“It’s pretty simple: talk as if someone’s listening.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You studied Russian Literature and Slavic Languages before pivoting to poetry, right?
Yes, when I was younger I had been interested in writing and playing music, interested in that way of making art for many years, most of my early twenties. In the early 1990’s, I was living in San Francisco and playing in a band with my brother—
He’s still a musician, right?
Oh yeah, he’s the real musician of the family. He’s a musician and also a composer. So at the time I was feeling like I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do, but I didn’t really know what I’d rather be doing. I felt like if I went back to school, that might do it. I needed to get around people again who knew more, could teach me things. I think I probably secretly wanted to be a writer, but I’d hardly even written anything at all.
I had taken one poetry workshop in college. And I had one friend who went to the MFA at Iowa but I didn’t really know what that meant, what an MFA entailed, other than that one existed in Iowa. I think I probably knew I wanted to study writing, but I didn’t even know whether I wanted to write fiction or poetry or anything else. So when I decided to go back to school, I applied to Ph.D. programs in Slavic Languages and Literature since that’s what I had done in college, and I’d lived for a year in the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1990.
Interesting time to be there.
Yeah! I lived there for a year at Moscow State University on a fellowship the year after I graduated from college, right before I moved to San Francisco. So, I got into Berkeley (the Ph.D. in Slavic Language and Literatures) and went, partly because I wanted to stay in the area. I started that up and very quickly realized I wasn’t a scholar, that wasn’t for me. I decided I was going to start writing poetry. I’m still not exactly sure why I did that. I’d guess I’d taken a poetry workshop with Kim Addonizio in San Francisco a couple of years before, too.
That’s awesome! Through a university?
No, she used to have them out of her house. I’d written a handful of poems, but I still didn’t really think of myself as a poet at all. I was just trying out different things, you know? So the whole first year I was at Berkeley I was writing poems, and eventually realized I should probably get out of the situation I was in with this Ph.D. program and get into an MFA. I still didn’t really know anything, didn’t know what I was doing.
I was very lucky to end up at UMass-Amherst. I studied with James Tate and Dara Wier and the late Agha Shahid Ali and that was very good fortune because not only were they amazing, amazing teachers and top-notch poets, all three of them, but also the students around me were great. I got this intensely accelerated education in American poetry, which I knew very little about. That MFA program was the best thing that could have happened to me as a writer. I wasn’t writing anything of value during those first few years, but it was a real education. That’s how I got started. That’s also where I met Brian Henry, a classmate at UMass. He and I decided to start Verse Press.
Which became Wave.
Yeah, it became Wave later. That was a pretty big deal too, meeting Brian. He was and still is a real force of nature and figured all the publishing stuff out (at the time he and Andrew Zawacki were already editing Verse magazine). Without him I’m sure Verse Press (which later became Wave Books) never would have existed.
It seems like that the MFA program at Amherst is some sort of crazy Narnia that produces an unreal number of really unique writers and unique projects. I think maybe more consistently than any other school, the writers coming from there are making work that interests me. I don’t know if it’s something in the water or if it’s James Tate or Emily Dickinson or what.
Haha. It’s probably a combination of a lot of things. I think there are structural factors too. Amherst is a sweet idyllic little western Massachusetts town, but it’s really close to Boston and New York. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, but not really. Kim Gordon talks about this in her memoir, the location of the Pioneer Valley.
It's like a little residency or writing retreat built into itself.
Yeah! So you’re not totally isolated out in the cornfields, though the cornfields have worked pretty well for Iowa. And, at the time I went during the mid-nineties, it was really the three of them, Shahid, Dara, and Jim, who were just totally throwing themselves into the program. They created this intensely collegial atmosphere of creativity that often spilled over into publishing ventures. Rain Taxi and Conduit, two really early independent publishing ventures, started there. Now everybody everywhere has little magazines and little presses, which is great, but at the time, that wasn’t really true.
Dara’s spirit in particular was really influential in that way. And also, Dara and Jim and Shahid were people who practiced poetry with intense seriousness and integrity. It couldn’t help but spill over into the students. Cultures perpetuate themselves. It took on a life of its own; people knew there was something cool happening there so they came and that built on itself. When I was there, David Berman was also there.
From the Silver Jews?
Yes, and that was when he wrote the book Actual Air. It was his thesis, which I took out of the library and read in its black binder, before it was published. It was already a great book, it blew my mind. Joe Pernice was there too, from the Scud Mt. Boys, then the Pernice Brothers. All these musician poets. I was playing music also. There were a bunch of really excellent poets who were there when I was there who’re still publishing and still doing great things. I think it’s established itself as one of the best versions of an MFA. Plus, there’s Emily Dickinson.
