22 August 2011

A Small Photo Essay to Get You Through the Week

It is the first week of classes and I have been spending my time between getting a bunch of preparatory work done for teaching my Composition and Rhetoric class and trying to be as unproductive as possible.  In lieu of a thoughtful and provocative post on writing, I thought that a small photo essay might be nice.  Here are some of the things that I saw this summer:

This is the famous two-headed calf of Waterville, WA.  Born in 1964, sadly, he lived for only ten days.


Lovely scroll work on the back of a chair in my hotel room.


Look kids, a jackelope!


An old industrial bridge, no longer open to the public near Chelan, WA.


I didn't eat here, but the sign combined with the amazing red lamps inside made me want to stop.


Dry Falls.  During the Ice Age this waterfall was 40X larger than Niagra Falls.


More stunning vistas at Dry Falls.


Grand Coulee Dam.  Me looking down 400 feet to watch the schools of sturgeon feed.


Grand Coulee Dam in the distance.  So much water!


The obligatory shot of me in a deep sea diving mask.


A look at the lake created by Diablo Dam.


The rainbow edged window at the Sage Baker in Uniontown, WA.


A game I did not buy at a rummage sale.


Notice the text, this is an advertisement for a men's apparel store.  Your guess is as good as mine.

15 August 2011

An Interview with William Reichard

William Reichard is the author of four collections of poetry: Sin Eater (2010); This Brightness (2007); How To (2004).  All three were published by Mid-List Press.  He was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; and An Alchemy in the Bones (New Rivers Press, 1999) won a MN Voices Prize. Poems from This Brightness and How To have been featured on NPR’s “Writers Almanac.” He has published one chapbook, To Be Quietly Spoken (Frith Press, 2001) and edited The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s: A Gay Life in the 1940’s (Univ. of MN Press, 2001). Reichard's anthology of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice, was published by New Village Press in April 2011.


Jory Mickelson: I get a sense in reading your work across several books that the landscape informs your poetry.  You currently live in the Midwest, but not all of your poems are set in the heartland.  Could you talk a bit about how your environs shape your poems?  

William Reichard:  This is something I've thought about since a friend of mine from North Carolina told me, several years ago, that she thought that the northern landscape and the seasons here play a significant role in my work. At that point, I hadn't thought much about the place of geography in my poems, but after that, I saw it everywhere. Having grown up in a place like Minnesota, where there are such extremes in the weather - we had the highest temperature in the U.S. last week: 103, and six weeks previous, it had been spitting snow - it's difficult not to get wrapped up in the seasons. The weather here can kill you - freeze you, burn you, a tornado can erase your house, your neighborhood, even your life. This makes everyone here, by necessity, sharply tuned into what's going on outside. I've always loved these extremes. I think they're very beautiful, and it's hard to imagine living away from a place where the environment does change so drastically in the course of one year. The changing seasons lend themselves very naturally to poetry, taking on the metaphorical work of exploring the ways in which people relate to one another, to their environment, even to themselves. I don't take on these metaphors in a self-conscious way (I hope!) and I have to watch myself while I'm writing, more so editing, to make sure that these themes don't dominate my work. It's easy to slip into this mode, too easy, and I want my work to take on more than just the weather, dramatic and beautiful as it is.

I've always felt the strong impact of the landscape around me. Each new place I've visited has left some kind of mark on my psyche, and this has translated through into my written work. Some places, like the Marin Headlands in Northern California, and the Black Mountains in North Carolina, are deeply important to me for many reasons. These are connected to what and where these places are, geographically-speaking, but also to the people there, and how these people have influenced my life and work. I grew up in rural Minnesota, in a small farming community, and so I relate to the land in that way as well, as someone who lived in a community whose fate is largely determined by the success or failure of the crops each year. Seeing the land and the environment as a living thing is important for everyone, but perhaps you have to have depended on the land for a living before you become so intimately connected to it.

