Category: Features

A Conversation with Rebecca Foust


A Conversation with Rebecca Foust

Interview by Cody Todd

Cody Todd: So to begin: Paradise Drive. Where is it? What is it? How does this title speak to the book as a whole?

Rebecca Foust: Paradise Drive is an actual street in Marin County that winds through Corte Madera and Tiburon, two towns south of here. I picked it for the word Paradise–Marin is paradise in many ways of course, and also for the sort of oxymoron that it makes when paired with “drive.” Because the setting of the book–Marin (metaphorically any affluent suburb in the US–could be Rye NY for example) IS an oxymoron, a yoking of contradictions.

CT: But the book is also a journey towards and a shying away from paradise. Can you speak on that profound ambivalence of the book?

RF: I was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy (for a time the section titles were Paradiso, Inferno, Purgatorio and Terra) and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and C. S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress: there is this drive in Judeo-Christian culture (and in other religions of course) this drive towards Paradise.

At the same time, there is a shying away from conventional paradise, the paradise of my Christian upbringing as a child. The idea that if you follow those rules you will earn a spot in heaven in the afterlife. That I don’t buy. But it was drummed into me as a kid and I still have, among close family members, several born-again and even what they call “charismatic Christians.” There were strong, strong forces pulling me into that when I was growing up.

There was also this working-class idea of Paradise as achieving financial security—do this, do that, and you’re in heaven on earth. My father believed that. And since he never achieved it he never learned the fallacy of that kind of thinking.

CT: “Charismatic Christians” seems to be a dangerous term. How do you feel about that and how does it resonate in your work?

RF: To me charismatic Christians are among the most dangerous because their faith is so deeply rooted in the irrational. They speak in tongues, they fall into trances, they prophesy, all from a vantage point that is like quicksand in the sense that it is based on a literal interpretation of a bible that, uh, was actually written in HEBREW and GREEK and was translated by some very fallible human beings. But these charismatics take the King James version absolutely literally as the word of God. And THAT is scary.

I guess irrationality is the essence of faith, but there is a very deep difference between the childlike, easily-led and highly suggestible charismatic Christians I know and the muscular, always-questioning faith of a man like CS Lewis. But I have to admit to some kind of attraction to all that. To be so taken up in belief that you achieve true trance, and speak in tongues—I wonder what that is like?

CT: Those ideas are very embedded in this poetry. It is essentially ontological with a declaration like in “How to Live, Reprise,” which settles on this: “Pilgrim decides,
/is keep asking the questions./ Admit when you’re wrong. Go on/ for the kids, especially for the kids.” This seems to be a seminal moment in the book. What do you mean by this?

RF: Pilgrim decides there are no easy answers and not to heed the siren song of the faith of her family—how seductive that is, how wonderful it would be to be able to live by clear rules and to feel vindicated, to feel like you were a good person doing the right things. The truth is so much more messy, complex, and difficult to negotiate. Sometimes it feels impossible. But if I believe anything it is that you still have to try and must make what small differences you can. I’ve lost faith in my ability to affect, say, national politics. But I can still help a single person, sometimes.

You just have to do what you can and not get paralyzed or thrown in to despair by the vastness of what you cannot do. Or so Pilgrim decides.

CT: Let’s talk about Pilgrim. Thomas Lux compared the work to Berryman. Persona is a major component of this book in my mind. To speak of the great masters of the “borrowed ego,” we are talking about John Berryman, Shakespeare, Eliot, Norman Dubie, Sylvia Plath, H.D., Pound (mentioned in the book) and others. What of the marriage of persona and dramaturgy and poetry?

RF: Well, for one thing, it makes for a great read and helps to achieve that goal we were discussing of reaching an audience who thinks it dislikes or normally dislikes poetry. It does this by offering things the human psyche finds irresistible: character, story and characters-in-action (drama). I’d add Jim Cummins to that list at least with his book, The Whole Truth. The other great thing, of course, about persona is that it untethers the author from the constraints of his or her own lived life and opens the imagination. It can avoid solipsism and offer[s] great opportunities for empathy. Which some writers, like John Gardner in the Art of Fiction, say is one of the goals for great art.

CT: How does persona poetry align well with the sonnet form, in this book specifically?

RF: The form lends itself to persona and I love that you can have each sonnet speaking in a different voice (as with the seven deadly sins sequence) to achieve a kind of Rashomon Effect. I also want to point out that most of the characters in the book, including Pilgrim, are composites in the craft sense that fiction uses that word. Pilgrim has some autobiographical elements, of course, but she embodies traits of other people, some of whom I’ve known and some just plain made up. But the sonnet form gives you a handy way to switch off between personas, or even between the consciousness of the same person in different emotional states or moods. It makes it easy to switch off because each new sonnet offers an opportunity to change persona.

CT: About this “Rashomon Effect?” Can you elaborate on that?

RF: Hope I am spelling it right. It is a technique most well known in film, where a story is told first from one point of view, then another, then another as a way of showing the unreliability of memory and of people’s propensity to see reality differently. TV writers love it now—it was used (pretty clumsily) in “The Affair.” You get a constellation of versions of the same event that, read together, presumably approximate the truth (whatever truth means!).

CT: Wonderful! Let’s talk about the liberties you used with the sonnet form. Gregory Orr has a great book (out of print) on poetry called, Richer Entanglements (I have to thank the wonderful poet, Gail Wronsky for first bringing this to my attention in a class of hers). In it, he essentially developed a foursquare grid on poetry outlining disordering principles in poetry: “Image and Music,” as well as ordering principles: “Form and Narrative.” In a very concrete sense, your use of form is both ordering and disordering. Could you please talk on your relationship with the sonnet form in this book and what you wanted to accomplish? Before you answer, I found the “incompletion” in your treatment of the sonnet form invigorating and true. Please talk on that too?

RF: I like Orr’s idea of ordering and disordering principles. Form is obviously an ordering principle when working in sonnet: we’ve come to expect some sine qua nons like 14 lines and the presence of a volta in the second half of the poem. Other things that used to be written in stone such as Petrarchan and Elizabethaean (and other) rhyme schemes are freely discarded in many sonnets. But most people still hang onto the 14 line rule. 14 lines do not, of course, a sonnet make. What they make is a fourteener. I think that a sonnet does require a turn, or some explosive event that makes the poem end in a different place than it began. Sometimes I think of the sonnet as a machine which you can allow to break down. Or an edifice, held in place by opposing forces of load and lift always on the verge of collapse (and that sometimes does collapse). Or as a tiny drama with its own plot pyramid of rising and falling action. I like the basic shape and size of the sonnet which Annie Finch says generally fits in the palm of the hand (like another ubiquitous device I could name). I also like the urban dictionary definitions for a sonnet, one too bawdy to repeat here and one that likens sonnet to pop rock candy that seems innocuous then explodes in your mouth. The form is just the beginning, a way of framing what you are trying to say. If you DO choose to work in rhyme, it can lead you to some wonderfully unexpected places, because rhyme is utterly irrational. Insofar as the sonnets are concerned, I basically agree with Orr that the ordering principles are form and narrative, but want to make that point that the form itself, e.g. when following a rhyme scheme, can lead you to some crazy places. Maybe a rhyme scheme is as much part of the disordering “music” Orr talks about as it is part of the form. Anyway, once you allow the form to break down, a tremendous freedom comes in. Several people who read the manuscript suggested I loosen up the forms; one reader wanted me to abandon the form entirely and rewrite the whole book in free verse. But I liked the sound bytes of the sonnets. I liked their integrity, their ability to stand alone AND be read as part of a greater story. So I went back and loosened up the form only in those poems where I felt that the form was holding the poem back from being its best self. For awhile I felt fluent in sonnet the way you can feel fluent in language or in playing an instrument. I was still blowing through a flute, but not following a classical score and sometimes bending notes and making sounds that are not part of what is taught in conventional flute lessons. But whatever I was doing, it was coming through the flute.

