Saturday, November 14, 2015

New Poetry Books

I'm going to start giving shout outs to new poetry books.  One I've read recently, O'Nights by Cecily Parks is wonderful, lyrical, and simply beautiful.

Click here to read more about it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New Book Out!

I haven't posted here in a while but I thought I should probably mention that I have a new book out by the incredible McSweeney's Poetry Series who were 10x more amazing than I ever thought they could be. 

Link to Amazon for book information

Or you can buy a subscription at McSweeney's

Learn more at my new website.

I hope you will check the book out and review it on Amazon and Goodreads, good or bad!


Friday, June 29, 2012

Interview with Mary Biddinger, Akron Poetry Series

I interviewed Mary Biddinger, Series Editor for the Akron Series in Poetry. She likes poems with "teeth"--I like people and poems with some fangs too!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday, May 4, 2012

Some Stuff

I'll be guest writing some blog posts on Ploughshares related to small presses over the next few months.  The first installment is here:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Coffee Chat #7: Shane McCrae

While I was at AWP this year, a book was recommended to me more than once and that book was Shane McCrae's Mule, published by Cleveland State University Press.  I, like many readers, can be a bit skeptical about recommendations.  However, I loved this book and highly recommend it.  I also recommended it at Ron Slate's blog here.

What I loved most about this book was the originality of the voice.  I just haven't read a book that sounds quite like McCrae's book.  After I read his book, I had so many questions about how this book was formed, as well as questions about McCrae as a person and a poet.  I sought him out to interview and he was gracious enough to answer my questions.  I hope you'll read his interview below and buy the book.  Not only is McCrae a great poet, but he also seems like a darn nice guy too.


VC: As someone with four degrees myself in various different areas, I noticed in your bio that you have an MFA from Iowa, a JD from Harvard, and are now pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Iowa, and I assume you have a BA as well.  Tell me about your interest in the pursuit of education?

SM: You know, it’s hard for me to think of myself as someone interested in the pursuit of education, although I imagine I am—I couldn’t stand school when I was younger, and I still have some trouble with it. In fact, the main reason I dropped out of high school was that I was so hopelessly behind in my work—because I skipped school most days—that I had no chance of graduating in the foreseeable future. Since I had already repeated the 10th grade, I felt like maybe I had been in school long enough.

So I had a bad time in school, and didn’t start college until I was 21, about to turn 22. By this time I had decided that I wanted to be a poet—in fact, I had pretty much decided that at 15, based upon nothing—and I thought school might be good for my writing. However, I hadn’t ever known anyone who had actually gone to college, and, in part because of this, had a very distorted notion of what college would be like. Fearing my own inadequacy, and having no common sense, I prepped myself for community college by reading the complete works of Chaucer, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, all the poetry of Dante, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, all the Greek and Roman epics, and a bunch of other crap I can’t remember at the moment. It was a dumbass thing to do. But I got used to the hectic pace necessary to get all that reading done—not a very good reader, me—and have been riding that momentum ever since, really.

That said, I am so thankful I did that dumbass thing. I loved writing long before I loved reading, and if I had hadn’t forced all that stuff down my words-gullet I don’t know that I could have ever grown to love reading as I do. And reading has become one of the few things in life I can’t imagine being happy without.

Also, I like to think my education has made me a more useful person—more compassionate, more open-minded, more willing to put the needs and desires of others before my own. And if it has, then I am even more thankful for that.

VC: You once said that you want “accessibility and the avant-garde to duke it out” in your poems (or something like that) and that “accessibility” is actually very important to you.  This intrigued me because it seems like we've been so polarized and have had an “either/or” mentality (although have you read the anthology, American Hybrid by David St. John and Cole Swensen?).  But you don't see it that way--can you talk more about this and where this mentality came from?

SM: I’m not sure exactly where this polarization came from, though I would say there is (or used to be) an incentive for writers who are consciously “accessible” and those who are consciously “avant-garde” not to allow too many hints of any other inclination—if a writer has created audience expectations, it can be dangerous for that writer to produce work that occupies a space too far outside those expectations. But I sometimes think those distinctions are only practically meaningful when a reader is in a mood for a particular kind of poem or book, and doesn’t want to bewildered by too many options. And nowadays—and I think this has something to do with the increasing accessibility of information—readers seem not to be bewildered by their many options, and instead embrace them. And this makes such distinctions less and less meaningful. For my part, I just like a lot of different poems and poets—Sandra Doller, yes, but also William Dunbar. I’m suspicious of people who say they like poetry, but not certain “kinds” of poetry—I think what they really mean is that they like some poems, but not poetry in general. This is a perfectly understandable, even laudable, position, but it’s not mine.

But that’s only half an answer to your question. I do want my poems to be accessible to the average reader (although, of course, no such reader exists), but I don’t think this means the poems have to be straightforward. Although the fragmentation of American culture (and I refer to “American culture” here not because I think it’s primary, but only because I write as an American, and could not choose to do otherwise; obviously, many other cultures have been fragmenting as well) has been apparent for at least 100 years, I think the sped-up process of fragmentation that the internet has encouraged over the past 20 years or so has made it easier for readers to understand syntax that has itself been beaten up a little. And this, in combination with other factors, has expanded the boundaries of accessibility so far that the accessible and the avant-garde now overlap considerably. This is perhaps more readily visible at the intersection of music and popular culture.