JM:  What poets who write about place catch your attention?

WR: So many poets write about place, so it's hard to pick a few. I guess the first poet I read who has a close connection to his geography is Robert Hass. His book Praise had a profound effect on me, the way he melds together the natural and the spiritual and makes it look so easy when it's not easy at all. Mark Doty's first four books of poetry are deeply connected to the natural world. As he writes about his lover, Wally, falling ill and dying, he re-inscribes Wally's vanishing body into the landscape. In this way, Wally never really dies. The poetry becomes very spare by the 4th book, where the work focuses the seaside landscape, it's spare quality, and it becomes a metaphor for grief and loss. That work is very much like Elizabeth Bishop's, and I admire her work as well. Some of Linda Hogan's poetry takes on this task, fusing the natural and the spiritual.

JM: I would like to say that I grew up conscious of how my fate was tied to the weather because my great grandmother was a dry land wheat farmer in North Central Montana.  I can't.  Truth be told, I grew up in a rural town in the mountains of Western Montana that is lush by comparison.

What does living in an environment of extremes and such large contrasts do to your work? How else has the idea of drastic change entered into your own writing?

WR:  As a gay man in a heterosexist society, I'd say that I've lived in an environment of extremes and large contrasts all of my life. It's been impossible to avoid, whether as a closeted teenager or as an out man. People tend to feel strongly about what they're afraid of, what they don't understand, what their ideological upbringing has told them is wrong. As a member of a minority group in the US, I've experienced these extremes firsthand, felt the sting of that fear and lack of understanding. That's not to say that I haven't also experienced wonderful extremes as well - feeling safe and celebrated within LGBT communities, within literary and arts communities, with my own family and with my family of friends. People can run so hot and cold. As humans we all have to learn to navigate such extremes. But some of us have to learn the geography of such extremes more deeply, in order to survive.

Looking back at my own writing, I see that I've always dealt with such extremes in my work, whether focused on the climate and landscape, or on the dramatic range of human interactions. In a sense, this is what every writer and artist does - focus on those moments of slippage, of contrast and confrontation - otherwise, we wouldn't have any good stories to tell. I can't remember the last novel I read in which everyone was happy and no one had to deal with adversity - that would make for a very boring book. I've dealt with sexual and social identity, poverty, death, AIDS, loss, and love, among many topics. Joy and happiness as well. Those moments of change, of contrast, are the moments when we really know we're alive because, for better or worse, they cause us to change and adapt. Though they're not always good experiences, I'm grateful for such moments. 

JM:  I like the idea of “moments of slippage.”  I sometimes feel the writing process is that way, a grasping toward something that I don’t necessarily understand or see clearly.   

Let’s talk about LGBTQ identity and communities.  For a variety of reasons, I have a somewhat different worldview about what it means to be queer than those even ten years younger than myself.  Do you feel that your writing has a gay or queer sensibility to it and what does a sensibility mean to you?

WR:  I do feel that my work has a gay/queer sensibility, and by sensibility, I'm talking about a lens through which I see the world, a "filter" of sorts, that's been shaped by my experiences as a gay man in this time and place. I think about the idea of lenses and ideology a great deal. Partly, this is because of the work I do, teaching college-level seminars on creative writing and social justice in the fall, and visual/performing arts and social justice in the spring. Much of what I do is based on the presumption that everyone has a lens through which we see the world. This lens is shaped by lived experience, by belief systems and values we get from our family and community, and by the ideas and beliefs that we come to on our own. For those in majority, lets say white male middle class heterosexuals, the need to examine one's lens often isn't necessary. That's not to say that such people don't consciously examine their own lenses - they obviously do - but the need to do this, being compelled to do this in order to survive, isn't usually a necessity. Such people live, for better or worse, in a culturally conditioned "default" state - the thing we're all supposed to be, supposed to want to be. For me, growing up in a poor/working class family, growing up gay, it was never a question of whether or not I wanted to be in a position of always looking at my own lens, always questioning it. I had to do it. And frankly, I'm grateful for that, in hindsight.