CT: Your previous books are not wedded to this form in this fashion, what is it like as an artist to succumb to a book of sonnets? Did the work come easily and how so?
Please speak on the craft.

RF: It’s not like I made a conscious decision to bust up form in a given sonnet. But in revision I am guided most often by my ear, and where a sonnet set say in Petrarchan form felt stiff or was not expressing something with the precision I wanted, I felt free, finally, to leave the form behind. Sometimes traces remain–you might find the volta in the expected spot at the end of the first octet for example. I just kept reading these things out loud–they really ARE meant to be read aloud and performed–and where it felt wrong, I changed it and form be damned. Two of the sonnets in the book (“Dirt”) and “Forgotten Image” don’t even follow the 14-line rule. But I still consider them sonnets because they deliver the drama (tension), pungency (condensed language) and explosion (volta) that for me defines a sonnet. I have, of course, 14-line versions of both of these poems. They are not as good. The Dream Songs are 18 lines long and to me they feel quite like sonnets in embodying the qualities I’ve been talking about above. Though they are longer, they are proportionally similar to sonnets in terms of how they enact their dramas and where the turns come. You know curtal sonnets? They are just 12 lines long, but they make the same moves as a conventional sonnet in terms of where the turn comes. So, it turns out that 14 lines is one of the rules that can be bent. Other ways I exploded the form: the lineation in “Contradance” is unconventional–instead of an octet and a sestet (Petrarchan) or three quatrains and a closing couplet (Shakespearian), these lines are all over the place. “The fire is falling” abandons caps and punctuation to reinforce the idea that yes the fire is falling and everything—Pilgrim’s lived reality up to 9/11—is about to utterly come apart.

CT: What does it mean to be a Californian poet? California is all over this book. When I think of the major Californian poets, I think of Bob Kaufman, Robinson Jeffers, David Saint John, Quincy Troupe, and Larry Levis, among others. How do you fit in this longstanding tradition of California poets?

RF: Well, David St. John has been a wonderful teacher, encountered through workshops he’s led here in the bay area, and I will drop almost anything to sit at his feet and listen to him read and talk about poetry. Am embarrassed to say I don’t know the work yet of QT and BK. Remember that I came to contemporary poetry very recently and will be playing catch up the rest of my life! I love Larry Levis (and he was a giant in my MFA program) and Winter Stars is one of my favorite books of all time. Have read enough of Jeffers to know I should read more—I like his myth-building and dark visionary qualities (but am not so thrilled about the Dark Mountain group co-opting his verse to champion their cause). Some of Hass’s work, especially the earlier stuff, speaks powerfully to me, and I think he is great at capturing the landscape here, great at the new nature poem, set in California. I’m more familiar with the northern California poets because of several years of reading for the Northern California Book Award. Brenda Hillman has been an influence. Thom Gunn, Jack Spicer. I really like a new group of poets coming up: Dean Rader, Melissa Stein, Troy Jollimore, Heather Altfeld. Ellen Bass has been making waves as has Dorianne Laux, who started out here. Kim Addonizio is a terrific model for sonnet writing (Lucifer in the Starlite Cafe). DA Powell’s last book blew me away. Damn, there are some wonderful poets out here! Philip Levine has been an influence and his “Keats in CA” really nails the problem of being a poet in California. We are marginalized, yes, by the literary mainstream. But we also lose ourselves in the California dream. I don’t know how I “fit” with these poets but reading their poems has helped shape my work and to be mentioned in the same sentence with them is an honor.

I should have mentioned Matthew Zapruder also—he is doing something really fresh and original in his work. Language and experimental poetry is very strong here and has blown an invigorating wind through the streets of California poetry, clearing away some debris, knocking down some tottering edifices. I don’t love all experimental poetry but I do love the impact it has had on poetry in general, how it has shaken things up.

CT: Final question: What are your thoughts on the accessibility of poetry. How can we make the art more popular?

RF: By writing layered poems, like Frost did and like we talked about on the phone: poems with a surface pellucidity that can yield something for readers not trained in poetry craft but that have depths that can be mined by readers who do and who seek more challenge in a poem. By offering poetry—serious quality poetry—in formats less daunting and rigid than your typical poetry reading where one poet gets up and reads from his or her new book. I’ve been experimenting with new formats, like having two readers do an exquisite corpse kind of reading, each responding with a poem that works off the poem the other poet just read. Also with this “Poetry World Series” format we’ve done 5 times now, twice at Litquake and with never under 100 people (many who say they did not “like poetry” before the event and leave with poetry books in their hands)—the format is fun and even a little silly, but the pace moves very fast and when the poet steps up to the mike to “bat” (read his her poem) the room falls utterly silent and the poem receives full, rapt attention. And I guess the third way is to get people involved through things like Poetry Out Loud or Robert Pinksy’s Poetry Project (which I LOVED) that gives nonpoets the chance to speak poems, to feel the words in their mouths to feel that power. Accessibility does not mean dumbing down the poetry to make it “easier” to read. It means writing an even more complex poetry that can offer something to a wider swathe of audience than one composed solely of people who’ve studied or practiced the art.

Also, the use of techniques that have proven effective in prose writing and even in film–another way to draw people in, to give them a way to relate to and be interested in the poem.

As for the importance of Altoona and Marin in the book: all plots, Benjamin Percy told me once in a fiction workshop, boil down to these two: hero takes a journey, or stranger comes to town. Here, Pilgrim takes a journey that is spiritual, yes, but also on its surface physical: she moves from a debt-ridden grinding existence in a town blighted by industry in the mountains of central PA—she “escapes” that place to the land of her dreams, sunny CA where the economy is booming and exciting things in art and culture are happening everywhere. The very place of her dreams, she thinks at first. In a strange way though, she winds up in the same despair that drove her to leave PA (and this ring structure is the arc that is captured in the title poem (“Altoona to Marin”) for my first book (All That Gorgeous, Pitiless Song). As they say in AA, it takes more than a “geographic” (a move to a new place) to effect a real change. And another thing Pilgrim finds is that Altoona is a place that forever lives inside—it cannot be “moved away from.” So part of her spiritual journey is a coming to grips with the two places that inhabit her as much as she inhabits them. Does that make sense? It’s easy to sneer at the people in Altoona for being uncultured and obsessed with making a buck, just as it is easy to sneer at the people in Marin for leading shallow lives of easy affluence. But I hope there is in the book some empathy and compassion for the people in both those places. And I hope it is clear that Pilgrim does not hold herself above any of them—she’s in the mix, and knows it, as I hope the poem “Je Est un Autre” makes clear.