Well, now we’ve got less than half an answer.

I like all kinds of poetry. When I write I want to write all kinds of poetry. I also want to write poems people might find enjoyable and/or helpful in some way—which is probably overly ambitious of me.

I haven’t read American Hybrid yet, but I’m gonna.

VC: Your first book, MULE, is so unique in its voice--I don't think you sound like anyone else.  Tell me how you started writing those poems and where your inspiration came from?

SM: Aww, thanks! I started writing those poems in 2005 after several years of struggling to write traditionally punctuated free verse poems, none of which really felt like me—I was writing the way I had been taught to write, not by any particular person or even a particular school, but by my own (fairly shallow, I think) reading of contemporary poetry. Eventually, I got tired of writing these poems—I could see how bad they were, and was depressed—and decided that the only way for me to make a clean break from them was to basically do the opposite of everything I had been doing. So I ditched the punctuation and started using meter and rhyme. And I began to feel like I was writing the way I was meant to write, and poems came quickly and considerably more easily than they had come before. The very first of these poems were devotional, and for a while I couldn’t figure out how to write anything but devotional poems. I managed it eventually, but when I did the devotional poems left, and I’ve been trying to get them back ever since.

VC: I read in an interview with No Tell Motel that you don’t write free verse poems because you can't.  Your poems to me at least, seem like a combination between free verse poems and formal poems.  How do you construct your poems and how does formalism play into the writing of your poems?

SM: My poems are all very strictly metrical, and all of them employ rhyme. That said, I do make use of elision, etc. to keep my iambs from sounding too regular—nothing fancy, all tricks poets writing in meter have used for hundreds of years—and most of my rhymes are very slant. I also use a lot of sight rhymes and even a sort of rhyme I guess I’ll call a slant sight rhyme, which is basically something that looks like a slant rhyme, but isn’t (just as sight rhymes, like “near” and “bear” look like they should rhyme, but don’t). Admittedly, that’s not a trick that has been commonly used for hundreds of years. But often what I’m doing with the rhyme and meter is building a home for the poem, and what I’m interested in is ticking off the boxes on the formal checklist—that is, making sure it has walls and a roof. This may be a terrible thing to say, but I’m not necessary interested in the sound of the rhyme—I try to write the poems in such a way that the rhymes aren’t obvious anyway—but am instead interested in having something that satisfies some aspect of what a rhyme does. So as long as two words look like they might sort of rhyme (like, say, “cough” and “trash”), that’s enough for me.

VC: One of my friends always says to me to “make it new” if I am treading on subject matter that others have treaded on (which is basically everything).  Your subject matter is wide and varied, from race, to family, to divorce, to religion.  Do you think consciously about making it new?

SM: While I definitely think it’s valuable to approach subjects in new ways, a poem is about so much more than its subject matter—it’s about its sound, its images, the shapes of the words, its visual field, etc.—and if these other things are handled well, the newness of the approach to subject matter becomes less important. But I don’t want to suggest that I think I handle these other things well—still, those are the things I tend to think about. I think it helps to not think too much about subject matter until a poem is almost done, if at all.

VC: Does subject matter come first for you as inspiration or does form come first?  Or something else?  The reason I ask this is because I found all of your poems, no matter on which subject, to have a similar form to them.  I was intrigued by the fact that you could probably write about anything and make it interesting and new.  

SM: Well, most of the poems in Mule are sonnets or sonnet-based, and that’s probably the biggest reason that many of them look formally similar. But the only time I ever have my subject matter in mind before I start writing a poem is when I’m writing a sequence, and even then I only have a broad sense of what the sequence is supposed to be about—I have very little or no sense of what the individual poem is about. I’ve found that when I have my subject matter in mind before I start a poem, that poem usually ends up stilted.

But do I ever wish I could write poems with the subject matter in mind beforehand! I imagine that would be freeing.

VC: Why the sonnet?

SM: I think it was something a professor—his name was Kenneth Ericksen—once said in a class I took on Milton as an undergraduate. He said that back in the day, poets used to do their apprenticeships, so to speak, by writing sonnets, and once they felt they had those down, they moved on. Since then, I’ve always felt it was an appropriate form for me to write in.

But as a form, the sonnet troubles me, albeit for entirely personal reasons. I worry that I’m too used to it. After I had been writing exclusively in meter for a few years, free verse lines stopped occurring to me—nowadays, whenever a line plops into my head, it’s always iambic, and usually in tetrameter, pentameter, or hexameter. In much the same way, I tend to think of any as-yet-unfinished poem as a sonnet waiting to happen. Obviously, this is a terrible, terrible thing. I’m working on it.

VC: Repetition seems to be something you use often in your poems in a very masterful way.  How are you constructing the repetition in your poems so that you achieve that right balance?  And why is repetition so important to you in your work?

SM: Repetition is important to me, I think, mostly because so much of the music I love is repetitive. So often my use of it is based on the sound of it—if I try repeat something in a poem and it doesn’t sound right to do so, then that instance of  repetition just doesn’t work. But the sense of it is important, too, and I like to think that a repeated thing won’t sound right if it doesn’t make sense, independent of how it sounds (if that’s possible), to repeat it.

I think repetition can give a reader the sense that he or she knows where he or she is in a poem, that he or she is not lost. As a person who is often unproductively lost in poems (I wouldn’t want to eliminate the sense of being lost entirely; it can be really useful), I know how helpful this can be.