So back to the question of my work having a gay/queer sensibility. Yes, it does. It has to, because whether I'm writing poetry based on my lived experience or writing poetry that's pure invention, I'm always writing out of the position I occupy in the world, and my sexual identity, among many other things, informs my perspective. Some of my work is very obviously gay/queer. My love poems, for instance, are always addressed to other men. I don't believe in leaving gender vague or neutral in my work. I know some writers who do this, in order, they say, to make the work more available to any reader. This seems, to me, like a subtle or not so subtle form of self-loathing. I don't really see this in the work of writers younger than me, but do see it in work from the last century. (It seems very strange to me to write that - the last century - but it's accurate even if it's a bit uncomfortable and makes me feel like some kind of antique.)

JM:  Do you find your own lens of what it means to be a gay man different from others around you or younger than you?

WR:  In terms of my own sense of what it means to be a gay man, and how this compares to the way younger gay/queer poets see the world, I do think that there are some big and important differences. The first difference is the very unapologetic way in which younger writers approach their identity in the world and in their creative work. They are very comfortable being who they are, using that in their work, and this makes me very happy. I guess I'd say I come from a kind of "bridging" generation. I was born in 1963. I was alive when Stonewall happened (though a small child). I was a young adult when the AIDS pandemic started. I was around for the "culture wars" and the dismantling of the NEA and the heyday of deconstruction and queer theory in the academy. The way that younger poets approach the world - I had to come to that, I wasn't born into it. I had to decide in a very conscious way to approach my sexual identity in my work. It was almost like coming out twice - once as a gay man, and again as a gay poet, or rather, a poet who is gay. As I said earlier, this is expressed very naturally in my work, and it's one facet of the person I am. Writing from this position, using my own lens when creating my work, didn't come easily. It was a struggle, just as it was an even greater struggle for gay/queer writers who came before me. I was able to build on what I inherited from them, and in turn, my students build on what they get from me. It's a lovely thing, I think.

JM:  The idea of gay/queer identity within poetry (and writing in general) has been in my mind quite a bit.  I finished the great essay “Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry” by Carl Phillips recently.  Also the kerfuffle with the 2011 Pioneer Award given to Edward Albee at the Lambda Literary Awards who went on to say, “Any writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self,” and continued by saying, “I am not a gay writer—I am a writer who happens to be gay.”

What do you have to say about the claim that we are now living in a “post-gay” or “post-queer” world?

WR: These are complex issues, and I struggle with them. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote a sequence of poems titled "A Faggot's Lexicon." In the poems, I took on the names that have been used in derogatory ways, in the past, to attack LGBTQ people. Names like "sodomite," "faggot," "fruit," etc. I wanted to do the work that so many since have done in reclaiming the word "queer," to transform the words from weapons used against us into banners we could proudly fly. I guess I was taking on the labels I'd been given, names I'd been called since before I could even articulate who I was or how I would live my life. The process of writing those poems helped me gain back some of the words and some of the power I felt I'd lost by living in such a myopic society.

Western culture, and American culture in particular, seems dead set on labeling everything. It's a kind of taxonomic drive that I understand intellectually, but can't stand emotionally. If you can name something, label it, then you can control it. Look what we do to people who don't fit conveniently into the categories we've created - they're destroyed, pushed out of society in order to maintain some misguided perception that the world has a fixed and "right" order. It doesn't. Nature is big and expansive and slippery. You can't contain or control it. Some people might find this concept frightening, but I take great comfort in it. We live in mystery, and as poets or artists of any kind, that mystery, the urge to give words to what lies just beyond our reach, is our raw material. I think I knew I was a poet when I realized language couldn't contain or describe everything, but I still had to keep trying.