Four Rehearsals for Alice Notley

Four Rehearsals for Alice Notley

i. [on the descent of allette]


My first interaction with Notley’s writing was when I read Berrigan’s Sonnets for a class and loved her afterword to the collection.

Her presence in this version of Sonnets returned to me a year or so later when I went to my local bookstore to see if they had a specific Notley book. The guy looked her up in their database, telling me the only book they ever (ever!) carried with her writing in it was this copy of Berrigan’s Sonnets. I fumed. I ordered books by her and never picked them up, later shamed the bookstore staff by saying that I wasn’t buying them on principle, as they should stock her poetry. They’ve kept up with her since (I’ve bought newer books by her there), so I suppose my act was effective.

Her being marked as little more than Ted Berrigan’s wife rather than a formidable poet in her own right continues to provoke a dark fire in me, for it cannot be anything other than a belief founded in misogyny.

After Sonnets, I read Notley’s At Night the States about Berrigan’s death, then her collection of essays, Coming After and in it her essay/talk “The ‘Feminine’ Epic” about all the death of loved ones she has survived, about The Descent of Alette, how it came about, Notley’s reasoning for using quotation marks to denote metric feet (a brilliant invention—its effectiveness to halt the eye continues to amaze me).

I took on Alette itself. It is a book you simultaneously want to savor and charge through.

The quotation marks help you to heed the former impulse.

Notley: “…if you read it aloud the quotation marks go away…and I’m inviting you to read aloud.”

Listening to Notley read it herself somehow makes it more powerful. The urgency of it is right at the surface. She’s nearly crying.

The Descent of Alette is one of my favorite collections of poetry. Ever. I continue to read it over and over. I’ve presented academic papers on it. I buy it for anyone who will read it. I even got Alice Notley to sign it (a reserved signature—script like a schoolteacher’s).

A couple of years ago, poet and artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman coordinated a marathon reading of Alette at a small dark art gallery in Highland Park, Los Angeles. He found several women to participate, set up eight chairs in a way that simulated a subway car (where a large portion of the book takes place), a microphone moving between the participants after each poem.

There were entrances and exits—a planned choreography.

I realize the irony of a man curating such an event but not vocally participating in its execution, and chances are Khalil does, too.

I brought my own copy to read along, sitting on the cement floor.

I found myself jealous of the women reading, annoyed at their affect, their not owning the book, their mistakes.

I hated myself for not being able to just enjoy the fucking miracle that was this night.

This was all in the first ten minutes.

Ultimately the hypnotic chanting of the text prevailed and I had no choice but to give myself up to it, Notley besting my neuroses.

I suppose the neuroses were a rehearsal for the external expressions of the text.

Alette proved too much—we only got through the first two books in the volume and we were well into the wee hours.

Khalil called it a night.

I was simultaneously disappointed—wanting to prove my devotion to the book by staying till daybreak if need be—and relieved to move my ass from concrete to my bed.

ii. [on close to me & closer… (the language of heaven) and désamère]


My obsession with The Descent of Alette stems from Notley’s yoking of feminist ideals and fantasy narrative in the epic.

It’s also freaky as hell and brushes up against dream-space in a way that is nothing short of intoxicating.

Vaginas turn to bone. Black tatters float in rivers of blood and contain personal histories only accessed once eaten.

Decapitated women are reunited with their heads.

I think Notley is obsessed with Alette too.

In her book that followed it, Mysteries of Small Houses, she writes (directly engaging the form of Alette):

“I hated”
“finishing Alette” “and I hate for it” “to be dead in me…” “I have no
interest, at this moment” “in” “its literary worth”
“All I care about” “is living it” “I want it” “alive again”

The most thrilling thing about Close to me & Closer… (The Language of Heaven) and Désamère—aside from the joy of reading them—is how they act as explorations of gestures that lead to The Descent of Alette.

Notley is practicing. Trying out these impulses that will ultimately lead to an incredible thing.

In Close to me & Closer, Notley interacts with her dead father in a call and response form (one page for him, one page for her), and heeds his mannerisms typographically.

There are underlines and ellipses to show his verbal habits, slowing the reader’s eye. The halted lyrical feel of this is very Alette-like.

Désamère involves many things, particularly the melding of Robert Desnos and Amère (the saint-heroine protagonist).

Désamère enters the desert to experience her necessary trials, where she is interrogated extensively by a male figure who is simultaneously friendly and off-putting (or as Notley describes him, “a Satan, a glibly pro-Human psychologist, whom she does sleep with, but whose ultimate wiles—the mind-fuck into consorting with society, as it exists—she resists”).

He is Alette’s Tyrant.

I found a reference to the “black tatter” that Alette finds and eats in Désamère.

In an interview Notley says that, though Alette took two years to write, other books were “rehearsals” for the epic.

Close to me & Closer and Désamère seem like the obvious rehearsals, but Notley states that Beginning with a Stain is where it first starts.

Then it continues in the elegy for her brother, “White Phosphorous.”

These are the first instances in which she uses the quotation marks to denote metric feet.

My impulse is to try to find these – to follow the arc of her movement toward the epic.

To find the predecessors and ferret out the bits that resurface in Alette.

What is it when one reads books of poetry only to find characters, ideas, and veins that continue in a later book by the same author?

iii. [on notley reading]


I saw Alice Notley read a couple of years ago. She started the event late because she did not like the way they had set up the stage—she demanded a podium, nice chairs for the Q&A.

She was right. The weird panel table looked like shit and she deserved better.

I loved that she did that.

Notley first read from Culture of One. Her voice was not at all how I heard her in my head when reading her poetry. When I played out how I thought it would sound or how the words communicated themselves to me. They had gravity and an even pace.

But now, here, she was brisk. Nearly chirpy.

She was sing-songing her way through the poem sequence in Culture of One that involves violence incurred on an innocent dog by villainous teenaged girls.

The portion of the book makes me so sad I actually thought, “Shit, she’s going to read this part” and cried a little as she read.

Instead of anger, the characters who know the dog well engage with grief and tenderness.

Before reading from The Songs and Tales of Ghouls, Notley explained its inspiration sprung from the rerelease of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1970 film version of the tale of Medea. Posters of the Italian opera singer Maria Callas as Medea were all over Paris. She began to rehearse the tale in her mind.

Medea’s tale being that of Jason’s wife, giver of the golden fleece, sorceress, killer of Jason’s second wife, killer of her two sons as revenge for Jason’s infidelity.

“I can’t watch the film,” Notley said. “I can’t watch her kill her sons.”

I had watched Medea just months before at the behest of a friend, ignorant of this connection.

When going to get my book signed I was tempted to tell her, “You know, she’s very gentle.”

For Callas is gentle when killing Medea’s sons, and the killings are as painless and kind as one can expect a mother to enact when her anger is directed elsewhere.

I realize this is hardly believable.

I rehearsed the interaction, and following potential outcomes in my mind, I saw the likelihood it would only make me seem the container of morbid thoughts. Ultimately I decided that saying something creepy to one of my favorite living poets is probably not a valuable use of my thirty-second interaction with her.