See, that was my theory! Your explanation is more reasonable than my longstanding belief that Emily Dickinson’s ghost was just boosting everyone along.
Well, maybe that’s the best answer. We used to go to her grave all the time.
I don’t know how you wouldn’t.
We’d go there on a regular basis and just hang out there. It sounds so cheesy, but her presence really is there. I was also an undergrad at Amherst College so I knew the area very well. Her spirit is there. Also Frost’s too, to a lesser extent.
This is maybe a goofy aside, but I can’t think about that David Berman Actual Air book without thinking of Tomaž Šalamun. He was the person that recommended that book to me, which is crazy. I think about him as being this dervish of a poet, reading Sophocles and staring at an astrolabe or something. But when I met him, we talked a lot about American music. That’s just what he wanted to talk to me about. He was very into Xiu Xiu, which excited me.
And he asked if I listened to the Silver Jews and when I said yes, he told me I should read that book. I didn’t know it existed. I thought maybe it was one of these things, like Ryan Adams had a not-great book of poetry. I bought Actual Air and loved it. I hadn’t realized Berman was a real poet.
No, David was a poet first. He was Jim and Dara’s student. I knew Tomaž very very well. His passing was a terrible thing for everyone, to lose him. The way I remember it, I got to know Tomaž through Brian, who met him in Australia at some festival or conference. That was when Tomaž was in New York, working for the Slovenian Consulate. Tomaž also separately got to know Joshua Beckman and Matt Rohrer, my two closest poetry friends, two of my closest friends period. So I spent a lot of time with Tomaž that way too.
He ended up teaching at UMass a couple of times, and I bet that’s how he got to know Berman. Tomaž was a great teacher. The way you described him was pretty common. He wanted to know what people were hearing and reading and writing and he wanted to turn us on to stuff. He brought us all over to Slovenia to introduce us to the poets who were our peers over there who we’ve gotten to become great friends with. Tomaž was a big part of the soul of UMass-Amherst. His spirit kind of permeated that area, poetically. He was a big part of our consciousness. He was such a big influence on all of us who became teachers and went out into the world, so we carry so much of him forward without even being consciously aware of it.
It seems like he really had a finger in every pot of contemporary poetry.
He was a true poet. He was a visionary, you know? And a gentle person. And a force. You met him, you know all this.
Yeah. I gave him a bunch of my poems when I met him and I emailed maybe six months later just to thank him for being nice to me. This is the most amazing thing to me, still—he remembered a couple lines from the poems! I’m just a dummy in the middle of Indiana, but he remembered lines, verbatim, from these crappy poems I gave him.
Wow. Well, poetry was his life. There are some people who live poetry every day. That’s their way of encountering the world. I don’t think it’s the only way to be a poet. I won’t even say it’s the only way to be a great poet. But there are certain poets for whom that’s the only way to be alive. Dickinson was that way, famously. Tomaž was another. Some people breathe in the world and breathe out poems. That’s how they process their experience. It’s almost somatic, a body function. That’s how Tomaž was. He would take in everything around him. He was a great man.
There probably aren’t a lot of hours in your days that aren’t ultimately in service of poetry, either. You’re a translator, anthologist, you’ve got your poetry collections, you’ve got Wave, and you teach. It seems like your poetry dance card is all filled up.
Too filled up, probably. I’ve become aware, now that I’m teaching full-time and also have a family, that I also need to be a lot more active than I used to be about keeping time for writing my poems. I’m also writing a book of prose about reading poetry.
Oh yeah, that too!
Yeah, that comes out next year, and that’s taken up a lot of my energy over the past few years. I’m not like Tomaž. I don’t have to write every day, but I’m happier when I do. Those are the times I’m happiest as a person, when I’m writing all the time like that. My goal is to try to get myself less busy, to become a little worse as a citizen of poetry, maybe. When you’re at certain point in your life, you have a lot of involvement in a lot of different things. I really love the program where I teach at Saint Mary’s and I love my students and I’m very dedicated to them, but that takes a lot of time. That feels right to me. But sometimes I do realize I’m spending a lot of time reading other people’s poems (laughing). And editing is very time-consuming, but also rewarding, as you know.
And generative, too. My work with this site often seems very much in conversation with my own writing.