I understand Albee's comment about how he is defined. We could look at him and say, he's a product of another generation. He's self-loathing. But I don't think that would be accurate or fair. I take his quote to mean that being gay is one aspect of who he is as a whole person. We don't define heterosexual people only on the basis of their sexual orientation, we don't say, he's a straight writer. We could, but that would be reductive. I don't think Albee could deny that being gay defines, in a major way, what he writes about and how he writes it. His sexual identity is part of what forms his perspective, so how could it not play into his work? I take his quote to mean, I want it to mean, that he's a multifaceted person and so shouldn’t be defined by single label.

I don't think we're living in a "post-gay" or "post-queer" world. I think we're living in a world that has been made to stretch, by the hard work of countless LGBTQ people, to accommodate and even celebrate what is gay and what is queer. For me, the "post-" labels give an impression that we're past all of that, through with the need to consider these parts of an individual’s identity. I think that we always have to consider all pieces of an individual’s identity. Things get lost, otherwise. A friend of mine used to have a poster that featured photographs of famous LGBTQ writers, and the caption, "Unfortunately, history has set the record a little too straight." It was a comment on the practice of erasure, taking away certain facts about an individual that might interfere with the way in which you want to perceive them and their work. That seems so lazy to me - simply ignoring what you don't want to know so that your vision of the world isn't upset by inconvenient facts. I guess I'm contradicting myself here. Earlier, I argued that labels were bad and confining. Now I seem to be arguing that they're good and empowering. This isn't my intention. Maybe what I'm trying to get at is a sense that labeling, naming to control, being labeled, is a negative action, while naming oneself, proudly taking on the names you call yourself, is a positive one. I wish I could give you a very succinct and orderly reply to this question, but it's messy, and sometimes, messy is good.

JM: Messy is probably for the best.  And now for something completely different.  Your poetry would lead me to believe that you spend a goodly deal of time around cats.  When I read your third book, This Brightness I kept thinking back to this fall when I had the good fortune to hear Edward Hirsch talk about his poem “Wild Gratitude” which was inspired by one of his favorite poems “Jubilate Agno, Fragment [For I Will Now Consider my Cat Jeoffry]” by Christopher Smart.  Do you know either of these poems?  Would you care to comment on the cats that appear in your poems and/or being a cat person?

WR:  I do know the Christopher Smart poem. It's great! I've always been a cat person. There were always cats around when I was growing up, and for whatever reason, our family cats tended to gravitate toward me, or maybe it was the other way around? There's never been a time in my life when I haven't had at least one significant cat. For 19 years it was Max. He was somewhat of a misanthrope, but loved me, as I did him. Right now, my partner and I have two cats. They're sisters, from a litter of kittens my sister Rita's cat had eleven years ago. They've been with us since they were kittens. They have very different natures. Alice is a lap cat, loves attention, loves to be held, to sleep on the bed. Gertrude is wildcat, always playful, not quite a lap cat, but one who loves to be near you, to sit in proximity to you, and when she's in the mod, she'll jump on your lap.


Mark Doty has a poem called "Beginners" in which his grade school class receives reproductions of various objects from a museum, to keep in the class for a period of time. The object he writes about is a reproduction of a statue of an ancient Egyptian cat deity. The poem explores secrets children keep, and the cat becomes a silent witness to whom the narrator confesses his secrets. Cats have always served that purpose for me. I read somewhere that cats record our history. They watch us and remember everything, but give nothing away. The perfect companions! I didn't consciously set out to put a lot of cats in to the poems in This Brightness, but they are certainly there! After the book came out and I realized just how many cats populated the work, I was a little embarrassed. I was afraid that people would think I was a crazy cat man, hoarding dozens of animals in some run down house, something out of the six o'clock news. For me, the cats take on a metaphorical role, representing both the good and the bad in all of us. Animals, in general, play a significant role in my work. I think the way a society treats its animals is a pretty good gauge for measuring the way that society values life, values those in the society who have little or no power. I don't believe our society is making the grade.

