“How beautiful does the world have to be before I don’t want to leave it?”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
Your book May Day is out now—how old are the oldest poems in that book?
Yes, I think about half of the poems in the book were written over the course of a nine month period.
I started writing them in the summer of 2012, so I wrote the oldest poems in the book when I was in graduate school. I actually wrote the poem “Prologue" my very first night in grad school.
Your first night?!
Yeah, that’s probably the oldest poem in the book.
That’s a perfect name for it then.
Yeah, yeah. It was a much longer poem at one point, but it became that.
That’s a cool poem, the little itty bitty guy.
The little tiny one.
Were you actively sending these out the whole time, or were you just sort of hoarding them and writing them. When did it start to feel like a book to you? Does it resemble your grad school thesis?
No, it doesn’t look at all like my thesis. One of my friends referred to my thesis as a bloated elk. It was like 130 pages and it was just full. It was as if I was in cosmetology school and it was my mannequin head. I just put everything I was proud of into it, so it didn’t have much of a shape.
And in 2013, I was a first reader for the National Poetry Series. I read hundreds of manuscripts, and I got a really good idea of what a finished manuscript looked and felt like. During that time I was just writing. I had been submitting poems occasionally, but I wasn’t very good at keeping up on it.
When I was in my last year in grad school, Ralph Angel came to visit. And he talked about how he really thought that people should submit to their top choices first. And then once those places rejected you, submit to other places. I sort of decided to take him up on that. I submitted to the Paris Review and they took my work. That was when everything changed for me, as far as being a public writer. I was still writing a lot of the poems that would become May Day, but I wasn’t really writing a book. I wrote the poem “Ode to a Man In Dress Clothes" when I was in graduate school. And it was in the Paris Review , and then reprinted in Harper's in the summer, and then I got an email from Jeff Shotts in July of 2013. He asked me if I had a manuscript.
I actually didn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing. I was living through the worst month of my life. I was miserable and sad. I actually had a friend, who was there with me at the time, make sure this was an actual email I was reading. I didn’t have a book, that was the honest answer, but I did have hundreds of pages of poems. I knew I was close to having something, so I told Jeff it was my goal to have that done by the end of the summer and he said,"Okay, just check back in with me then." He wrote back to me at the beginning of August to ask how I was doing. I said that if I took a few extra weeks or months on it, he would really love it, but if I gave it to him too soon, he wouldn’t like it, and I would ruin the chance for myself. He said he didn’t think that would be the case and gave me an arbitrary deadline of the day after Labor Day. I got my best work together and sent it off to him. He said he would put me out of my misery as quickly as possible. He met with me a few weeks later and we chatted. I signed a contract a week after that.
That’s amazing. That’s awesome.
It is amazing and kind of weird. A weird first book story.
It’s a crazy first book story. That’s the total dream situation, but it’s warranted with the poems. I was totally unfamiliar with your work when I got the ARC of May Day in the mail, but I took it with me to a coffee shop with a stack of books that I was taking to flip through, and I remember opening it up and being totally blown away.
I love hearing that.
It was that thing you hope happens with every new book you pick up and know nothing about.
I wonder where I was that day you took my book with you to a coffee shop. That’s how we started talking. It’s really wonderful.
From the sounds of things, from the story you just told and from the reviews that I’ve read, a lot of people seem to be responding to your work that way. A lot of people are reading a poem in Poetry, or in the Paris Review, or they pick up this book, and they're like, “Holy shit, what is this?”
I’m really touched. The book is a report from a dark time. To have it become something that has brought joy into my life, it feels really good. It feels like that’s how life is ideally supposed to work. Something good should come from suffering.
Totally. For those who haven’t read the book yet, it details the dissolution of a long romantic relationship and also your brother’s deployment to the Middle East and your dealing with those things in your own psychic way. Listening to your story about how you were in the worst month of your life when you got that email from Jeff Shotts—it’s a total close-a-door, open-a-window thing.
Yes. It’s a balancing of the scales or something. At the time I was having such a bad time that I had to carry Mentos with me everywhere I went because I didn’t have enough spit in my mouth to talk to people. I was that anxious and sad. It was to the point where, a friend of mine saw some Mentos fall out of my bag and she was like, "Oh my God! Are you okay?" For so many months I was in such a bad place, and it was during that time that everything changed for me.