I do think one has to be careful about that. I think that as you get a little farther along as an editor, you realize you have to separate whatever it is you’re concerned with at that particular moment with whatever you’re working on. Younger editors can sometimes find it harder to separate those things out. Now I’m more aware of that possibility, that whatever I’m struggling with in my own writing life shouldn’t come into the work I’m doing with someone else’s manuscript. I’m a better editor now than I was ten years ago, that’s for sure, and a lot of has to do with getting better at this.
I always tried to be a good reader. That’s what it took to be a good editor, I thought. I was more interested in that than in being a critic. I didn’t want to sit up on my mountaintop and decree who was doing what well. I mean, that’s great work, but that was always less interesting to me personally than really reading someone generously and attentively and trying to help them in whatever way they need to become their best selves as writers.
Well, I think the selection of books Wave puts out is really consistently interesting, and not in the really easy, obvious ways. You’re not just publishing books you know will sell.
Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic is a good example.
That’s not a super sexy book to put out, you know? It’s not a book that’s going to sell 30,000 copies or whatever, but it was a really wonderful, singular, unique, and beautiful work.
Absolutely. The guiding word for Joshua and me and our publisher, Charlie Wright, is necessity. What does it feel necessary for us to publish? There are a lot of publishing houses doing great work. We don’t need to do everything everyone else does. We can do something more specific, focusing in more on a particular generation of poets, who are doing “mid-career” work now. Also, among other things, we’re interested in helping those poets generate work they wouldn’t otherwise do. For example, Graham Foust, who I’d say is one of my favorite poets of my generation, is on Flood Editions, a great press.
Out of Chicago.
Yeah, and they do an awesome job. But he had this idea, to work on these translations of Ernst Meister, and I think he would not have been able to do them, or at least wouldn’t have done as many of them, had we not been so enthusiastic about publishing them. We want to be able to contribute to the literary culture.
It’s sometimes very frustrating for people. They wonder why we won’t publish their manuscripts, why we won’t publish their friends. The fact is, we’re a small press. We put out eight books a year. We have to have a guiding principle about what we want to do. We want to make something no one else is making. I’m glad you feel that when you read the books. We feel it when we publish them and we would never publish something we didn’t love and think was necessary.
There’s a sense of daring.
And, from my perspective, I think there’s also a kind of didactic role a press can play. It can bring work forward and make connections that would not otherwise be made. A good example of that is a book Joshua Beckman worked on, Lake Superior. It’s a book that collects all of the material around Lorine Niedecker’s great poem. Joshua made that book. That’s not an obvious Wave title, but it’s a book that can teach us something about what writing is today, what poetry does today. That’s another function Wave takes on that is especially important to us. We want to advance the sense of what poetry is and can be and can do and has done.
We think of ourselves as part of a poetry ecosystem. Thank God Graywolf is publishing Citizen and everything else, and thank God Flood is publishing Graham Foust and others, and Ugly Ducking is doing what they’re doing, etc. Thank goodness, because we can’t do everything. We can only do what we do.
Alright, I want to switch to talking about your own writing. You exploded out of nowhere, kind of, with American Linden and The Pajamaist, right? You pretty quickly became a household name in poetry, insofar as there are household names in poetry. I guess that might be like saying you’re the best rapper in Poland.
(Laughing) I bet there are some good rappers in Poland. I bet there’s an intense and awesome rap scene.
You know what, I bet there is and I bet I’m going to feel really horrible about making that statement after a quick Google search.
I bet they breakdance there. I bet there’re like seven incredible breakdancers there who’ll just throw the cardboard down and just totally kill it.
I bet they’re also regular Divedapper readers and will be sending us videos as soon as this goes up.
(Laughing) I look forward to that. But, yeah. I started to write a little bit later than my peers. Most of my friends had first or even second books out when I was working on my first. I got to do a lot of trial and error.
A longer incubation period.
Even if I felt extremely frustrated at times by not having a first book out yet, by the time that first book came out it really was something I felt happy about. I still feel very happy about it. I would not write those poems now, but those poems were what I needed to write then. I was very lucky to have that first book published at all. Tupelo Press did it. That was very early on in the culture of that wave of independent publishing. A bunch of books were coming out that people had worked on for a long time. It felt more like a group explosion.