JM: One of my vows to myself when I started writing was that I would never publish a poem about my cat, but you are making me rethink that decision.  I got my very first cat six years ago and am now a cat person for better or worse.  I only have one (so far).

So the weather and whiskers aside, where else do you take your inspiration for your work?  It may be the most asked question to writers, but what brought you to poetry and continues to bring you back to it?

WR:  What inspires me... That's a big question for anyone. I suppose the answer I give depends on the day. It's always changing. Human relationships inspire me - the way they function and frequently don't function. Nature. Television inspires me a great deal. I know I'm supposed to hate TV, but I don't. I watch a very eclectic mix of things - I love any kind of documentary. I love shows about things I don't understand - the workings of the universe, exploration of the oceans and of deep, hidden caves, indigenous cosmologies, migration routes of flamingos and monarch butterflies. Some sitcoms are great. Some dramas. Old movies inspire me. Spiritual belief systems of all kinds are fascinating. Ghost stories are a favorite. Really, anything that can teach me something I don't know is a great source of inspiration. Poetry is a kind of exploration, a search for something you know you'll never quite find, but you keep looking anyway.

I came to poetry in a kind of backwards way. I did all of my graduate work in creative writing in fiction and creative nonfiction. But as time went on, I found myself less and less satisfied with my work. It became less about traditional forms of narrative and storytelling and more about the wonderful details of the stories - the engagement of the senses, the captured moments, the snapshots of emotion and idea. My last term in the writing program at the University of Minnesota, I took a poetry writing course to fulfill a graduation requirement. It was like I'd been sitting in a dark room and someone turned on the light. I could see, and things suddenly made sense. I never really went back to prose. I still tinker with a story now and again, and I do work on essays, but poetry is how I make sense of the world. And this is what keeps pulling me back into poetry - that deep-seated need to try and make sense of the world. I know I'll never find it, but I have to keep trying.

I'm very inspired by music, visual art and the performing arts, and by other writers. Frank O'Hara has a poem titled "Why I Am Not A Painter." I've always loved that poem. He talks about how much he loves visual art - he was a curator at MoMA - and how he wishes he could paint. But he can't. I feel the same way. I love all forms of visual art, and I collect art (it's often more affordable that people think!) and I know a lot of visual artists. In my other life, the one I'm not living as a poet, I'm a painter or a photographer or both. I know that living with art, surrounded by it on the walls of my house, always spinning through my mind, has a profound influence on me as a writer. I have a visual memory - that's how I recall my own experiences, how I navigate when I'm driving or walking - and I always write, initially, from an image that lodges in my head and won't leave. After letting it sit there for a while, an hour or a day or two, I start to work with it.

My relationship with music is harder to describe. I've studied the trumpet and the violin, and can't play either. I can't actually read music. I've tried, but somewhere between seeing the notes on the page and moving my fingers to produce those notes, something gets lost, the message is interrupted. So, I've settled for loving music. I'm not picky about the form, the style, or era. I love Bach and I love Sigur Ros equally. I've always known musicians as friends, sometimes as lovers. It's difficult to put into words how music influences me. It's about a pure emotional reaction, a deep-seated feeling that I want desperately to express - music evokes such reactions in me - and so I turn to music when I'm feeling stuck, when the images and words aren't coming. It's like a jump-start directly to my heart.

JM:  I tried playing the trumpet and failed as well.  I remember how much I hated practicing every day, but I never felt like I got better.  I remember that for the elementary band concert, I just pretended to play so I wouldn’t screw up the songs.

You like ghost stories? I think haunted house movies may be my favorite genre of horror film. If I remember correctly you had some poems about a spiritualist or medium in your book How To didn't you?  Can you tell me a bit about why you are drawn to ghost stories. Also how the poem "Bird as Ghost" came to be in your book Sin Eater?

