We had the pleasure of hearing you read this February at AWP. You have stated in past interviews that “poetry readings focus more on the work and worker—on the poem and poet.” Does this change at all when you are up on stage yourself? What are your goals for yourself and your work when performing in front of an audience?
I practice reading before readings knowing I never read a poem the same way twice. I try to get into a kind of inhabitable space where the poem and I can work things out given where each of us are at the time. That probably sounds “writer weird” in the way that fiction writers sound writer weird when they talk about their characters taking over their stories and novels against their own intentions and will. But that’s how it works. Diction, white space, line breaks, rhythm: in not insignificant ways a poem before it’s read aloud is like a football play in the playbook before the team runs it. Everything is Xs and Os perfect on the page, but once twenty-two people—eleven of which are trying to stop the rest—try to make things three dimensional and full speed, what happens seldom plays out as it was drawn up.
So I practice reading before a reading the way a football teams does its day-before walk-through. It’s a simulation. It’s imperfect but still importantly preparatory. And once I get behind the mic, I’m both the offense and the defense and whomever has showed up is a fan of the game there to see a good game, not to root for a favorite team, and I’m trying to win them over to my side with good, disciplined play. I’m afraid to be boring. I don’t want to ever read for too long. The poem for me is a score I try to follow, but l try to follow it like a jazz artist, in an elastic way, as if the score were on Silly Putty. I’m so glad you said “pleasure.” It means that for one night in the land of taxation without representation I did things well enough to make it a good game.
You have lived all over the midwest, from Iowa to Minnesota, South Dakota to Nebraska. Plus, you also did a stint in Florida. How has your connection to place influenced your writing?
I am like a plant when it comes to my relationship to place. Probably like moss, showing up like magic in the new shade a tree is throwing after another year’s growth. Or like moss crossed with a dying tree with animals that live in its hollows and venture out, diurnally or nocturnally, returning to sleep according to their internal clocks. In my moss! Wherever I live or have lived, it’s as if I were only partially colored in in a coloring book and place has a set of crayons that fill the rest of me in, and they do it day to day in ways that are both similar and different from the day before—as happens to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I grew up in small towns—tiny towns that most would think of as villages—and have migrated to cities. That feels like the closet thing I have to an internal sense of “where I need to be now”—to what must happen to ducks and geese when the need to go north or south strikes them deep. Both types of places feed my poems, which means they’re the ring growth after ring growth that leads to the now—to how I see the world from my bark. It’s strange in this time of city versus country polarization, on so many levels, to feel like I have roots in each and the poems that grow into whatever sun will have them.
Minneapolis and I, if I were to predict the future, are going to continue to court one another and never consummate anything until I die, at which time he/she/they will replace me with another suitor moved here from the plains. If I never would have moved here, Minneapolis would’ve have been the one that got away. One could read my poems, I think, and visit the places I’ve lived, sojourned, and motored and walked through, and find a kind of map. The dots connecting things would look like the path a midsummer butterfly as it drunk-ballerina woo-hoos on tiptoes and fingertips through the air.
In your “Long Bio W/ Color Commentary” on your website (a terrific read, by the way), you describe your loss of faith occurring as a result of your undergraduate education and coinciding with your discovery of English literature. Your first book, Prayer Book, explores some of these themes. Have there been similarly significant life events that you are exploring through writing or intend to one day?
It was bacon—no, the idea of bacon—that served as the straw that broke this Catholic’s back. Bacon instead of the unleavened wafer transubstantiated into the congregation’s cannibalism. Actually, I’m trying to be snarky with the truth (I did go have a bacon and egg breakfast) so that I can gloss over the fact that you connected my autobiography to my poems. Maybe in that long bio I say too much! No. That’s not it. It’s aesthetic—theoretical and aesthetic. I don’t want my poems to be too biographical because I think there are other genres that hold biography better. What poetry does at it’s best is yang to biography’s yin. All I ever know when I poem-make is the starting point; the poem itself is a path of discovery that takes me somewhere I never imagined existed. It’s the closest thing I know of to what time travel must be like. And like time travel, if you’re in a time not your own and you stop to tell somebody whose shoelaces need tying who didn’t have you there to tell them that when you were in your own age—well, you change things. And in turn those things change you. You can’t participate in it without having it itself turn you into something you didn’t used to be.