That’s a perfect image of that time, the Mentos. I’ve never heard of anything like that. So you were writing the poems when you were still in that time. Has a combination of time and distance from the situation, and the experiences the book has given you, improved your station?
Yes, I’m definitely not in the same place that I was before. I think writing those poems helped me come to terms with a lot—obvious things, like this person’s exodus from my life, but I also had this idea that things were going to get easier once I coped with his leaving, and there would be this resolution and happy ending. And I wouldn’t always feel the sort of disorientation that I felt after he as gone. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that if that's going to happen, it hasn’t happened yet and it’s possible that I’ll never have the kind of resolution that I’m craving. And continuing to write poems is kind of my territory.
I’m trying to explore, like, how beautiful does the world have to be before I don’t want to leave it? It’s already really fucking beautiful, and yet sometimes it’s not enough for me. And I’m a person who really connects with beauty and with the world on a regular basis. Every single day there is something that moves me. But what do I do with the time I have here? How do I make a space for myself to live in when my life just doesn’t look the way I thought it was going to look?
That’s a beautiful way to articulate a complicated sentiment that I think a lot of people spend lifetimes struggling with. That’s a central concern of the book, too. You could look to a poem like “Figure Drawing,” the beginning of that poem is one of those “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm” moments—you see a Cooper's hawk and say, “I knew then, / somehow, that I would never take my own life.” And that’s not layered in a cloak of anything. It’s in the first-person, you are talking about a real moment.
Well, there was a kind of shifting that happened a year after my break up. We kept in touch for a year, which we should not have done. And once I finally closed the door on all communication with him, I started to improve. I was spending a lot of time that fall with my friend Nikki, who was an art student at the time. She was studying figure drawing and looking for a model. So I would just sit still for hours in her beautiful, airy, bright studio while she was drawing me. I was really finding a toehold where I could go a whole day without wishing that I wasn’t there.
There were moments that felt like missing a step going down the stairs—where everything sort of drops for a second. I had these moments where I realized, "Oh, I almost missed this," you know? And what complicated things was the fact that Nikki lost her mother to suicide when she was ten years old.
So when I was spending all this time with her and also trying to get a grip, there were these moments where we'd be walking to the diner and she'd have this paint on her face—she is so beautiful—and I'd think about how her mom wasn’t getting to see her become an adult, wasn't getting to see her ferocious talent. I didn’t judge her mom for that. I identified with her a little bit, and it freaked me out to think I could be missing this part of my life where I get to love Nikki and sit in her studio. Now there are drawings and paintings from that point in her career where I’m the only figure. She still has them.
That’s beautiful. I love that story. Some of that—the "smudge / of yolk-colored pigment under your nose"—is in the poem, but it’s cool to hear the whole story behind it. The first time I read through the book, that was the poem where I was like, "I need to talk to this person."
You haven’t told me that.
Yeah, I think that was the one. It speaks to both the redemptive powers of art and also the redemptive powers of friendship, the latter of which is nodded to in the book’s dedication.
Oh yes, definitely. I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for those friendships. Which is strange because we give such a privileged place for romantic love and familial love, but in both of those forms of love you are under a contract in some way. But then you have friendships, which have actually been some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in my life.
We can leave each other at any time. We have no obligation to one another, and I think that makes friendship more powerful than romantic love. For people who don't immediately find a partner in adulthood, these reliable and durable friendships are what help us find the strength to go out into the world and be brave because that is what we can come back to. It would be ideal to have one person to rely on predominately, but it’s really beautiful to have a lot of people.
Totally, that’s so well put. I think about that all the time, how people privilege romantic love. The way a person treats their friends is often a pretty good indicator of how they are going to treat a romantic partner. And I’ve been missing my oldest, closest friends terribly since moving to Florida last summer. I don’t have that network here. But that’s not really relevant.
Actually, I think it is pertinent to what we’re talking about, especially because I was really alone when I started a new chapter in my life four years ago. I had these friendships, many of them I’ve had for many years, but they weren’t as deep as they are now. When I did find myself suffering, I was mostly alone because I hadn’t taken the time to build those friendships up to what they are, what I’ve built them into now. I can relate to what you’re saying. The reason I wrote almost half my book in 9 months was because I didn’t have anyone that I wanted to talk to. There was nobody who could comfort me, so I wrote instead. I think that’s why I was so productive.