VC: Instead of punctuation, you use slashes, spaces, etc.  Tell me why you decided to use no conventional punctuation?

SM: To be honest, it just sort of happened—mostly, it really was because I had been using punctuation in all those poems I didn’t like, and I wanted a change.

To begin with, I only used the caesurae; the slashes didn’t come until 2007 (I remember because it was the year I graduated from law school). Eventually, I got a little tired of what I was doing and wanted to experiment a bit. It occurred to me that if I were to introduce slashes, I would have far more control over rhythm. Here’s how I use them: Traditionally, a sonnet has fourteen lines, each of with has five iambic feet. Here’s the sestet of a famous sonnet by Hopkins:

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

I realized that if I were to introduce slashes, then I could keep the form in the “checklist” sense I mentioned above, but have more control over the sound of the lines, and, in a way, write both traditionally metrical verse and free verse at the same time (part of my impetus for introducing the slash was to see if it would possible to do such a seemingly paradoxical thing). I’ll demonstrate what I mean by introducing caesurae, slashes and new line breaks to the Hopkins (blasphemous, I know):

Yet God (that hews
mountain and continent,     / Earth,
all, out;     who, with trickling increment, / Veins violets and tall trees makes
more and more)     / Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world
without event     / That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

Now, of course, I didn’t improve the Hopkins thereby, but you can see what I mean—the slash indicates where a line ends metrically and makes the form apparent. This allows me to break lines wherever I want—and so to write traditionally metrical verse and free verse simultaneously.

VC: What poets inspired you in the writing of MULE?  When I was reading it, I oddly heard a little of Brigit Pegeen Kelly and her book SONG, probably due to your use of repetition.  Your repetition feels more urgent, though.

SM: Stein, Beckett, Yeats, Finale—it feels strange mentioning one’s influences; I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that I think I live up to them. But those three, and Plath (always), and (always) Keats, Herbert, Berryman—I think Aiken, too, and Kevin Shields, and Andrew Prinz. And I had Rābiʻa al-Basrī’s famous prayer in mind a lot of the time, also:

            O my Lord, if I worship you in fear of hell, burn me in hell.
            If I worship you in desire of heaven, deprive me of it.
            But if I worship you for your own sake,
            then do no not deprive me of your eternal beauty.

I would say that the prose of William Tyndale, including his translations of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, was often rumbling through my head as well—his prose is wonderful, and wonderfully forceful.

But I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read Kelly. But I will. There’s just so much out there, you know? And I miss so many necessary things. I haven’t read a single novel by Faulkner, for instance. Sigh. Now I’m embarrassed.

VC: How long did you send your manuscript out before it was picked up by Cleveland State University Press?  Would you describe yourself as anxious about the process or patient?

SM: Probably I was anxious. But anxiety requires hope, and since I don’t win contests, I didn’t have a lot of hope when I was sending the manuscript around. So maybe I wasn’t so much anxious as I was resigned to defeat?

I had been sending it around, in one form or another, for about two years. But I hadn’t sent it to many contests because I couldn’t afford them. So I was really very lucky when Michael Dumanis expressed interest in the book, and I will be forever grateful to him.

VC: Why don’t you win contests?  What do you think about the contest and prize system in poetry?

SM: The contest and prize system makes a lot of sense to me, actually—not a lot of people buy poetry, and contest fees help to fund books and all kinds of other necessary things. And, in a weird way, they help to create a community—whenever I enter a contest, I feel like I have a stake in the winning book (which, you know, isn’t gonna be mine), and it feels good to help in that small way.

But I don’t win contests, no. And it’s not as if my work is particularly and incomprehensibly revolutionary, which I imagine can be a bar to victory. This may be a mundane answer, but so many stars have to align for one’s manuscript to win—the right readers have to read it in the first place, and they have to pass it on to the right judge who has to be in the right mood. I just haven’t had the right stars.

VC: Michael Dumanis seems to be doing some really interesting work at Cleveland State in terms of the poetry books he and his team are publishing.  Do you think he is trying to push the envelope in terms of the types of work he is publishing?  And if so, how?

What I love about what Michael and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center are doing is that they’re publishing work they believe in, and that’s their foremost criteria. And I think Michael is trying to put work out there that occupies that space where the avant-garde and the accessible overlap—or, rather, and what I think means more, I think he’s not especially worried about that space, but instead his own sensibilities guide him there. But since the CSUPC is a respected press, this in itself helps to move poetry in America forward. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an amazing poet himself.

But, as much as Michael does—and he does a lot—everyone else at the CSUPC works hard toward the same goal, and the books wouldn’t be possible without them. When Mule was being produced, I was especially lucky to be able to work with Krysia Orlowski and Chris Smith, who seemed to be doing everything for everybody all the time, and Amy Freels, who made the cover and made it more beautiful than I could have imagined it.

VC: What is it that you are trying to achieve when you write your poems?

SM: I’m worried this will sound square, as well as questionable from a theoretical perspective, but I really hope that the poems I write will move somebody in a way that is positive. But I would be just as happy if somebody who was terrified of spiders used Mule to squish one.

VC: Is there anything about the poetry world that frustrates you?

SM: I’m frustrated by practical difficulties sometimes—like, I wish it were easier for me to travel so that I could do more readings, and I wish poets were all masters of social interaction so that my own inadequacies wouldn’t hamper conversations. And I wish it were easier to get a teaching job! But I still feel like I’m fairly new to the poetry world, and haven’t yet really begun to be frustrated by it.