I was third in line. I told her she was amazing. She signed my copy of The Descent of Alette.

iv. [on death and failure]

four rehearsals alice notley 3

Alice Notley has sustained a staggering amount of deaths of those close to her.

“It seems to me that my poetics is becoming a poetics of grief,” she says.

Her first husband, her second husband, her stepdaughter, her father, her brother.

Discussing her brother’s death in “The ‘Feminine’ Epic”: “Suddenly I, and more than myself, my sister-in-law and my mother, were being used, mangled, by forces which produce epic, and we had no say in the matter, never had, and worse had no story ourselves. We hadn’t acted. We hadn’t gone to war. We certainly hadn’t been ‘at court’ (in the regal sense), weren’t involved in governmental power structures, didn’t have voices which participated in public political discussion. We got to suffer, but without trajectory.”

All of these people died within a period of a couple of decades.

All were lives cut short due to illness or accident.

Notley often writes about death, includes the voices of the dead. She puts herself in trances to find voices with which to write. She says, “I would close my eyes and see things on my eyelids or take cues from dreams.”

The greatest test of my love for Alice Notley is in her giant books. She has three, at least that I know of: Alma, or the Dead Women, her new and selected, Grave of Light, and Reason and Other Women.

I own all three. I have not come close to succeeding in reading any of them.

For these are tomes—almost a letter-sized page, full of text from top to bottom. The page counts exceed 200.

I look at the blurbs in amazement, jealous of their writers’ determination.

I wonder if she even considered the books’ readability, or if were merely a heeding the outpouring of what was coursing through her mind.

Less concerned about the rehearsal of drafts than the heeding of cues.

For, as she says, “Poetry is a harmless thing to do. One does little harm writing poetry…It’s a wonderful art.”

A Moment of Rest

Maybe the best place to begin a review of our 2012 publications is with our recently announced Pushcart Prize nominees Amaranth Borsuk, Heather Christle, Louise Mathias, Oliver de la Paz, David Dodd Lee, and Eryn Green.

We published a number of special issues throughout the year, with portfolios focusing on recent chapbook publications, on calamitous poetry, on the intersection of politics and poetry, and the surprising and engaging possibilities of progressive translation.

Spring brought the publication of the third installment of our Chapvelope Series. This edition featured Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s translations from the Chinese of Lan Lan and Yi Lu, a series of flashcard-broadsides from Heather Christle, and a postcard-broadside from Polly Duff Bresnick.

Fall brought the launch of a new book review series featuring a rotation of poets as reviewer-of-the-month, covering a book of their choosing each week of their tenure. Kelli Anne Noftle kissing George Trakl through Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl. Tory Adkisson getting filthy with Ed Madden’s Prodigal: Variations. Randall Horton sequestered the multiple layers of Christopher Stackhouse’s Plural. And Molly Brodak so generously provided our holidays with two books and a tuxedo fudge recipe.

And then there were all the issues that delighted, surprised, and challenged us: Rusty Morrison & John Gallaher, Tom Raworth, Bradley Harrison, Michelle Taransky, Lily Brown, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Gale Nelson, Elena Karina Byrne, Joshua Kryah, Robert Andrew Perez, and Daniel Tiffany.

This is, of course, just a haphazard overview of some of the work we were lucky enough to curate during the year. Many more delightful issues filled with new writing are always ready for new readers and for old readers to rediscover.

We hope you have a safe and happy holidays and new year. We will see you in 2013.

2012 Pushcart Prize Nominees

Amaranth Borsuk:: Five Simple Machines

The hand that had its work cut out for it was cut out
for its work. Knuckling down on the desk, it curled
to a tool not there, scissors that might replace pen
with loop and lever, flexed: machinely precision—
potential at rest…read the rest here

Heather Christle:: The Seaside!

This is a wall of great intensity and furious
it kind of hums yellow and hums
green and never shall it hum purple Captain
when will you relieve me The wall
I love at night is huge and warms me
like a caterpillar or bag but do I also
have a family Captain or is the wall
the only shelter I have known and furious…read the rest here

Louise Mathias:: Silt

Yes, it was a kind of terror. As if fingering
the spine of a book, then finding
every page is gone. In this admission,
children can go missing…read the rest here

Oliver de la Paz:: Labyrinth 58

The boy in the labyrinth presses his palm against his chest. His heart sifts through the
morning’s weight. The life promised resides somewhere in the hungry marrow. The
promised life becomes something else…read the rest here

David Dodd Lee:: “The Soul as a Skiff”

That was where I learned

my guardian angel is a liar. She called me Little Saint. She struck me
in the head with a wand made out of shallow ponds: first

I saw her feet naked, her legs, her wings folded. She said, My
breasts are not two fountains…read the rest here

Eryn Green:: Dear Beings, I Can Feel Your Hands

I can’t just go out and buy a wheat-colored soul

write a sadder poem—startled

by windows curved up in the shape of

fins. Up and behind my head

the shadows on the table spin

for us. We are in love—if I could

spend my life beneath palm fronds…read the rest here

The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry

The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry

As I write this introduction, we are barely more than a week from election night. The news is dominated by talk of polls, campaign stops, spin, gaffes, special interests, claims, counter-claims, empty arguments, and incessant babble. You, as I, might have watched the debates or religiously followed Nate Silver’s poll tracking at 538. Regardless of one’s attempts to avoid it, we are forcefully immersed in a morass of politics and political uses of (destructions of?) language.

This is not an uplifting experience. Emerson would be ashamed of all of us.

However, there does seem to be reason for some hope. Bits and pieces of language from this political morass like “horses and bayonets” or “binders full of women” have become trigger points for the creation of art. Many of the Internet memes that have been created using these phrases, while oftentimes still retaining a political message, claim a primary fidelity with aesthetics rather than politics. While to some degree these are jokes used to release some of the tension and frustration of the political process, they are also simultaneously making a claim for art as a restorative and necessary pursuit.

Which leads me to this week’s issue here at TOA. In the spirit of the election season (and also in the spirit of rebelling against the election season), we present a group of writers who both confront and reject politics through an aesthetic act. On Monday, Craig Santos Perez displays the political perspective of the disenfranchised and colonized of Guam, where the island and residents of Guam become little more than a place for the Presidents’ plane to re-fuel. Kristin Sanders writes a series of poems analyzing and questioning the idea and physical reality of the feminine by responding to art by Brad Bourgoyne that is then redacted, made invisible. Moriah Purdy and Stephanie Rozene bring us a collaborative work with poems by Purdy accompanying ceramics by Rozene that explore the various conflicting ideals, paradoxes, and personas implicit in the complex roles Presidents and First Ladies play as host and hostess of the United States.

On Tuesday, Diana Arterian utilizes the words of the condemned to craft poems that question the interaction and contradiction between systems of politics, law, ethics, and morality, forcing us to examine the divergence between humanity and the death penalty. And, lastly, Brett Evans subverts the political horse-race of campaigning and our collective obsession with winners and losers by propagating a seemingly endless series of imagined pairs of foes that run the gamut from absurd and humorous to poignant.

