that fact that if I want to be in this, it has to be because it matters deeply to me and because I can’t not be in it. No one else is going to care, you know?
Exactly, and that’s why poetry ultimately is a “spiritual activity.” Because it’s you on your own absent journey.
Yeah, absolutely. A way to interrogate your own sense of wonder and your own sense of curiosity. The fact of audience is almost secondary.
That’s exactly the way it should be. You’re there to engage your own sense of wonder and curiosity. There is no substitute for wonder and curiosity in a life. It’ll take you a long way. But of course one must, among other things, wonder where there is such inequality on earth, and why our species keeps fucking things up.
I think this interview project aims to do a little of all that.
It’s like a mechanic who absolutely loves cars and wants to spend all day under the hood.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but eventually you also want to drive the machine.
Oh my god, yes! I want to feel it for myself, feel the wheels going that fast underneath me.
You want to feel the wind through your hair and your hand out the car window.
Exactly. Exactly. I’m getting actual goosebumps. I’ve felt this for years, reading your work and reading your essays, I’ve felt these moments of being so simpatico. You are doing all this because you are deeply curious in a way that makes you accountable only to your own sense of wonder, you know?
That’s a very articulate way of putting it, yes. But remember we wonder about a great many things, not only all the beauty in the world, but the lack of it. We both praise and lament.
Sure. You talk about how you love solitude, and how being alone and being lonely are two completely different phenomena. I relate to that so intensely.
That’s great. And the more you read poetry, the more you understand that poets are people who are deeply curious about the world outside of themselves. Animals and plants and the fate of the planet and outer space and continental drift. It’s a curiosity that allows you to be alone without feeling lonely.
And poets are more interested in all that stuff than they are in literary terms or literary theories, you know? They’re interested in their own perception, and the perception of others and the perceptions of the past, and they’re also interested in what might possibly be the perception of other living forms, you know?
I realize a lot of this is covered by literary theory, but shouldn’t it just be life theory? It’s not the exclusive property of the academy. Writing is just endless curiosity and wonder.
And you hope there’s no partition between the writing and wonder. The one feeds and deepens and broadens the other. I don’t know how often that’s addressed within writing programs.
That’s probably because as an artist you’re also ultimately aware of form. And so no matter how voraciously you’re wondering, you have to give form to that wonder. And that’s the challenge—language and form, language being, of course, its own form. That’s the ultimate frustration! I wonder about that, too.
To sort of understand the architecture of wonder, that’s what we’re ostensibly learning in our graduate writing programs. You need to understand how to rig the plumbing in the house that you’ve building around your wonder, you know?
Exactly. You’ve been very articulate with “the architecture of wonder.” You know, wonder is something that is totally full of dispersal. It wafts away like a cloud of smoke. But if you’re working in any art form, there has to be some architecture to it.
And that’s the crux. That’s the great paradox of art. It’s an ever-increasing circle of brotherly love but at the same time, let’s face it, the bare fact is that it’s also very exclusive.
Inclusivity versus exclusivity at every single moment.
Another way of looking at that, if you think about language as a sort of evolutionary adaptation that we’ve acquired, then the two utilities of language for us, evolutionarily speaking, are seduction and combat. It’s another way to frame inclusivity versus exclusivity. Lately I’ve been interested in this idea of thinking of language, the language of utility, the rote language of our every day interaction, as either seduction or combat.
That’s very interesting. And seduction and combat can be the same thing.
Right. It’s true in the animal kingdom as well.
Well, humans are animals.
Hah, right. Okay, I don’t want to keep you too long. I feel like we’ve hardly even scratched the surface of your work, but in the interest of time and space, we’ll have to save the rest for another conversation. Do you want to talk about what you’re working on right now, aside from your erasures?
Well, I continue to generate poems, but I probably won’t publish another book of poems for a number of years. I am finalizing a book of prose. I have a prose book called The Most Of It and—
Right, right, the prose. I love that book.
This book will be similar to that and it’s scheduled to be published in the fall of 2016 by Wave.
Ah that’s wonderful. I didn’t know that at all. That’s really wonderful. And are those—
They run from prose poems to personal essays. It’s an even wider gamut than the first book, maybe too wide.
The first book billed itself as being fiction and essay, right? It never called them prose poems?
Well, no one really knows what it was. No one really knows whether it was fiction, essays, or prose poems, for the simple reason that it contained all three. And the new book contains fiction, essays, and prose poems, the same. It’s just stuff that I’ve written, and all of it has a right flush margin. At the same time, I’ve been gravitating toward the personal essay.
That’s great. I mean, Madness, Rack, and Honey was tremendously well-received. People respond to your essay voice. I think it’ll be great.
And if it’s not, I have to be okay with that.
It’s always so exciting to see a new essay of yours pop up online, to check in and see what your mind has been up to.
Thank you, thank you. It always amazes me that people see the stuff online because I don’t, myself, read things online, but I know it’s out there and I know it’s very real to others.
That stuff doesn’t seem to be going anywhere…
That’s for sure! Straight into the future, like all things.
Interview Posted: October 19, 2015
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