VC: How would you say ethnicity fits into your identity as a poet?  Would you want to be labeled an African American poet, why or why not?

SM: Lately, my struggles with my own ethnic identity have been my only subject—they have been rumbling beneath the surface of things that would seem to have nothing to do with them. And so I think it would be in a way an honest thing for me to be labeled as an African American poet, at least right now—I do write about race and my own experience of signifying racially. But I don’t think such labels are really necessary, and I worry people use them so as to know what not to read. It’s too easy for, say, a white reader to think, “Oh, she’s a black poet—her work has nothing to do with me.” But the point, I think, is not that the black poet, when writing about race, is writing only about some aspect of blackness—he or she is writing also about an aspect of being human, and that work has to do with everybody.

VC: You have 3 kids, I understand.  How does being a father affect your poems or the writing of your poems?

SM: Lately, it has had more of a practical effect than it used to—I just haven’t had much time to write. But overall I think being a father has been an immeasurably positive thing. And, really, I wouldn’t know what being a writer who doesn’t have kids is like, anyway—my first daughter was born when I was 18, and I can’t remember what writing was like before her. She was the beginning of me, and the beginning of me writing.

In general, I would say that having children helps one to understand how unimportant one’s own desires are, and it helps one to get a real sense of one’s one beliefs and politics—I am not the sort of parent I imagined I would be, at all. This might not be true for everyone, but I didn’t know who I really was before I had kids.

VC: At AWP this year, I became obsessed with asking this question--do you feel joy when you write?  “Joy” was another poet's word, not mine!

SM: Yes! Thank God, yes.

VC: Since I haven’t met you in person, how would your friends describe you?  How would you describe yourself?

SM: Boring and boring plus (plus what? nothing good), respectively.
VC: You seem so humble in the interactions I’ve had with you so far--that you can’t believe anyone has read your book, yet your book was the one book everyone told me to buy at AWP.  How does that make you feel?

SM: I don’t know, I really don’t know. If anybody likes Mule (if, yes, anybody has in fact read it), then I’m happy, so happy. It doesn’t matter to me that the book is being talked about, except insofar as that brings it to the attention of a reader who finds some pleasure and/or good in it.

VC: I can't wait to read your next book--what are you working on now?

SM: Right this very moment now, I’m not working on anything—well, I’m researching the history of lynching in the U. S. for a sequence of poems I hope to write. But I haven’t been successfully writing. However, I did just finish my second full-length manuscript this past February. It’s called Colored Would and I’m really excited about it—it’s more unified, I think (in a good way, I hope) than Mule. As it turns out, I seem to be interested in writing books with fairly unifying themes—I hadn’t known this until I started work on the poems that became In Canaan, which is also the first part of Colored Would, and which I started writing a few months after Mule was taken. The poems in In Canaan try to tell a version of the story of Margaret Garner, and writing them was unlike any writing experience I had ever had before—having a theme focused my attention and helped me to dig a little deeper, hopefully, than I could have done otherwise.

That said, it would be nice to write a book of disparate lyrics, if I could ever manage it. But I need all the help I can get.

VC: What should I have asked you but didn’t?

SM: What’s my favorite band? My Bloody Valentine. But you asked everything you should have—I’m just throwing that in. Plus I love Melissa.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Remiss and Two Memoirs (O'Rourke and Chua)

Remiss seems like a common title for my blog posts.  My life is kind of busy.  I've still had time to read and just finished Meghan O'Rourke's "The Long Goodbye."  I thought it was very strong.  There was a string of sadness throughout the book and it made me realize how ultimately alone we all are in our private struggles.  Although the book was sad, at the end of the day, I think it was a celebration of a relationship, that relationship of a mother and child.  I felt so happy that Meghan had seemingly had such an incredible mom and she had such great experiences with her when she was alive.  That's what I tried to keep in my head while I read the book.  As well as remembering to try to be as good of a mom as Meghan's so that my own daughters will remember me so warmly and fondly.

There's no need for me to talk much about it anymore (it's been reviewed everywhere), but I wanted to note how much I did enjoy it:

In truth, however, the book did make me realize how different my upbringing was from Meghan's upbringing, being a child of immigrants, which leads me to the next book I read, or "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom" by Amy Chua.  Even though Chua is an extremist, I could definitely relate to that sort of upbringing a little more.  So in some sense, reading O'Rourke's memoir was like watching a show on television, but reading Tiger Mom was a bit too familiar.  Tim Yu writes an incredibly smart and accurate critique of the book:

The biggest problem I had with Chua's book was her blanket black and white statements.  "Chinese people are like this..." and "Westerners are like this..."  Those statements were sprinkled throughout the book and despite some familiarity with her style of parenting, I disagreed with many of her blanket statements.  In truth, however, once in a while, I found myself looking at myself and asking myself how many times have I said to my husband: "Those moms are so 'American' in how they raise their kids.'"  So I guess we can all be guilty of stereotyping.  At the end of the day, though, I would have expected someone educated as well as she has been to be more open-minded about her views.

I also think that Chua's book seemed so extreme because she didn't show many moments of tenderness towards her children.  She seems so intelligent, yet so unaware at the same time.  I do find it odd too that she wouldn't have anticipated this type of response to her memoir.  Only a person living on an island would have had her supposed surprised response.