Curating this special issue has given me hope if not in our political process, then at least in our ability to ultimately transcend the political and remain human through the creation and observation of the aesthetic act. It is my hope that these poems will, similarly, help you remain human in this last week of election season and into the future.

A Conversation with B. K. Fischer

A Conversation with B. K. Fischer

Interview by Andrew Wessels

B. K. Fischer

ANDREW WESSELS: Mutiny Gallery, your first book, is labeled as a “novel-in-verse,” and I think I would largely agree with that designation. The poems have a singular trajectory following the consistent, developing characters of a mother and her son traveling together across America. However, that “in-verse” aspect of the book seems to exert itself over and above the sanctity of the novel, with the poetic and lyric moment embodied in each individual poem being more important than creating specific plot points. How did you toe this line between poem and novel (or, perhaps, muddy the line)?

B. K. FISCHER: I am interested in muddying that line, and smudging what we mean by the lyric moment. My process in writing Mutiny Gallery was exploratory—I wanted to see what the lyric could do in the aggregate, and to blur the boundaries of what we typically think of as innovative collage-making and narrative poetry. I wrote this book quickly, drafting it almost entirely in a six-month period in 2008, and its initial inspiration was neither novel nor verse, but painting and drama. I had written a short play, a dramatic monologue, that was prompted by and performed against the backdrop of Francesca DiMattio’s 2006 oil on canvas Black Ship, a tessellated image of a clipper ship in a clutter of non-sequiturial details. The play was part of a production at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, New York, where the audience moved among large-scale paintings in the exhibition Size Matters: XXL. My piece evoked the fractured memories and thoughts of a woman named Claire who had inadvertently allowed another person’s child to drown on her watch, while she was wading at a river beach with her toddler son, Max. Claire’s voice was constructed and refracted through the ekphrasis of the painting, and the actor who performed the role staged the anguished and halting attempts at narration against the disorientations of the painting itself. When that production wrapped up, I was looking to start something new, and two things converged: I wondered what would have happened to Max and Claire (or anybody) ten years after a tragedy like that, and a friend gave me a book called Little Museums: Over 1,000 Small (and Not-So-Small) American Showplaces, edited by Lynne Arany and Archie Hobson. One thing led to another, and the scaffolding of the backstory fell away.

I’ve always liked Jasper Johns’s formulation “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that”—the hybrid genre of Mutiny Gallery evolved in this manner. I did not set out to write a novel from this material. I simply made a list of names of little museums that interested me, and took them as titles for potential poems—riffs, meditations, image-episodes. Later, as I generated more of these, they started to accrue to themselves significances that seemed to connect, and to take the shape of a story. I found that I could put them in an order, and that they suggested both plot progression and character development. I was and am interested in the ways that the lyric, in its many forms, can be put to the service of storytelling. The lyric as song and as prayer, the lyric as it intersects the prose poem, the disjunctive collage, the monologue, the ekphrastic encounter—all of these forms, and especially the spaces between and among them, seem to me to be ways stories can be provisionally articulated. I’ve never wanted to write a long narrative poem per se, and I don’t think Mutiny Gallery is one. I’m put off intellectually and temperamentally by the notion of writing that creates an illusion of seamless narrative continuity, by the smoke and mirrors it takes to sustain narrative realism, and by the burden of having to connect all the dots. I wanted to write the dots, the pins on the map.

AW: Your use of the museum archetype as inspiration for the poems seems to resonate with your approach to the construction of the collection of poems-as-suggestive-narrative. A museum, in essence, tells a story of something through largely disconnected or disjunctive objects, whether it’s a period of art history through exhibited paintings, the evolution and extinction of the dinosaurs through reconstructed skeletons, or Liberace’s life and career through costumes and pianos. If I’m correct, you have also published a critical work on the relationship between museums and poetry. I’m curious, how did the idea of the museum play into the composition of the book and the individual poems, and also more specifically, how did Little Museums work its way into the manuscript? Is the book itself a museum?

BKF: I’ve long been interested in the ways museums both ritualize cultural narratives and become spaces for interrogation. Researching my dissertation (which became my critical book Museum Mediations), I waded through vast numbers of ekphrastic poems published in the later twentieth century to find those poems that foregrounded the museum setting itself. I made a case that for some poets, the museum—and awareness of the institutional framings and conventions surrounding collections and works of art—becomes a space in which to navigate and critique entrenched cultural divisions, including the divide in verse culture between the lyric-confessional mainstream and the avant-garde. I like to hope that this reductive divide is a critical trope that is now behind us, that it has been complicated by a much more interesting pluralism and eclecticism in contemporary poetry, but it still bisects critical thinking from time to time. “Site-specific” museum poems by poets from different coteries, different places on the lyric/innovation spectrum—Kenneth Koch, Richard Howard, Anne Carson, Cole Swensen, Alice Fulton, Kathleen Fraser, John Ashbery—all seemed to me to be doing critical work regarding experimentalism, avant-gardism, cultural capital, and ideas of liminality and charisma as they pertain to aesthetic experience.

So a museum is a loaded term and a locus of inquiry for me—maybe writing about weird museums in my own poetry was just a way of working out some of the trauma of dissertation-writing. At a practical level, as I was writing Mutiny Gallery, the guidebook Little Museums was a source of potential material, a cache of detail and diction that I could raid to suit my lyric or narrative purposes. I was drawn to these sites as “anti-museums,” as “Museums of Ordinary People,” which is an oxymoron—the elevation of the unremarkable to public display. So, yes, the ways the disconnection and disjunction of artifacts in a museum create a fiction, the ways the arrangement of disparate objects can script an overarching narrative, is very much at the heart of my enterprise in this book. The museum trope allowed me to foreground the artifice of that fiction as such, but clearly I wanted to have my cake and eat it too—I wanted the story to be a page-turner, to propel the reader down the road from one collection to the next, and I wanted it to give pleasure.


AW: How does your current writing continue to build on these same themes and poetic ideas?

BKF: My forthcoming book St. Rage’s Vault includes the monologue “Mothership” that is the prequel to Mutiny Gallery. But other than that cameo appearance of Max and Claire, this book follows a different storyline. It is a series of ekphrastic studies and soundings of images of women’s bodies, and it is structured as a pregnancy memoir that unfolds through poems, one for each of 40 weeks. I look at images of maternity—from the Madonna to the monster, from painting and sculpture to signage and journalism—to explore kinship, community, creativity, and mortality. It won the 2012 Washington Prize from The Word Works and will be released in February 2013. I am currently at work on two more “versa-novellas” that would round out a trilogy with Mutiny Gallery, one about a medieval monk who is reincarnated as a gas-station attendant in New Jersey, and one about euthanasia and television. Don’t ask.

AW: In addition to your writing and teaching, you recently were named poetry editor at Boston Review. How have these various roles informed your approach to the creation of the new, the avant-garde? How do you create, curate, and teach contemporary American poetry?