WR:    I LOVE ghost stories. I've loved them since I was a small child and I'd watch ghost stories on TV. When I learned to read, I went first to ghost stories and tales of the supernatural. In 4th grade I was sent to the high school library to find books for myself - I'd more or less used up the elementary school library and was hungry for more. I remember walking the long distance from the high school back to the elementary wing with a huge volume of Edgar Allan Poe in my hands. I'm not sure, now, that that was the best reading material for me at that age, but I was hooked.

I'm drawn to ghost stories for many reasons. The part of me that's fascinated by the mysteries of the natural world, by science, is drawn to various theories of time and space, the question of whether time is linear or if all of what we experience as time - past, present, and future - exist simultaneously. One theory here is that what we perceive as "ghosts" are really just other threads of time intersecting with our own. The part of me that's fascinated with the history of religion and spiritual beliefs is drawn to the idea of a deathless soul, a part of each of us that goes on, and the beauties and pitfalls that await us now and in some great beyond. Some of the poems in my books do deal with these issues - the "soul" poems, "Bird as Ghost," and "My Ghost" in Sin Eater. A series of "Hypothesis" poems in How To. Maybe I'm some kind of frustrated cleric? A psychic once told me that in my lives previous to this one I’ve been a priest, a shaman, various "holy" people. Perhaps it's the experience of these lives that carries through into this one that makes me write about ghosts or souls. "Bird as Ghost" is a melding of my interest in the natural world and in the spiritual realm.

JM:  I think that your “Hypothesis” poems may be some of my favorites.  In This Brightness, I was curious about the final section, when you wrote from the persona of Marsden Hartley.  Can you tell me how you and Hartley crossed paths and perhaps what generated the sequence of poems?

WR:  The Hartley sequence came about by chance. The Weisman Museum at the Univ. of MN has a very large collection of Hartley's work. I came across the work when I was fishing around for thesis topics. I thought it would be interesting to write about the work of gay men who wrote and also worked in visual media - my idea focused on the ways in which gay artists used their work to encode their lived experience in an age when being openly queer was not an option. Hartley was a poet as well as a painter. He published books of verse and art criticism. Around the time I was looking for a thesis topic, the Weisman started to organize a large Hartley retrospective. I connected with a curator at the museum and delved deeper into Hartley's work. I found I loved his visual work, but his poetry... not so much. In the end, I realized that I didn't want to write about him from an academic perspective because of the visceral way in which I reacted to his paintings - I didn't want to step back from the work and critically analyze it, I wanted to jump deeper into it. So, I found myself responding to him in a creative way, writing poems about him, his work, his life and the friendships he had with other cultural luminaries of the time - Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Mabel Dodge, etc. 

From that point on, the poems flowed out with ease. It seemed very natural to me to creatively engage with Hartley. He spent so much of his life alone, seeking real connections with other men, looking for love, and then running away from it. I wanted to try and get into his head, and through him, into his paintings. The poems were written within a relatively short period of time. I had the good fortune to get a grant to work on the poems - it allowed me to fly out to Boson and then drive slowly up the Atlantic coast, visiting the places Hartley lived and worked in Maine and Nova Scotia. I'd never seen the Atlantic when I started to write the poems, and I felt I had to actually see the environments I was trying to write about in order to authenticate my work. The trip was fantastic, and it gave me even more to work with in terms of landscapes, cityscapes, and subject matter. Once the sequence was drafted, I spent a long time revising it, looking for the final form of the poems. I settled on the prose poem format because that provided me with the greatest range of possibility in terms of the narrative structure of the work.