I've got a new stack of poetry books on my desk so hopefully I'll get a chance to reflect on those soon.  Also, I've got a few outstanding Coffee Chats I've been hounding people about lately.  One is by the author of MULE, Shane McCrae, so hopefully I can get those responses from him soon.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ron Slate's Spring Poetry Feature

I recommend 2 poetry books for Ron Slate's Spring Poetry Feature (Mule by Shane McCrae and Death Obscura by Rick Bursky).  Click below if your'e interested:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Coffee Chat #6: Rachel Zucker

I don't know Rachel Zucker personally, but I sought her out at the recent AWP because I am very intrigued by her work and the voice behind her work. My first entry into Zucker's world was through Museum of Accidents, which I admit, I initially didn't love, but then I went back to read her other books (particularly The Bad Wife Handbook) and loved so many things about her writing that I went back to Museum of Accidents and changed my mind wholeheartedly. What I love about Zucker's work is her voice, her boldness, her openness. Her voice just feels very real, very complicated, very complex, very unsettling. And behind that openness and boldness is a deep focus on craft. Her voice is all her own and I love that about her work. Whether you have had children or not; whether you have children or not, Zucker is a poet everyone in this world must read.
She was kind of enough to indulge in my endless curiosity with her usual zest and openness, despite the fact that she is widely interviewed already. I tried to ask questions that were different or were uniquely my own. I think in all of my interviews, I try to demystify people or poets so that they become more tangible to me. I guess my own discovery that there is no "path" in poetry or no "destination" is something I like to investigate further in my interviews. In many ways, writers seem so different from one another, but on so many levels, we are very much the same. I put a few of my responses to her comments in bold.


VC: Tell me about your latest project, the book-length lyrical essay with Arielle Greenberg, on homebirth.

RZ: Home/Birth: a poemic is a collaborative, hybrid genre book about homebirth, birth, feminism, and friendship.

VC: You seem to do a lot of collaborative work with the poet Arielle Greenberg.  What makes your relationship work so well?  Have you ever had any problems working together or has it been smooth sailing?

RZ: Our relationship works well because we work on it. We care about it and about each other and put the time in. Sometimes it’s a lovely, easy friendship and sometimes it’s hard. I don’t have sisters (or brothers) but Arielle is like a sister to me. I love her in complicated ways. The relationship is deeply sustaining and inspiring on so many levels, even sometimes because it provokes self-awareness which can be unsettling.

VC: After reading your books, I feel like I know you or at least the speaker in your poems well.  Very well.  Sometimes in your poems, I think to myself, "I can't believe she said that" and then I read the next line and the next and think the same thing.  Coming from a modest Chinese American (more Chinese than American) family culture, I am in awe of your honesty and frankness.  Where does this come from and do you ever have second thoughts about putting certain things in your poems?

RZ: You brought up culture and I think that’s heavily at play:  lot of it has to do with being Jewish. Think about it, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen.. speaking up isn’t our problem. We have other problems for sure! [VC: I grew up in an all Jewish community, so I understand!]

VC: Where do your poems come from?  Do they come from a thematic idea?  Do they come from an image?  Do you know where they come from?

RZ: Good question! I have no idea.

VC: Once you said in an interview: "I don't like rejection, but I have an even harder time dealing with people's jealousy."  I've noticed that some poets can, and I emphasize can, be very jealous of other peoples' successes.  How do you deal with that?  Do you ever get jealous of other poets, their poems, etc.?

RZ: I am so uncomfortable with other people’s jealousy that I tend to completely sublimate my knowledge of it. I don’t tend to be so jealous of others although every once in a while I have a full out temper tantrum about rejections. I have a very high tolerance for rejection but after last fall when I was on the job market and had applied for grants (and didn’t get either), I think I might have reached my limit for a while.

VC: You've obviously experienced a great deal of "success" in the poetry world.  Do you agree with that and if so, why?  If not, why not?

RZ: Are you jealous? If so, I can’t hear you. Just kidding. I have experienced success in the sense that I’ve had my books published and have had editors who believe in me and lately, with the Home/Birth book, I’ve had people write to me and Arielle and tell us that the book has changed their lives. That’s incredible. I’m profoundly grateful to these things. [VC: Jealous of you? Yes, yes, yes! Well, I am not "jealous", but have deep admiration for you and your work--like you, I probably don't have time to be jealous].

VC: You've had quite a few books of poetry published.  Was it hard to find a publisher for your first book?  Was it hard to get the subsequent books picked up (I know you had the same publisher, Wesleyan, for a while).  

RZ: It was extremely difficult to find a publisher for all of my books except for the books published by Wave and 1913 press.

VC: Your most recent book, Museum of Accidents, is out from Wave Books.  Your prior from Wesleyan.  What made you change presses?

RZ: I can’t answer that online.

VC: At the most recent AWP in D.C., I asked you, Laurel Snyder, and Matthew Zapruder, whether you feel "joy" or "tortured" when you write poetry and all three of you sighed and said: "tortured" or some form of torture.  Something about your poems and the way they flow on the page in terms of syntax seems "easy" for you.  The poems almost feel as if they cannot not come out, that they are busting at the seams.  But oddly, I read that you write slowly.  Can you talk more about how you feel when you write and how you write?