BKF: Working as an editor and teacher, I find myself in many conversations lately about the need to discover new ways to talk about avant-gardism and innovation in contemporary poetry. Too much discussion of contemporary poetics is hung up on what I’d call the nostalgic psycho-dynamics of the avant-garde—the notion that postmodernism, or Language poetry and its spin-offs, or conceptualism, has liberated us from the false consciousness of the lyric narrative. Maybe they have. But I’m suspicious of the terms of conversion narrative that surround this train of thought, and the piety that accompanies it. I’m leery of unreflective rejection of the first person, or the subject position, or the personal anecdote, or the idea of voice, or normative syntax. I’m also fatigued by fragmentation. When I’m greeted with a text that supposedly invites me to collaborate with it in meaning-making, however moving or riveting the fragments, I sometimes feel impatient and even a little resentful. I don’t need another fragmentary consciousness. I have one of my own, thank you very much.

That said, I’m not inclined to succumb to bourgeois illusions either (at least not the ones I haven’t already succumbed to), and I certainly don’t want easy poetic self-identifications that smack of complacency and privilege (“I am standing at the kitchen window, and I am important”). I don’t want to be controlled by oppressive cultural narratives or hegemonic discourses or corporations or capitalism. If I can send anything out into the world so that my children, so any children, won’t be controlled by those things either, I will do it. But I don’t think fragmentation in poetic writing, or destabilization of the subject position, or ironic performances of marginalized selves, or insouciant re-appropriations of official discourses, as useful and delightful and provocative as these strategies can be (I’m especially fond of doing those last two things in poems myself), are an end in themselves, or the end-all-be-all.

So I find myself, as an editor and as a writer, returning to that first principle: it must give pleasure. A poem’s pleasure may be sensory or cognitive, imaginative or intellectual, or a pleasure that could better be called the grace of empathizing with suffering, or the motivating hope of a call to action, or it can take many other forms. The poem has to have, to make, some kind of appeal, to function as entreaty and enticement. I try the best I can to write evocatively, and to find and publish evocative writing, and what that means is a moving target. I’m not afraid of difficulty, and I’m also not afraid of clarity. Each poem, each project, each occasion for poems or book of poems, demands mystery and accessibility in different measure. I have a perhaps old-fashioned faith in process, in craft. But it’s a sustaining faith in the work itself. We’re all going to die soon. Who cares if we establish sufficient avant-garde street cred? Believe me, I’ve got post-postmodern messes to make with language, confrontations and collaborations and appropriations to enact and refract, but I’ve also got stories to tell, suffering to relate, characters to envoice. I always go back to Adrienne Rich’s lines: “This is the oppressor’s language, / yet I need it to talk to you.”


Calamity is a word that, to me, first calls to mind Wile E. Coyote, the misguided rocket that soars past Road Runner and sends Mr. Coyote tumbling down to the bottom of a deep canyon, the small mushroom cloud of dust where he lands. However, where Mr. Coyote shows up in the next scene either intact or, at worse, bandaged up, the truly calamitous event does not disappear so easily. Rather than being easily reparable, it is something that creates irrecoverable loss. The calamities that pile up in this week’s issue range from the potential calamity of nuclear warfare in selections from Maggie Cleveland’s Atom Fish to Francisco Guevara’s meditations on life, death, and the history and presence of the body; from Katie Manning’s nightmarish fairytale evoking the fears of a soon-to-be-mother to Robby Nadler’s ekphrastic response to human vulnerability and sexual politics in Lucian Freud’s provocative painting Sunny Morning—Eight Legs.

While putting together this special issue, I was surprised to discover that the word’s etymology was more complicated than just the immediate Latin predecessor calamitas: loss, damage, disaster. The word is also related to clamare: to shout, proclaim, declare, cry out. My first impulse is to say that this is the purpose of the poem, the purpose of writing. Why else do we put words to page? Because we feel we see or feel something we must shout, proclaim, declare, and cry out. Because we hope that through our verse that we can evoke a similar emotion or impulse in others. The four writers highlighted this week take the same approach to their own work, desiring not only to recreate a personal emotion but also to provoke a personal and original response from each reader.

The poems this week challenge us to examine our own world, to see both the calamities in our personal lives as well as the global issues that create disaster and loss for multitudes around us. They challenge us to not remain silent, to instead cry out, to name calamity and be honest with the conditions of our world. None of these poems offers a solution, and that is perhaps the point. We cannot return to the earlier situation, that world before we knew of the splitting of the atom or before conceiving of a future life. We cannot erase the faults of our ancestors nor the events of the previous evening. What these poems offer us, instead, is a path toward accepting the responsibility and actuality of the new world we can create, the world that becomes the tomorrow derived from our actions today.

Chapvelope Three Launches

The Chapvelope Series is currently sold out.


Chapvelope Three

Chapvelope Three, our translation Chapvelope, is now available, featuring a hand-bound chapbook (27# text, 65# cover, linen binding), a series of eight hand-cut flashcard broadsides (67# cardstock), and a postcard broadside. Each element draws attention to the translatability and transmutability of language through the combination of content and form. The offerings range from translations of contemporary Chinese poets to selections from an eye-rhyme translation of Homer’s Odyssey, to a material re-visioning of everyday English words and objects. We hope that readers will enjoy a new experience with language upon reading and a lasting delight in the unique artifact that is the Chapvelope, which includes the following:

Lan Lan & Yi Lu:: You Are Not Here & Volcanic Stone

               translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Heather Christle:: Some Ideograms

Polly Duff Bresnick:: from Old Gus Eats

A Conversation with Heather Aimee O’Neill

A Conversation with Heather Aimee O’Neill

Interview by Melanie Crow

MELANIE CROW: I would like to ask first about the first poem from your collection Memory Future. It is written in such a different style than the rest, and perhaps that is why it begins the book, on its own, but it does serve as an opening to the other poems. That last line is particularly grabbing: “Am I still that unworthy”? Can you talk a bit about the idea of the first poem, as a leaping-off point?

Heather Aimee O’Neill: Sure. The first poem, “Certainty,” is actually a reflection on uncertainty. The questions in the poem will never be answered—at least not in this lifetime, at least not honestly. And it’s about being okay with that, that doubt, with accepting it. The final question—“Am I that unworthy?”—is my or the narrator’s question—and, again, one that will never be answered. It’s an honest question and I think, I hope, one that sets up what I’m trying to explore in the rest of the collection.

MC: There is a kind of refuge in memory that happens in the collection. The comfort of memory is complicated, however, by the problems of memory. How does memory function in your collection, and are there authors that inspired this theme?

HAO: I am comforted by memory. I never thought about that, but it’s a great point. I’m intrigued by the specificity in memory—what we recall and why, what we don’t recall and why. It’s about narrative and so many things contribute to the construction of that narrative—nature and nurture, of course, but also trauma, luck, mistakes, the choices that we make or that people make for us. In terms of inspiration, I admire the way Elizabeth Bishop uses memory. “In the Waiting Room” is one of my favorite poems and it’s a brilliant use of a retrospective narrator. The language in that poem is simple and clear, but she is talking about, to me anyway, a complex shift in perspective: that moment in childhood when you realize that you are both an individual and a part of the world.

MC: Mortality, time passing—there is a consciousness of temporality that holds the poems together. Can you say something about your idea of time in the collection, or your (personal, philosophical) reasons for this theme?

HAO: Ever since I became a parent, I’ve thought more about my own past and how it’s brought me to this point in my life. I’ve thought about it, obviously, because for the first time I was shaping someone else’s future. The birth of my son has had a significant impact on the way I look back on my own childhood, on my relationship with my partner, my family, and even myself. Time no longer feels linear and I wanted to reflect that in the order of the collection.