So my friend died and I think about what really means. Some days I wake and remember to think, “This is better than the alternative.” My cat has a weird blood test and I extra-time her to the point where I’m late for work. Some cool live outcome on a reality show has me do all I cannot to shed unmanly tears. I overcook the expensive, locally raised chicken breast I was trying to get perfect for my wife. I give a student I really like and am rooting for an F. I make a perfect batch of soft-boiled eggs. It’s a summer when it rains at such perfect intervals that my hose hardens from the inactivity. I have both OJ and champagne. All of it is significant, but I don’t explore it as much as it explores me. So, yes, and yes, to your questions—only I don’t know what they are because every day they change.
How did your writing processes evolve over the course of writing your three books? (Bonus follow-up question: If your books were in a steel cage death match, which would you root for and who would win?)
Writing my first book participates in an old story: the years of working on the same slate of poems, reworking them and reworking them, developing with them a kind of intimacy that one will never again have with a collection of poems, like a mad scientist, I guess, until one day . . . EUREKA! Somebody decides they are going to publish these creatures I know autopsy close. It’s like the poems were made of Legos, and I was turning them from castles into cars into robots into things symmetrical and things surreal. I literally put them into any shape I could. They were long-lined and short-lined and all-over-the-page and all in one stanza, with and without dashes, colons, asterisks, and all the while the words were changing, too—things going in, things coming out. It’s the old story and I almost didn’t get to be part of it. I was close in my twenties to having the first book, Prayer Book, published. By “close” I mean it was a finalist in a contest at a time when there weren’t all the indie presses like there are today. Had I made it through the finalist ribbon, it would have changed everything—what I thought of my skill-attainment level, where I worked, where I lived. It would have opened up the job market. Having one book fresh out of MFA school would have given me a shot for a job in many markets. I’ve still got the “you were so close” letter somewhere. I’d have to find it to remember what I called the manuscript back then.
What happened instead is this: not getting published young forced me to apprentice myself to the process of revision as re-seeing. I dressed those poems in every costume imaginable until they found what fit. They got the chance people, sadly, don’t get to try out every imaginable lifestyle before selecting one to inhabit till death do the both of you part. Having dressed those poems in all those clothes gave me experience. That experience, as I wrote my second book, gave me freedom. I was more confident in my instincts. I still revised the hell out of it, but the revision was less panoramic. I had a better sense of what home was and didn’t need as many landscapes. It was like I’d passed some test the mentor-guides I didn’t know were mentor-guides had been making me go through without my knowledge. Like, “Oh, you! You were my Obi-Wan.” And there were a few of them, like I’d gone from looking at things through the right end of the binoculars to looking at things the wrong way, through the tight lenses.
Writing Bird~Brain was different again. It was like I had intentionally returned to one or two or three old Obi-Wans to guide me anew. I had a hundred and ten people read and workshop my first book, fewer than that advise me on my If You’re Lucky Is a Theory of Mine, and a handful, tops, on my third book. And here’s the deal: none of the Obi-Wans were in the flesh. They were books. Poets wrote the books, sure. But what guided me like one’s diet guides one health wasn’t the poets who wrote the books, but the books themselves. My Obi-Wans subtly tuned my voice.
BONUS FOLLOW-UP ANSWER: In a steel cage death match, the book of mine I’d root for is . . . the one I’m working on now. It’s the underdog. It’s Grasshopper to my Po (see Kung Fu, the TV series). It’s the latest, chronologically, of three unpublished manuscripts I have. Details ahead.
How does editing poetry collections, like Poetry City, USA, and organizing events such as Maeve's Sessions and Great Twin Cities Poetry Read, help—or hinder—your own writing?