And friendship is something that you explore in the poems repeatedly. I’m thinking of “A Poem About Childhood,” which is paired with “Want." These are two of my favorite poems in the book, but that’s sort of a darker thing. I guess it’s not necessarily a friend, but—
Yeah, the comradery, but also the one-upsmanship that you find in there. Maybe we could talk about "Want," which is one of my favorite poems in the book, and it’s a way to pivot into talking about poems about animals. It’s this really short poem that’s doing what a lot of the book does, which is quietly marrying the natural world with the psychic ecosystem, and pushing up against the limitations of both in interesting ways. I’ve read that poem probably 200 times and sent it to a million people. I still kind of gasp at its last line.
That’s amazing that you say that.
Is that one of the older poems?
It is. When I was in graduate school, I took a class called "Ode and Elegy." My partner and I were still together then, but I was realizing that it was unlikely we'd stay together. In this class we were required to write five poems a week, which is a lot.
Yeah, that’s a lot.
Near the end of the semester, my instructor, Jim Moore said, "You can turn in a brand new manuscript if you want. I wouldn’t mind." And everyone laughed. We’d been writing five poems a week, who would turn in new work that he hadn’t seen? But a half-second before everybody laughed, I was like, "I’m going to do that." I wrote. It was one of the most productive periods of my entire life. I wrote forty pages of poems in two weeks. I had a lot to say and it was all about how this relationship was probably not going to work. I titled the manuscript with the first initials of the person I was with. "Want" was one of the poems I wrote during those two weeks. I was trying to look at my grief and disappointment from every single angle. I was trying to look for patterns that had emerged in my childhood in relation to wanting affection and comfort, and looking for that outside of myself. I remember doing that when I was little and wanting the macaw.
I knew it wasn’t so good, but I wanted it anyway.
There’s a sort of backstory in the other poems in the book.
That used to be "Want II," there was "Want I," and that one was about horses.
About you wanting horses as a kid, too?
Oh, that’s cool. I want to see that poem.
I’ll show it to you.
"Painted Turtle" is another poem where you’re pushing psychic pain up against a sensitivity to the natural world. It feels like such an organic, clean piece. It’s not one where all the marionette strings are flashing in the light.
That poem is also from that two week manuscript.
Yeah, and that did happen. I’m happy to hear that you can’t see the strings because I didn’t labor over that poem too much. The romantics talk about writing themselves into a fever, and I kind of did that because I was in an emotional free fall. I was looking for metaphors and I was using my figurative ones to try to put what I was feeling into some sort of container. Without it, I felt like I couldn’t survive. I wrote the poem a few days after it happened. You know, I honestly don’t remember much about writing that poem.
It was all in that sort of superfast fugue of writing.
Definitely. I really do feel like a lot of those poems were gift poems because I needed them so badly and they came, which doesn’t always happen.
The foil of that poem is the natural world and this familiarity with the of vernacular biology. You talk about the turtle’s heart beating once every ten minutes. Are you reading a lot of science texts? It reminds me of Aimee Nezhukumatathil, whose poems are super science-y and engaged with the natural world.
I grew up out in the woods and I lived there until I was ten. Then I moved into the suburbs and I could finally ride my bike on pavement, but I lost a lot. When I was little I wanted to be a wildlife rehabilitator. I spent all my time outside and learned everything I could about trees and animals and plants, and it’s always been something that’s important to me. It sounds more romantic than it was. I would find dead animals or rabid animals. There were plenty of things I was afraid of. It was also lonely sometimes because we didn’t have a neighborhood full of kids. It was just me and my sister most of the time. It wasn’t all sunshine, but it was a beautiful childhood and I felt connected to the natural cycles of the world. Those things still remain powerful to me, and they kind of became more like metaphors. That’s why they appear the way they do in the poems. Though I will say that I do remember looking up things about that turtle so I would know what to say. I’m a big researcher when I’m writing poetry. If I want to know what kind of flowers are purple that grow in Minnesota in August, I’ll look that up. I like being as specific as I can when I’m talking about the natural world.