MC: In the second section of the collection, the poems turn back in on themselves (repeating the last line or parts of the last line of one poem in the first line of the next). How did you come to this pattern? What does it mean for these poems, that seem so ruminative and centered on the “other” and the other’s culture? They remind me a bit of Robert Lowell’s ghost sonnets—trying to make sense of personal relationships in the midst of “time passing.”

HAO: The middle section of the collection is a sonnet corona or a crown of sonnets about living in Spain with my partner. I thought that the crown as a form was relevant to the narrative because it demands that kind of intense focus—on the “other,” in this case—and because the repetition of the final and first lines mirrors the intimacy and distance I was trying to capture in the different relationships: between the lovers, between the “other” and her cultural heritage, and between the speaker’s past and future.

MC: The poems in the second section also center around a trip with the other—and discoveries that happen on this trip. Leaving and experiencing this other place generates new kinds of realizations and awareness for the speaker. Would you say this is accurate? Another way to ask this might be: how important is this journey, or any journey, in terms of opening us up? What does travel do for us—as lovers, thinkers, writers?

HAO: My partner’s background is Spanish and she really fell in love with the people, culture and food in Spain. She fit in aesthetically and felt at home in a way that surprised and inspired her. I learned a lot about her on that trip and she learned a lot about herself. I wanted that section and that poem to be structured around the narrator as the witness to her lover’s transformation through culture and identity. I think travel is just a natural part of that experience. My friend Jessica Piazza, an amazing poet, was extremely helpful with this poem. She is a brilliant editor. She helped me see the journey of the poem more clearly.

MC: A poet friend of mine once said that she arrived at the order of her book through a dream. That always struck me as unusual, but it also made sense, since dreams are connected so inherently to our interior lives. It does seem as if the speaker is coming up out of a dream, or waking up to new “layers” of consciousness in each section. There does seem to be a kind of logic to it, but, like many good collections, a kind of dream-logic. How did the structure come to you for the collection?

HAO: I love your description of “waking up to new layers of consciousness.” I don’t know if that happened to me, but it sounds fantastic. The first part of the collection, “salted up in the memory of you,” is about finding the lover, the “other.” All of the poems there look back on relationships and moments in my life when I was really hungry—for love, trust, guidance, all that good stuff. The second section, “the spin of earth that allows us to observe time,” is about settling into a relationship that finally worked and where I could begin to focus on another person. The third section, “we think of our lives as linear,” is about my family and my childhood. I wanted that section to come last to play on that idea of memory and its impact on the future.

MC: Can you talk about your experience as a writer? More specifically: Do you remember a specific moment that shaped your life as a writer?

HAO: I remember standing on the beach as a kid and thinking that the rope used to tie the boat to the dock looked like a girl’s un-kept braid. It’s not a very original metaphor or anything, but it was a moment of realization for me. It changed the way I looked at the world and the way I searched for meaning in image. I used to take notes in my biology and chemistry classes in high school and try to find interesting metaphors or images to use in poems. All of that information was useful and interesting to me, but not in the way that I could apply it to science. I wanted to apply it to metaphor.

MC: What writers have inspired you most?

HAO: So, so many. George Orwell. Elizabeth Bishop. Jeanette Winterson. Virginia Woolf. Walt Whitman. Marilyn Hacker. Olena Kalytiak Davis. My friends. My students. I feel like teaching taught me how to write.

MC: I noticed in one interview that you are working on a novel. How different was the writing of the novel vs. writing poetry? Can you say something, too, about what the novel is about?

HAO: I just finished my novel—Hers to Hold. It’s about a woman struggling with her past as she prepares to become a mother. It’s about the mistakes she made and continues to make. It’s also a book about uncertainty, I suppose, and how that threatens the life that this character has worked so hard to build. In terms of writing and even reading, poetry is my first love. It comes more naturally to me. I have to work harder at writing fiction. But a background in poetry, I think, helps and influences any writing. It forces you to pay attention to your language.

MC: What are you reading now? Any recommendations?

HAO: I’ve actually been reading a lot of longer books lately. I’m rereading Moby Dick right now based on a friend’s suggestion. I last read it a decade ago for a class and I have to say it’s a completely different experience for me this time around. The first time, I just wanted to rush through the book, but now I can sit back and experience the story. It’s almost meditative. I’m about to have another kid in March so I figure I might as well get in the meditation while I can. I won’t be reading 500 plus page books then. I’ll go back to reading poetry.

A Conversation with Trey Moody

A Conversation with Trey Moody

Interview by Bret Shepard

BRET SHEPARD: Climate Reply, to me, seems to investigate what it means to listen—to nature, to another person, to oneself. Certainly images and textures play an important part, but they, too, feel wrapped in the auditory. Can you talk about how you use these sensorial elements in your work?

TREY MOODY: It often feels like I’m writing from a memory, or at least a vague, remembered mood. Sometimes these are actual memories; sometimes I mistake something imagined for a memory. In both cases, sight and texture are very much present, but sound usually isn’t. But it’s the auditory, it seems, that can contain the most mystery. Hear that wind outside? Rather, hear those leaves rustling because of the wind? Or was it something else altogether rustling the leaves? And thinking of the chapbook, which seems to inhabit an eerie kind of space—where weather and ghosts (another manifestation of landscape) are being listened to—it seems that sound has the most potential to include both positive and negative affirmations, sometimes simultaneously. Was that the floor creaking, or the house shifting, or the heater? It isn’t until I see a sound’s source that I know for sure, but I like dwelling in that place of speculation.

BS: Yeah, you have a way of phrasing that is unique and mysterious. Yet, the syntax remains open, creating sense by surprising the mind into a new sense. Does this happen in revision? Do you compose with it in mind? This is, in part, a question about your process. But I’m also interested in your thoughts on language. What surprises/excites you about language?

TM: In Climate Reply, I remember wanting to overload and confuse sensory experience at times, which happened while composing and revising, though a little differently with each poem. I’m pretty sure the syntax and phrasing in “We Didn’t Believe” was mostly deliberate during the original composition, but the newer poems in the chapbook were made using revision as another opportunity to generate material. In “We Use Spoons Mostly,” for example, the sensory experience was built mostly while revising, through a sort of process of accumulation. I remember sitting down to work on an early draft of that poem and looked through the window, so that moment, included in the poem, ended up offering me another way into the draft even though it had nothing (or everything?) to do with the poem’s original impulse.

But these days, what excites me about language is when it’s simple and direct, on the one hand, while creating surprising juxtapositions as the poem builds, on the other. When I was younger I thought obscurity led to mystery and surprise, but there’s a lot to be said about the charged mythology in a straightforward neighborly conversation or looking at a cheese grater a little too long. Poems made of this kind of direct language seem to work so well, to my mind, because most readers can at least find a way in, making them comfortable enough to let their guard down, which creates a pretty good place for genuine surprise. Not that my grandma will be reading Mary Ruefle or Michael Earl Craig anytime soon, but their poems seem very friendly at first glance. Of course, like most neighbors, the longer you listen to them the weirder—and more interesting—they become.