When I’m editing for Poetry City, USA, I’m a reader of poetry in a different way from how I read poetry as a writer of it. I’m a fan. I’m reading solely to look for something that stirs me that I want to midwife into the world. When I read poems as a writer, the reading is part of the ritual of writing. Having grown up Catholic it’s about impossible for me to talk about ritual and not think of the Mass. Just as poetry has replaced prayer for me, I guess my writing practices are akin to a kind of daily Mass. When I read as a writer, reading is part of the ceremony, then. When I read as a Poetry City, USA editor, reading is conduit to championing great poems and the poets who’ve written them. So I don’t think it affects my own writing much if at all. Likely it’s the other way around: My writing affects my reading for Poetry City, USA. They may both be houses I dwell in, but they’re in different zip codes. One’s my primary domicile, and one’s my lake cabin (and that lake cabin is the closest I’ll even get to a real one).
Hosting events is an even more distant dwelling. Hosting events is community organizing. As with Poetry City, USA, there’s a lot of love involved. I want to host poets whose work I love as much as the poems I publish. A side benefit of hosting is going out to mingle and chat after the show, socializing with a self-selected community. That’s tribal is all the best connotations of tribal. As the story goes, Hemingway, in his Key West years, used to get up at 8 a.m. and write until noon in his second story, only-accessible-by-a-three-rope-ladder writing room, and at noon he’d go downtown and get drunk, etcetera. Like Papa, I write in the morning, and there’s a distinct set of barriers between my writing life and the rest of my life. Unlike Hem, I don’t get to go the bar after the writing work is done.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got one manuscript in send-out condition. It’s called Binary Odes & Other Poems of Gravity, Revolution, Orbit & Common Centers. Remember how I said it took fifteen years between me being a finalist in my twenties and finally getting my first book published in my forties? Binary Odes has been a finalist in two major national contests, including the National Poetry Series. Ah, the cruel optimism of being a finalist. It could, as with Prayer Book, be more than a decade until Binary Odes finds a home. I’ve got another manuscript that’s distilling, and not yet ready to be served (most likely on the rocks). It’s called Palliative for a Pretty, and it’s been about a year since I birthed it and set it aside, so I’ll probably have another look at it this summer. I knew the dichotomy but had never heard it phrased this way until recently: that some poets are vomiters and some poets are diamond polishers. Some poets put a whole bunch of words on the page all at once and take time sifting through which parts to keep and which to compost. Other poets go word by word, chiseling them out of the very air with fairy tools, it seems, for how long each line takes to shape and hone. I was a vomiter up until Palliative, when I became, out of the blue, a diamond polisher. I don’t know how that will affect revision. I haven’t made it that far yet. And the last thing I’m working on is still being formed from clay. It’s ungainly, giant. Perhaps it will end up being deemed “multi-genre.” I’ve given myself five years to finish a draft of it. It’s the underdog I’d put my silver on to win the cage match.
Caroline Smith and Mason Jennings, two of our favorite from Minneapolis musicians, have graced our Companion Playlist in the past. Any suggestions for Issue #11?
Okay, four-tiered answer here. Fist tier: The band that’s been on top of my personal Top of the Pops list for about a year and a half now is Hinds. They’re a Spanish quartet of smart, smart aleck pop. I live in Minneapolis—a pretty hip music city—but Hinds have yet to make a tour stop here. They tend to hit the warm-weather spots. Lucky me, they were in Los Angeles when AWP was there last year. I got to see them at this cool small club, and got a tour tee and took photos and videos, because that’s what we do at concerts nowadays. And I had to print my tickets three times at FedEx stores, which is different and more harrowing saga, but . . . Second tier: One of the staff editors at Poetry City, USA, earning his AFA at a local community college, is a hip-hop artist named Fanaka. Check him out on YouTube. He’s the musical guest for my June 8 launch of Bird~Brian at the legendary Bryant Lake Bowl theater in South Minneapolis (legendary not solely but partially because some friends saw Scarlett Johansson eating there once with Josh Harnett when they were dating). Third tier: the clay underneath the musical topsoil we’re all listening to in Minneapolis today is The Replacements. They’re always good to play, or if not that then the new bands of ex ‘Mats: Bash and Pop (led by Tommy Stinson) or the I Don’t Cares (a duet made up of Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield). And tier four is a list of hip and happening local acts I dig: Cactus Blossoms, Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapels, Brittany Larsen, Prissy Clerks, Sleep Study, Haley Bonar, Kitten Forever. Anything from any of the tiers would, I think, be good to dance to.