The acuity of your observations are really remarkable throughout. Both when you’re talking about the natural world and when you’re talking about your psychic ecosystem, you have a very specific register of observation.
That’s such a compliment. Thank you.
I think it’s sort of particular to you and maybe that's what people pick up on. Another favorite poem is the one that’s based on the Auden poem.
Yeah, but you have the line in there where you say, “the vowels of rage: 'E,' / sometimes "O." And I know the photograph you’re talking about. It’s a poem that’s answering the famous Auden line, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters.” But you’re talking about this horrible photo from Gaza, where these men are carrying their dead children wrapped in shawls and there’s this big crowd behind them. It’s a really striking and horrible image. And you talk about the vowels of rage, 'E' and sometimes 'O,' and that’s so exactly right, the men in that picture are making those letters. And 'E' is such an angry vowel sound.
Yeah, you are showing your teeth.
It’s the most animal of the vowel sounds but I would never in a hundred years, thinking about anger, would I think to associate that. This is almost like Rimbaud's "Vowels," "A black, E white, I red," but yours is so much more tethered to our actual physiology.
I’m happy to have a chance to discuss that poem because I had someone ask me if it was meant to be a political poem, especially because of where it takes place. I wrote that poem during the summer of 2013, and our country had just gone through the shooting in Aurora, the Boston bombing, and the Sandy Hook shooting. I just remember feeling so overcome by all of this grief. I don’t watch the news, I have to be in control of the rate at which I’m getting information in a crisis.
I’m the same way.
I would read a lot about these things. I would see images of the people outside the theater, or the people behind the finish line. I was seeing their faces. And when I saw this image of these men with their children and it was the same feeling to me. This complete grief and bewilderment and anger. I felt angry, too. And I remembered that Auden poem and thought this is the perfect opportunity for me to sort of address it. To say that he’s wrong. It’s a political poem in that I’m angry that the vast majority of people on the planet want to lead good lives, and be fulfilled, and take care of their children and their friends, but then there are some really sad and confused and broken people who do terrible damaging things. I resent the insinuation that I can see a photograph like that on the other side of the world and just let it go. I don’t let it go. I can’t.
I was just talking to Phil Metres, who wrote Sand Opera, which is another recentish favorite book of mine. It's a book that is very politically engaged, but he talks about how he sees it as being about love, and how if you are writing about love, you have to be able to write about love for the self and love for the other.
I hope that when people read that poem they see that it’s more of a looking outward because at the time I was just a raging heart. I wrote a lot of poems around that time period, especially around the bombing in Boston. It was springtime. I remember sitting in a cafe and this woman came upt o me and asked if I could help her. She handed me this tiny hat and said,"My baby lost his hat."
She turned around and there was a baby on her back. This little boy looked at me with complete trust when I put the little hat on over his head, and I was thinking about Tamerlan Tsarnaev and how he was another boy that the world failed. And that wasn’t necessarily a popular viewpoint, especially a few days after the bombing, but it was a very honest one for me. So even though I was still so focused on my own situation, in my personal life and in my family, a lot of my work around that time was contiguous with external drama that was happening.
I feel like we could continue talking about so many of these things for another hour and still not scratch the surface. Do you want to say anything about what you’re working on now, what you’ve got moving forward?
Yeah. I’ve never actually been abroad, but I have this strange and sudden opportunity to go away. I’m leaving tomorrow to spend most of the summer in Europe. I’m bringing a new notebook because I think I’m starting a little bit of new territory already, and I feel that the poems I’m writing are still sort of sibling poems to what I was dealing with in May Day. A lot of what you and I have been discussing is still at the front of my mind. Just this sort of idea about how a person commits to living their life, how a person cultivates a relationship with the world that’s personal and profound. I re-read Bluets recently and I’ve been thinking about having what feels like erotic love for places, landscapes, and things. I feel like cultivating that is sort of essential to staying present and staying happy for a lot of people, myself included. Being that I’m going to be in a brand new place and having this adventure—an externally located adventure, but also an internal one—I think a lot more of what I think and feel about those things is going to come to light. That's my new territory.
That’s beautiful. That’s such an incredible journey that you’re embarking upon. I’m so excited for you and a little scared for you but mostly just excited.
Yeah, I feel that too. Thank you, Kaveh.
Interview Posted: August 29, 2016
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