I’m glad you asked about the compositional process because it’s a fascinating thing—I move from notebook to typewriter to computer, always in different orders, always at different times during the day. But I know some people work better with a more structured, streamlined process. How does the compositional process work for you? And what environmental/geographic factors, if any, alter this process?

BS: I do know people that have a streamlined process for writing. I’d even say a rigid process. But I’m not like that. You mention alternating where you write, which makes sense to me. I’m always walking around my apartment; sometimes after a few lines I find the need to leave the chair and throw a plastic basketball around or something. I’m very antsy when writing, even when I think it’s going well. But I mostly write on the computer. During my MFA, Saint Mary’s College (CA) was giving away old typewriters, just handing them out for free. The English grad students were stoked. But, as it turns out, I don’t prefer to write on a typewriter. That may be strange to some people, maybe even offensive to those who swear by the typewriter’s personality. But I enjoy the relationship I have with my laptop. What determines when you move from writing space to writing space, the computer to the typewriter, for example? Is it an impulse that comes quickly? It sounds like there is some time in between the moves. When do you combine material?

TM: Yeah, ignoring those needy typewriters is very offensive! But I like how you describe your compositional demeanor as being “antsy,” which I totally share with you—those fringes just before and after being completely focused have this weird energy, but you’ve described it perfectly.

These days (and by “these days” I mean the last few years or so) my writing practices are what they are because of my family. I’m married and recently became a father, both of which are awesome, but I don’t always have the luxury of making thought-out decisions as to where or how I write. That said, I like to keep a few notebooks and legal pads around the house for convenience. Almost everything I write begins by hand, but how the next drafts get written is determined by time, I guess. I do know that I really neglect my typewriter when I’m teaching (and when the baby’s sleeping, as it’s a manual—the typewriter, not the baby). So I type mostly in summers. But I try to make it as long as possible in a draft before going to the computer. No good reason, really, except not liking what I was generating on the computer.

But I do like to let things simmer, so something written in a notebook or legal pad may go a few days, weeks, or months before it’s rewritten.

BS: Certainly the poems in Climate Reply are well crafted with surprising language and turns. But what might surprise people about you when you’re not reading/writing/thinking poems?

TM: As you know, Bret, I do like playing basketball, preferably weekly, and watching basketball, preferably the Spurs. Though I’m certainly not reading/writing/thinking poems when doing these things, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a poem about our competitive on-court relationship.

I also enjoy the Twin Bing candy bar—not really a “bar,” per se, but it’s at least the best chocolate/peanut/cherry concoction out of Sioux City, Iowa. It puts a bounce in my step, that’s for sure. Steve Almond’s Candyfreak includes a chapter worth reading on the Twin Bing and its maker. If you’re brave enough to buy and then bite into one, the Midwestern gas station cashier who just sold it to you will observe many emotions on your face—mainly confusion.

Now let me ask you something about your poems, which often seem situated in rich, vivid, particular places—are these places real? Or are they imagined? Or both? And could you talk about how the negotiation between these elements relates to place in your writing?

BS: I suppose they begin as real places, though the imagination often filters that beginning and transforms it into something different, a poem. At least I hope that’s what’s happening. So both. The process of filtering fascinates me. It’s a process of obstruction that results in reconstruction. I often find myself re-obstructing places in poems. Your thoughts on sound seem to suggest something similar. What noise happens in the shadows? I’m reminded of Jack Spicer’s poem “Thing Language,” where he asserts the lack of singularity in listening to poetry (“No one listens to poetry”). In part, I take this to mean that there is an inner “hearing” that occurs when reading poetry. But it is not singular. Rather, a reader constructs the sound from the poem in relation to memories of hearing words and inflections, etc. Of course Spicer also declares that things don’t intend or depend on being listened to. Yet we do listen to the ocean and it means something sometimes to some people. When I read some of the poems in Climate Reply, for example, I feel invited into this process, this dynamic relationship. The mystery and possibility interest me. As you say about the rustling leaves, it could be anything causing the rustling.

Can you talk about putting the manuscript together? There are entire books dedicated to situating poetry manuscripts, so this process clearly intrigues writers. And you have a knack for it; another of your chapbooks was recently published (Once Was a Weather [Greying Ghost, 2011]). Climate Reply weaves the “Dear Ghost” poems throughout the book. Was this integral to shaping the whole?

TM: Although I’m not all that interested in narrative, I do like narrative echoes, which is probably why I decided to weave “Dear Ghosts” throughout Climate Reply. I also wove part of a longer sequence called “A Weather” throughout Once Was a Weather for similar reasons. It’s difficult for me to think of a collection as a consistent project; either that, or my nature is to write single, discrete poems or sequences. When I’m writing, I’m excited about the poem, not the book—otherwise I might’ve tried writing novels or something. But then the problem becomes how in the hell to organize these things with some kind of cohesion. Obviously, looking for ways poems resonate with one another in sequence helps—but like writing, this is largely an intuitive act, so there’s nothing quantifiable about it that reassures me I can do it again. So threading a longer sequence throughout, for me, seems to create a kind of anchor or refrain that assures the reader they aren’t lost. Or maybe it’s just a gimmick, like an advertising technique or something.

BS: What books are you reading currently? Any shout-outs you want to give other poets work?

TM: I’m teaching Simic and Strand’s Another Republic, so I’ve been re-reading some of my favorites like Ponge, Ritsos, Follain, Popa. Two newer books I’m teaching are Jeff Alessandrelli’s Erik Satie Watusies His Way into Sound and Joshua Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley—both awesome and worth checking out. I just read Shannon Tharp’s The Cost of Walking, which was really good, as was Pam Rehm’s The Larger Nature. I’ll end with these soon-to-be published books that I’ve been looking forward to: Nick Courtright’s Punchline; Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick’s translations of Ernst Meister; and Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey.

How about you—what have you been reading lately?

BS: You mention some really good ones. I’m using Jeff Alessandrelli’s book in one my classes, so I’m reading that, too. I’ve also been reading Rebecca Farivar’s Correct Animal and Sarah Valentine’s translations of Gennady Aygi, called Into the Snow. And I’ve recently been into Kevin Goodan’s book Winter Tenor. Right in front of me I have Christopher Arigo’s In the Archives, which came out a couple of years ago, but is really great.

I have a few short questions to ask. I’m always curious as to how people answer things outside the scope of their work. Costume parties or cocktail parties?

TM: Pity parties?

BS: Worst advice you’ve ever received?

TM: “Shave your chest.”

BS: Favorite 90’s movie?

TM: It’s between The Big Lebowski and Fargo, but I don’t think those really count as “90’s movies,” do they? So then my first-tier nominees are Babe, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Home Alone. Second-tier are Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Cliffhanger, and Jurassic Park. So many good ones!

BS: Worst fashion choice you’ve ever made? (In sixth grade, I used to roll the bottom of my jeans up.)

TM: Around fifth and sixth grade, I wore a painted, metal yin yang pendant strung on a black leather necklace. Even worse, I’d wear it hanging outside of my then favorite T-shirt, featuring a Dennis Rodman caricature whose hair color changed with the temperature. Is this what catharsis feels like?