RZ: I think I felt a little bit of peer pressure at that moment. This is going to sound cheesey but I’ll go for it: lately I’ve made the decision that if I am doing something (like writing or spending time with my kids) then it means that is what I WANT to do. This is a weird logic, I know, but I’m sick of the whole “I have to write but it makes me miserable” thing. I can’t really say that I feel joy when I write, but I’m trying to take responsibility for my choices, for my life. I write because I want to. There is a difference, as I know from childrbirth, between pain and suffering. I think there is a difference between torture and discomfort. I don’t think writing is torture. I think it’s intense and that can be uncomfortable.

VC: In your recent books you seem to have some common themes.  Do you ever fear what a lot of poets seem to fear, which is writing the same poem over and over or writing the same series of poems over and over?

RZ: I don’t know that I have a choice in the matter.

VC: Do you think the poetry community is New York-centric?  Why or why not?

RZ: I guess the New York poetry community is. Is there a poetry community? I feel like I’m always missing everything.

VC: I'm amazed at how you have such a large range across all of your books, meaning, you have long lines, you have short lines, you have conventional syntax, then not.  I first thought that subject matter informs the structure and format of your poems.  Then I began to doubt my theory when I looked back at The Bad Wife Handbook where there are these short compressed lyrics and then the longish work in the middle of the book.  How do your poems arrive at their structure?

RZ: The subject matter absolutely informs the form; they are inextricable.

VC: You seem to have a lot of poet friends who are your trusted readers.  Does your husband read your poems?  If so, does he read them as a critic or not?  And if he does read them, when do you let him into that process?

RZ: My husband doesn’t like poetry. Luckily he likes poets.

VC: Would you consider yourself an "ambitious" poet?  If so, what does this mean to you?

RZ: I’m a hard worker. Work has often been an escape for me. I’m trying to redefine that, to move closer to joy as the reason I work and the feeling I get when I work.

VC: I read an amazing conversation you had with the "nonmother" poet Sarah Manguso in Candor Magazine.  I loved the honest conversation between the nonmother and the mother poet.  Are you surprised when "nonmothers", both male or female read your work with interest or noninterest?

RZ: Yes. But I’m surprised when mothers read it too--how do they have time? [VC: That is funny. I have lots of small minutes, but not lots of large blocks of minutes, but I'm working on that]

VC: Are your parents proud of you?  Said another way, how do your parents react to your life and writing?  What were they like when you were growing up trying to figure out what you wanted to do in this world?

RZ: Yes, I think they are very proud of me. I have my issues with my parents, certainly, but one thing they gave me was the sense that I could do anything. They thought I was smart and capable and talented. That was a gift, to be seen that way.

VC: A friend who just had a baby said that it is "relentless."  I agree.  As a mother, I feel like the highs are higher and the lows lower.  Do you ever feel this way?


VC: I got goosebumps reading Stephen Burt's review of your work in the Boston Review--I found it to be one of the best reviews I've read in a while simply in terms of the writing itself, not to mention the dead on interpretation of your work and how he contextualized it.  How did you feel when you read this review and how do you feel when you read reviews of your work in general?

RZ: I got hives. I’m not kidding. It was very strange and wonderful and upsetting to be “seen” so clearly by a totally stranger. That was incredibly scary and meaningful to me.

VC: When you got the National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, I've read you were busy dealing with kids and putting a movie on, etc.  How did getting that nomination make you feel after you had time to actually reflect on it?  Did it change anything?  Do any of your conventional "successes" in poetry change anything in your life?

RZ: It made me think I had a real shot for getting a grant or fellowship --but that turned out to be a bad investment of energy.

VC: Why do you write poetry?  What does poetry mean to you?  

RZ: Writing connects me to the world. Helps me pay attention. Sometimes my poetry can get very internalized (I’m often describing my interior world).  That’s part why started doing this daily blog

VC: What is or are your biggest fear (or fears) related to poetry?

RZ: That by spending my time writing I’m doing frivolous and should be helping other human beings in a tangible, concrete way.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Coffee Chat #5: Meghan O'Rourke

I first met Meghan O'Rourke over 5 years ago when we were both at Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers.  I didn't know who she was but sensed there was something really special about her.  Five years later, I, and the rest of the world have had the good fortune of reading her wonderful work in all genres.  With each passing word, I really love her work more and more.  She has a new book coming out called The Long Goodbye about grief and her mother's passing.  I've talked with her many times before but really wanted to dig deeper and find out more about her, demystify her and her work in a way.  I think our culture has a weird way of elevating people, then putting them down because of their "success".  There's always so much more to the story and the person.  She was gracious enough to indulge in my curiosity.


VC: I feel like I've known you for years, yet I don't feel like I really know you that well.  Interestingly, I get this same feeling when I read your poetry--there's a sort of combination of openness and hiddenness.  Do you agree with me and if so, is this a conscious decision?  If not, why not?

MO: I was a pathologically shy child, and I always think that is embedded in the work in some way.  From a non-biographical, aesthetic point of view, I’m drawn to the mysterious way cadence is such a powerful too for making us feel things we can’t name.  Cadence works on our limbic system in ways that nothing else does. I love poetry for the way it creates a language for what can’t be accessed through the rational alone.  I’m interested in what can’t be said straight, or “the hum of thoughts evaded by the mind,” as Stevens put it.  I think many of our deepest feelings or intuitions feel like this to us.