JM:  There is a lot of talk about the prose poem—what it is or isn’t.  What it must have or must avoid.  How to tell if one is successful or not.  The prose poem has been around for more than a century now, but it still seems (and perhaps only in America) to be a bit of a newcomer or a home wrecker in poetry.
WR: I love the idea of the prose poem as the home wrecker of American poetry! It does seem to puzzle some people. It's not that we don't have excellent poets working in the form. You could argue that Whitman's work is a form of prose poetry. I guess our culture, in general, likes things to be very clear. It's either A or B, 1 or 2. Kind of like going for an eye exam when the doctor keeps flipping the lenses back and forth and asking you which one is clearer. I read a quote by the French poet (and filmmaker and visual artist and designer, etc.) Jean Cocteau. He was asked why he wasn't as recognized in the U. S. as he was in the rest of the world. He replied that in the U.S. the doctor for your left foot can't look at your right. That, to me, sums up why prose poetry could be perceived as the evil stepchild of poetry. It's more than one thing at a time, occupies a space that's between given spaces, and this makes some people uncomfortable.

I love prose poetry. For me, it's the perfect blend of what's best in poetry - the focus on the image, the detail, the fragment, the moment - and what's best in prose - the sense of something happening, a narrative, a progression from one point to the next, a story being told. But there are certain expectations with prose regarding narrative, story, whatever you want to call it, and these expectations don't govern prose poetry, or at least they don't need to govern it. Prose poetry deals in fragments, luminous moments, and though the overall form still needs to be as concise as possible, it can be rangy in a way that more traditional poetry forms usually are not. I love that about the form - it's open territory - and I find that incredibly freeing.

Earlier I discussed my Hartley sequence. It didn't always exist in its finished, prose poem form. It started as free verse, but never felt right. I took it through so many iterations before I realized what it needed to be. I played with the line breaks, the stanza breaks. I knew I was working with a narrative, but I wasn't limited by Hartley's biography or a traditional art historical analysis of his work. I was looking for something in between. The prose poem form, in the way it inhabits this space between, was the perfect form for the piece. Once I'd found that, I knew where the poem needed to go, and finishing it was relatively easy. I've always worked in the prose poem form, and I probably always will. Maybe that's just the frustrated short story writer in me trying to find a way out. But I think it's more to do with the way the prose poem resists easy categorization. As a queer man, that's been my own experience in U.S. culture - people try to put you in a box, but you always find a way to slip out of the confines and if you're lucky, create your own definitions. So maybe that's what prose poetry really is in the world of U.S. poetry - the queer kid - the beautiful, elusive queer kid - not there to wreck poetry's home, but to push its walls out just a little bit further so there is more room for everyone.

JM:  I keep coming back to a quote by David Wojnarowicz from his journals, “The possibility inherent in impossibility.”  I feel that this could easily apply to the prose poem.

What are you working on right now?  What kind of writing projects do you have in the works, or are you not a writing project kind of guy?

WR:  I'm not sure what I'm working on right now. I guess I'm in limbo. Sin Eater was the third book in a trilogy, and that large format provided me with a lens through which to focus my work for a long time. I didn't realize how comforting it was having that larger project until it was finished and I found myself staring at my notebook wondering, now what? I'm writing with no particular focus, just seeing what happens. It's a little scary because these are the times when I doubt myself the most, when I start to think maybe I've run out of things to write about, or at least run out of the ability to say anything new or interesting. I know we all go through this, so I won't allow myself to wallow in this state for too long. I try to remind myself that as writers, we're always writing, even when we're not actively putting pen to paper. Sometimes we're on "intake" and sometimes we're on "output," but we're always working.


In April, New Village Press in Oakland published my anthology, American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice. This was another big project I'd been working on for the last couple of years, and again, it gave me something to focus on - if I was having trouble working on my own poetry, I could always turn to the anthology. It's fantastic having the anthology out there. I'm very passionate about the power of literature to create change and advocate for justice, and I think the work in the anthology proves how work that is, first and foremost, of the highest quality usually possesses the power to change minds, to get the reader to see the world through other eyes. It was my desire, as a teacher, to find work that has the power to transform, but isn't preachy or polemical, that made me undertake the project, and it was my belief that such work is out there that made me see it through to publication. I'd love to work on another anthology. It seems a shame not to, given the steep learning curve you face when you put together your first anthology. I'm sure I'll do another such project.