And the other thing is, I just got in the habit of working really, really hard on the poems, just day in and day out, not being satisfied. I was almost like a poetry monk. I was just devoted to this intense practice and I took it very seriously and I felt like it was something I had to learn and apprentice at it. I felt that way for sure during my first two books. I worked for years and years and years on those books and on those poems. I didn’t have a lot of other responsibilities and I lived in cheap shitty places and I didn’t need any money and I didn’t care about any of that stuff. Neither did my friends. All we cared about was poetry. By the later books, I’d internalized a lot of this stuff, so the poems didn’t necessarily each require the months and months of not doing anything else.
I’d never considered that the proliferation of independent presses would suddenly provide venues for poets with these long-gestating works.
That was the inspiration for a lot of the presses! That was the reason we started Verse! We knew these books existed and that there was no way they were going to get published. It was the same exact impulse behind the formation of a lot of independent music labels in the eighties. We were very aware of that. We took on that same spirit.
And then, it happened to coincide with the widespread availability of email, the cheapness of desktop publishing software, and the start of the web. Those things all combined to make it possible to communicate to work and make books and get the word out. When I first started doing Verse, I’d just get 2,000 copies of a book at my door. People would order them from Amazon and Amazon would call me and tell me where to ship them. When Barnes and Nobles in Omaha needed books, I’d get a call on my flip cell phone, and then I’d go to the post office and send the books and then a week later, I’d get a check back in the mail. That was the beginnings of distribution for Verse Press. Even that, which sounds like caveman shit, would not have been possible without email and the internet. It was a big change.
It’s crazy to think about how quickly that happened. As you said, that sounds like caveman shit now, but that was only fifteen years ago.
Yeah, you’re right. Now there’s exponentially more content, so many more books and so many more magazines. I don’t think we need to rehash the good and bad aspects of that. It’s just a different environment now.
It’s like your line, “American brothers and sisters, let us look up from our screens.”
I mean, I’m not the only person who has pointed out we’re spending a little too much time looking down at our phones, but that’s something we’re all going to have to learn to deal with. I suspect people will move back into some kind of middle ground again. I think we’ve just gotten overwhelmed by the technology. People are already starting to realize it sucks to be checking your email all the time.
It’s interesting too for you, as a new father who’ll have to be navigating what the right amount of exposure is right for your child as you’re figuring it out for yourself.
(Laughing) Yeah. But by the time he’s old enough, who knows what we’ll actually be worrying about. My guess is whatever’s going on right now will not be the thing my wife and I will be dealing with in five years or ten years. He’s going to be saying, “Mom, everyone’s going to Mars after school, can I go?” We’ll just have to deal with that. We’re going to seem like we just got off the boat to this kid. It’s always like that, I guess.
How has that new adventure been for your writing? Robert Wrigley calls children the “densest creative obstacles and engines.” Have you found that to be the case?
Obviously having a kid kind of throws a grenade into your life, logistically. Everyone knows that. That’s predictable, though. I wrote a bunch of poems right after my son was born. I actually wrote with him on my lap. I felt very creatively inspired, but then I think the sleeplessness caught up to me. What’s more of an obstacle to my creative work is all of my jobs, not my son. But my wife’s been great about trying to give me space to continue writing and making my work. I think it’ll all balance out.
It’s so dorky to say, but the spectrum of emotions I’ve had since he’s been born is so much greater than what I’ve ever had before. I don’t know what that’s going to do to my poems, but I think it will have a profound effect. It’ll probably take a while to permeate, for the symbols to emerge in an authentic way. Those symbols ultimately manifest in the poems, but they have to rise out of the unconscious. It’s geologic, though. It has to happen as the mind churns under whatever happens in every day life. I just don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope the poems will be in some way commensurate with the total awesomeness of the experience I’m going through.
It seems like for your writing, direct address is such a structurally important part of the way the poems work. Now you have this entity to whom your direct addresses become brand new. It’s a completely unique way of addressing a human being, the way a father addresses his son. It seems like it could be very important for your work specifically.
That’s a really interesting idea. You’re right, I think. I am interested in why I’m writing a poem when I’m writing in, and that doesn’t have just one answer. A lot of poets are trying to work out, in a very basic way, “what am I doing when I’m making a poem?” For me, I think it has a lot to do with the potential reader, the potential listener. That’s somebody I really feel the presence of when I’m writing a poem. It was extremely generative to orient myself in that way. It’s pretty simple: talk as if someone’s listening. When there are flaws in contemporary American poetry, a lot of times you can trace it back to a failure to even consider the fact that people might be listening. Even if you were to reject that notion or say, “That’s not for me, I have other considerations,” you’re thinking about it. You have to take that seriously, as a fact of the world.