Is it conscious? God, who knows. I’m not sure any of it fully is. I think it starts unconscious, and becomes conscious. You learn to work with what you have, your own predilections and tics.

VC: You have always seemed to me to be so incredibly ambitious.  Where does this ambition come from?  And do you ever get tired of it (I ask this, because I do of my own ambitions)?

MO: Hmm. People do sometimes tell me I am “ambitious.” I confess I don't quite know what it means, and I often wonder whether this would even come up if I were a man. In other words, I always hear embedded in that word a kind of critique. Do you? Maybe I’m crazy.

I don’t exactly think of myself as ambitious, per se. I think of myself as “driven” or perhaps more accurately “hounded.” Writing and reading help me keep anxiety and dread away. I work hard, but I do so because I’m calmest when I’m working. And yes: I tire of this reality!  

I was very lucky in my career and I think that’s part of why some may think I’m ambitious. I stumbled into a lot of good jobs. and to be sure I’m really invested in our writing about our culture, in critiquing certain elements of the media discourse about culture, and so on. But it’s not very strategic.
VC: You seem so incredibly skilled at so many different genres.  Was poetry your first love?  What attracts you to the genre?

MO: Novels were my first love, actually. When I was very young I wrote novels and stories--mostly bad science fiction about unicorns in space, that kind of thing.

Then, when I was 16, I read Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and fell hard in love with poetry. The two poems that did it were “This Solitude of Cataracts” and “In the Waiting Room.” What I love about it – again – is that sense of mystery, the way poetry can crystallize a hard-to-identify intuition. These were the lines of Stevens’ that sealed the deal—the way the poem invokes the illusoriness of a mind finding “rest / in a permanent realization” yet also seems to crystallize it, to make monumental the sensuousness of a minute moment:

He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest
In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,
Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,
Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

VC: Why did you decide to bypass the contest route when you published your first book and go with Norton?  Or did you actually send your manuscript out to contests prior to working with Norton?

MO: I didn't actually make a conscious decision. I liked some of Norton’s poets so I put my manuscript in an envelope and sent it to them. I liked that they did criticism and poetry and I wanted to be published by a house that did both. I got lucky –Jill Bialosky read my manuscript and liked it.

VC: A long time ago, I read an article on the Gawker titled: "Why People Hate Meghan O'Rourke" and it talked about you being the symbol of "privilege".  How did that make you feel and how in general do you deal with that kind of open criticism of you and your background?  And how do you deal with peoples' envy and jealousy of you, your background, or accomplishments?

MO: The only way to deal with such things is by focusing on your work, I suppose, as it’s the only thing you have control over – someone will always dislike you, no matter what you do, and we all do stupid things or rub someone the wrong way at times.

That particular post was upsetting because it suggested things about my life that weren’t true, which bothered me. I have been educationally privileged, but I was not financially or socially privileged in the sense that the post suggested; my parents were poorly paid teachers. (Of course, it’s hard to talk about not being privileged without sounding extremely privileged –by comparison with most of the world, I certainly am.)  I spent my childhood in a kind of wonderland my parents invented for us because we didn’t have much money. I felt like an outsider, a feeling I think most writers need to experience in their lives.
VC: Related to that question, things seem to come so easily for you from an outside perspective.  Do you feel this way?

MO: No, it doesn’t feel that way, except when it comes to editing. I do feel that I am a good editor; it’s a way of being useful to the world (and to the word, which I originally typed by accident). Everything else feels very hard.

VC: Because you live in New York, how much weight do you put on the "po-biz" work that goes along with promoting your book, meeting the right people, getting the right reviews, etc?  And how do you separate the creative process from that po-biz work that seems to be increasingly necessary to have any readers at all?

MO: I think that all that is pretty poisonous when you’re trying to work. But I can see that it certainly helps, and that it likely helped me to be in New York, and I guess it is important for writers to think about such issues in this day and age. But like a lot of writers I find that all this stuff creates a kind of noise in my head which gets in the way of writing. A  friend of mine keeps telling me to leave the “fetid cesspool” that is New York in his mind. Since I left Slate a few years ago I’ve spent about half of every year in small towns or places outside NY, because I need to get away from that noise, into the private reality of conjecture, imagination, discovery that has nothing to do with the “professionalized” world.

I don’t think it’s useful to stress getting the “right” reviews because so much of reviewing is accidental. It’s kind of pheromonal – like dating.

VC: Sound seems important to you as a poet, as does imagery, what else is important to you in your poetry?

MO: What else is there? Just kidding. I’d say syntax. Syntax can make or break a poem. and wisdom. That matters to me, hokey though it may sound.

VC: What is your writing process like for your poems?

MO: I start with a kernel, a line, an intuition. The poem gets drafted. Then I revise the draft obsessively over a period of weeks, months, sometimes years. Mostly I expand and contract, expand and contract. like an accordion. Hopefully, it gets more precise, more sonorous, more complex, even if it begins to look simpler. Usually the poems need a few months in order to take shape. And I do mean “take shape.” They’re blobs of language at first.

VC: Did you have trouble putting together your first book?  I somehow remember talking to you about how you felt you had to write additional poems to complete the manuscript once you started putting it together.  Is that true?

MO: I wanted Halflife to develop thematically as you read it from front to back. And yea, I felt some things were missing from Halflife in my first draft - elements of feeling and perception that somehow weren’t there. It was an intuitive sense of something being missing, rather than a really describable one.