I'm also tinkering with essays and some short nonfiction. I love reading essays and creative nonfiction, and I think there's a deep connection between poetry and the essay form. Maybe it's an associative approach to ideas and images, a way of looking at the world that allows you to put unlike things together in order to come up with something new and whole. I'm very taken with the work of W. G. Sebald. There's something about the way he approaches ideas and narrative, a very liquid quality that allows him to move so effortlessly from one topic to the next, one memory to another - it's just beautiful. When I read his work, and the work of other writers like him, I feel that there is hope for all of us - I'm grateful that there are minds out there so unhampered, so full of imagination that they make almost anything seem possible. There is so much pettiness in the world these days. It's ugly and it's exhausting. Writers like Sebald are working on another level, not denying this world, but seeing it within a greater context.

In terms of my own writing, I'm content to just write for now. I'll send out work to journals, but won't try to force myself to come up with the shape of a new collection yet. I know that this will come when I'm ready. I am a project kind of guy, when it gets right down to it. I guess my current project is just letting things be, seeing what happens next. Whatever the next collection is, it will need to be different from the last four. I'm not talking about radically changing my style or abandoning my voice, and I don't honestly believe any of us can do that in any organic, real way. I'm talking about growing as a writer and a thinker, stepping off into new territory, and simply continuing to learn. I never want to stop learning. It's how I know I'm alive.

JM:  Thanks for such a great conversation.



05 August 2011

Digging into the Heart of Writing

For the past three days, I have been watching men in my driveway dig deeper and deeper into the earth.  It has something to do with an underground power line that has been defunct for a better part of a year.  The problem in getting the line fixed is that it’s buried below more than four feet of earth.  An even greater obstacle is that there happened to be a heated driveway on top of that.  Think of the heated driveway as an incredibly expensive, complicated crust placed on top of a pie.  It’s summer and somehow easier to see a pie metaphor from June until September.

So the men have been excavating underneath the heated driveway, delicately, nearly tunneling their way out of the light and into the secret depths of the earth.  Think of trying to locate a spicy whole clove in the center of a just set peach pie, by digging into the side of it, but making sure that you never disturb the perfect golden crust just centimeters above your spoon.

Writing can be just like this—the delicate searching for an ideal word, image or phrase just out of grasp.  A blind reaching into the dark after something that we can only sense somewhere ahead of us.  So often, for me writing is a stretch or leap into the unknown, a wrestling with an angel in the dark.   Let me be clear that not all (or even the majority) of my poems are angels, fallen or otherwise.  But it is rare that I ever see my opponent clearly. 

Sometimes writing can be an act of excavation.  Only after going deeper and deeper do I finally catch a glimpse of what I was digging for.  In the case of the men outside, it was a snarl of black utility lines that looked so much like a clustering of black snakes, eager to slide out of reach of the shovel.  There are times when I am so frustrated, dirty, and fed up with writing that I want to throw the shovel into the ditch and bury the whole project.  Nevertheless, somehow, I always keep on digging, if haltingly toward my goals.

While at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, another poet asked me why I wrote poems, why not some other genre.  The answer I gave him was immediate and without thought, “Poems allow me to access my inner life.”  My certainty surprised me.  Poetry, after a handful of years, has become the way in which I make sense of my inner and outer world.  It is the eye through which I order my universe.


A poem usually begins as a question or conversation that I am having with myself.  The words and images arise from that unmappable center I call the inner life.  Others may call it the unconscious, the higher self, the muse or the soul. 

It is the deep place where the sable snakes lie slumbering in the dark. 

It is a single clove in a recipe that has scented your entire home.

That is where my writing, at its best, comes from and it takes a spade, a shovel, and a hell of a lot of sweat to get there.  

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