Simone Weil has this very famous simple statement: “attention is the purest form of generosity.” The flipside of that is, when you have someone’s attention, you have a kind of responsibility. It doesn’t mean you have to be serious about that or even respectful of it. But to not even deal with the fact that’s happening just seems like such a grievous oversight. I think a lot of poetry seems oblivious to the fact that someone might be reading it or hearing it.
And I don’t mean I think all poetry should be “clear” or “accessible,” because that’s not at all what I think. I just think you have to consider that there are other human beings in the world. If you want to write poems for yourself, that’s fine, but then just keep them to yourself, you know?
Yeah, you don’t have to write poems that are “easy,” necessarily, to write poems that are relevant to the daily experience of other people.
I don’t think poems need to be relevant to the daily experiences of anyone. I think they are for something else. Most poems aren’t easy. But the way they’re not easy is very separate from what people ordinarily think of as difficulty in poetry. It’s not that they’re hard to understand, it’s that they require a kind of attention to the language that isn’t ordinarily required of us. It’s not that they’re obscure or have references to mythological figures or use poetic language; it’s mostly that they ask us to listen in a different kind of way so something different can happen in our minds, so we can be awakened to something again. That’s the difficulty of poetry. The demands of the poem on us are not the ones we are taught in school.
You’re communicating experience in a way that is very tethered to the defamiliarist tradition. You evoke Paul Valery in Come On All You Ghosts, calling a poem “a machine made of words.” He also said, “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” which strikes me as being especially close to the heart of your work.
That’s also the title of a book of interviews with Robert Irwin that I’m looking at right now, as we speak, on my shelf.
Haha, really? Weird!
Yeah! Eileen Myles was the person who recommended it to me.
She's great! But that sentiment of Valery’s seems important for your work. I think of the all the “Poem fors…” you’ve written, and it seems like making the stone stone-y, that defamiliarizing, is an important part of your mission, something you’re very skilled at.
You’ve written, “the imaginative act of convincing yourself you know less than you think you do about something, and then trying to rename it, is for me central to the act of trying to write poetry.”
I have a double feeling about names. I think forgetting the name of something is a tried and true way of making art, but I also have a great respect for the names of things. Emerson says language is fossil poetry, and that over the life of a language, the names of things are refined and collectively decided. When something is called a shelf or a tree or a box, it’s because we’ve all sorted through the various things those words can and can’t mean, so we have our private understandings of them but also our public understandings. Those words are super powerful, and they tap into our collective mind. That’s the source of poetic power. Defamiliarization is an important process, but the names themselves are the entire source of energy of the poetic act. It’s not just forgetting the names; it’s also remembering them. It has to be both.
You sort of lean into that energy in the way you title your poems. “Poem for a Coin,” “Poem to a Cloud Above a Statue,” you know?
I love the names of things. I love the fact that they belong to us all and want my poems to tap into that collective energy. It’s almost an ethical act—waking up to our lives through an intense encounter with the word.
What’s one of your favorite songs by him?
Oh man. “Speed Racer” was the song where he kind of clicked for me, I think. “West of Rome” is maybe my favorite album, now.
Is “Lucinda Williams” on “West of Rome”?
Yeah! About his mom’s cancer.
It’s the most devastating song in the world. Just a couple weeks before he died, I saw him in San Francisco with my wife and my brother. We were all just completely devastated when he sang that song. A lot of the time now, I can’t even listen to that song. A real loss.
You think about the way he messes around with syntax, he was a defamliarist too. “It weren’t supernatural,” that sort of thing.
He was a real poet. In “Myrtle,” he sings, very slowly, “I felt like a sick child, dragged by a donkey, through the myrtle.” I think that, to me, is the ideal poetic line. Its filmic accuracy. The way it unfolds into its symbolic potential. He had total poetic instincts. So, after he died I would just walk around San Francisco listening to his music and looking at things and thinking and thinking and thinking, That poem came from that place.
It’s interesting, because I read Sun Bear as being tonally more assured, maybe more hopeful and less nervous than some of your previous collections. But then it ends with three of the final poems being these sorts of elegies for dead men: Bill Cassidy, Jack Spicer, and Vic Chesnutt. It seems like you become very interested in death as the book closes.
Well, I hope I’m more interested in death for a long time than it is in me. When I’m quiet and walking around by myself, one of the big things I think about are the people we’ve lost. It’s just something that comes up when I’m on my own with language. We’ll see if that holds up. My life is so full of life right now, but the mortal terrors are still there.
Interview Posted: April 13, 2015
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