VC: What kind of poems are you working on now and do you have a second book coming out soon?  How do those poems differ from your poems in your first book?

MO: I just finished a second book, called Once. It’s different: sparer, a little more disillusioned, and more direct. But I imagine if you read it you’d also see a lot of continuity. It tries to weave together different kinds of loss – loss of childhood, loss of civic innocence, loss of love – into one tapestry. I began writing it when Bush was in office. I was thinking about forms of complicity – the guilt of surviving, of being a citizen, when atrocities like Guantanamo were going on. I was thinking about the guilt of being healthy as your mother is dying. And so on.  It’s both more allegorical and autobiographical than Halfife, whose first-person poems were based less on my life than it might have seemed. It’s not the book I would have “chosen” to write but life forces itself on you sometimes. I think it is much balder. The poems kind of insisted on their methods.

VC: Many poets I know are poets and they teach, occasionally writing a review here and there.  You write poetry, criticism, culture pieces (on all kinds of topics), and now a memoir.  I am grateful you do all of the above, but do you ever feel like you are doing too much and not focusing enough?  

MO: Of course I worry. But I have to make a living. Then, too, the idea that we should focus on one genre is a historically recent one, borne partly out of the professionalization of something that used to be a vocation. Everything both takes away from and feeds your work, whether it’s teaching, or writing journalism, or baking bread.

VC: I've read some of your pieces on the passing of your mother and her illness.  Even as I write this, I still don't know what to say to you.  Is that kind of unsayable relationship our culture has with death and grief part of why you wanted to write this memoir?

MO: Yes. I wrote THE LONG GOODBYE because I became interested in the fact that grief is a space of embarrassment and silence today. I felt very alone with my sorrow after my mother died, craving rituals or communal space in which to observe my loss. We can talk about loss in art or memoir safely but alone in a room with each other we often find ourselves ill at ease.

Then, too, writing is how I make sense of the world. And in this case I think I wanted to carve out an insistent place to mourn and feel and think and reflect – rather than merely move on.

VC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this memoir?  

MO: Writing the memoir was one of the rare times in my adult life when writing felt easy, natural, and right. It was remarkably fluid. I think this is because I had to write the book in order to survive, in order to stay intact; the pressure of necessity obliterated my normal self-consciousness.

Revising was hard. There were a few scenes I’d described where I hadn’t put enough down the first time around, when it felt natural to reflect on a scene, necessary. So a yaer and a half later I had to go in and try to make myself remember how painful a certain afternoon was. That was very hard.

But perhaps the hardest part was writing about other real people, and dealing in my heart with that, and what it meant.

VC: Does anything make you uncomfortable as you anticipate the publication of your memoir?

MO: I am a private person so it was hard to expose certain sides of myself, certain feelings or things that happen. But it was necessary if I was going to do justice to the real experience of grief – and how identity-shaking it can be. And because I knew there were others out there like me I felt the imperative to tell it like it was, so to speak.

VC: Prose seems to just flow out of you so easily.  Is that how you write prose or is it a painstaking process?  How about poetry?

MO: No; it’s painstaking. I revise obsessively. Sontag said that she was an ordinary thinker and writer; what was extraordinary was that she was willing to revise.  If anything seems fluent, it’s because of how much I revise. The same is true of poetry. I find poetry much harder, though, perhaps because I revere it so.

VC: I remember being very excited that you were married to a business journalist, Jim Surowiecki, who wrote this really really great book, called "The Wisdom of Crowds" because I have a business background and write business things too.  I was saddened to hear that the marriage had ended.  How did all of this coupled with the passing of your mother affect you as a writer, a person?

MO: That’s a question it will take a lifetime to answer. Both things have utterly changed my life, and me. He and I remain very close. I guess I can say for now that I’m much less interested in the noise of professionalism or on making “plans.” And I am much more interested in living each day in whatever way I choose. I daydream a lot more and spend more time walking and with my friends. I feel deeply aware of the smallness and futility – what Ecclesiastes would call the vanity – of human venture! So life seems to be more about love, and work, and kindness. Also, existence seems much funnier and more preposterous. (Jim is happy to hear his book called “really really great,” by the way.)

VC: As I'm sure you know a lot of poets, how do you separate the reading of their work to knowing them on a personal basis?  Was that a strange position to be in when you edited poetry for the Paris Review?  Why aren't you editing poetry for them anymore?  

MO: Great question. It was very strange, and often painful, when I was at the Paris Review. I had practice in it, having worked as a fiction editor at the New Yorker. There is a kind of way in which you are suborning your personal feelings to the magazine and its needs . I never loved that element of it. But on the other hand you feel a sense of fidelity to the work. And you really do want to publish the poems that move you most, and you only have sixty -some slots per year. So that makes the separation of the friend-self and the editor-self possible.

VC: As you envision yourself at the age of 60, and look back at your life, what does that picture look like?  Or said another way, what do you want to achieve in your life, professional and personal?

MO: I would feel extremely lucky if I were able to keep making a living by writing and reading. When my mother got sick, at the age of 52, it changed the way I deal with the world in that I don’t envision anything beyond the next day, and haven’t been able to for two years now. To the frustration of friends and colleagues, I suspect. That’s changing a bit. But at this point what I want is just to feel that I was present, every day, not planning or worrying or missing out on the utter intensity of being alive  - the natural world all around us, the joy our friends bring us, and so on.