“Fire Drill” by Kevin Leonard

Manny got picked up by his aunt around noon, so
he wasn’t around that night
when someone microwaved three packages of EasyMac
at once because they were suuuper hungry
and set the timer to fifteen minutes
“because, we like, thought you were supposed to add them together.”

The Nuclear Holocaust voice
that warned us over the PA that
AN EMERGENCY HAS BEEN REPORTED
was more ironic than annoying tonight;
I shoved headphones in my ears,
thinking of the impersonality of
people getting news they don’t deserve,
in dorm rooms they don’t really live in
from hall directors they don’t know.

Everyone huffed and ohmygodded their way
down the stairs, and I thought about
the muddy steps Manny might be shuffling down now
into some bullshit basement morgue
to claim a body bag.

I see a couple of bros wearing cutoffs,
and wonder what they dress dead people in
before they’re presented all powdery in the funeral room,
wonder how raw and cool his dad’s skin might be
if he touched it.

I wanted to tell him I get it,
but I don’t.
What the hell do I know?
All I did was pack his toothbrush
and his PS3.

I want to be there like the lagoon I’m
walking towards,
as I slip away from circles
of jabbering students.

Like grief on a college campus, the lagoon
has a silent mystique.

Tonight, the water is magnetic.
I crack some ice on the edge, and slip in.
My headphones fizzle out as the filmy surface seals
over my head.

For a moment,
my movements float
and through stillness
I can feel the breath
of frozen fish.

Now my body’s convulsing,
and old air is being wrenched
from my lungs.

Maybe here,
in the algae hum,
is a place I can pray.

Leonard Kevin Photo

Kevin Leonard is a poet from Rockaway Beach, NY. His work has also appeared in A Narrow Fellow and Your Impossible Voice. He attended SUNY Oswego and is a diehard NY Islanders fan. He currently lives in New Orleans with his fiancée, Khrystyne, their dog, and three cats.

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This entry was posted in Poetry on March 30, 2016

“Cold in the Valley” by Anne Hohenstein

I fed your ass perfect orange oranges
you said it was too much

You wanted the familiar
bruising of plums mottled like your balls
just riper and hairless

You joked that your dog
licked inside your mouth
as if that were transgressive

I laughed because
I will send your funeral flowers

HohensteinAnneAnne Hohenstein is a poet living and working in the Hudson River Valley.  The rest is practical static.

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This entry was posted in Poetry on March 23, 2016

“I’m not a big believer in talent”: An Interview with Rick Bursky

BurskyRickPhoto2

As far as I can tell, Rick Bursky has done just about everything. No, really. This is a man who has almost as many scuba dives to his name as he does published poems (that would be 190 scuba dives versus 231 published poems, at last count). In case you’re feeling unaccomplished by comparison, don’t worry—he’s only been a national game show contestant five times, and he’s still only produced a single off-Broadway play.

His fourth book of poetry, I’m No Longer Troubled by the Extravagance (Boa Editions 2015), is pensive, haunting, and just a little bit disturbing. It’s funny just when you think there’s no room left for laughter. It questions the dark recesses of human consciousness, and leaves me with a burning desire to find out more about artichokes, as it appears Bursky would have me believe I’ve been underestimating this particular vegetable all along.

Recently, I reached out to Bursky to request an interview. In a brilliant move, I managed to make a typo in my own email address when providing my contact information. Despite this, he still went out of his way to connect with me through the magic of social media, where he was gracious and did not once call me an imbecile. We chatted through email (triple-checked on my part) about his latest book, the myth of natural talent, the nature of Truth, and the mating habits of vegetables.

It seems like you’ve done everything. You’re a poet, a photographer, a director, a producer, a playwright. Is there one specific genre or medium you’ve always dreamed of working in that you haven’t yet touched?

Years ago, I wrote a play, Prayers for the Invisible Men. It was performed in an off-off-Broadway theater. Once was enough for that. And the truth is, it was a poem that really go out of hand. There was also a time, years back, when I thought of writing a screenplay. Hey, I live in Los Angeles. But I came to my senses. Los Angeles doesn’t need another screenwriter.

I sometimes play with the idea of writing creative nonfiction about poetry. I have a manuscript titled Ironmongery. In that book, I explain everything in the world. For instance, I have a short piece about fog. Most people will tell you fog is a cloud touching the ground. But I tell the truth about fog—it’s unresolved poetic thought. Yeah, I better stick to poetry.

I should mention that I do figure drawing as a hobby. One day, I’m going to ask a model to pose for a poem. I have many other hobbies, though not as creative.

BurskyRickBookI love this. It’s about time someone told the truth about fog. This explains why it’s often heaviest early in the mornings—all of that unresolved poetic thought leaking out of our dreams all night long, plus the ideas you have in the middle of the night, but you don’t want to turn the light on, so you let them escape instead of writing them down. My primary genre in my MFA program is poetry, but I recently realized that creative nonfiction is probably the next closest thing to poetry. This surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have.

I always thought the term “creative nonfiction” was a strange term. It should just be “nonfiction.” We don’t have “creative fiction” or “creative poetry.” There’s simply nonfiction, and some is more interesting and better written than others.

With all of these different projects, jobs, and types of creative work that you’ve done, do you consider yourself to be a poet, first and foremost? If so, has that always been the case?

I am, first and foremost, a poet. Love to read it. Love to write it. I don’t want to take time away from that; everything else is simply a distraction. Before I became a poet, I was a photographer and thought of myself as a poet who never wrote. Instead of writing poems, I photographed them. When I started writing poetry, I just about stopped taking photos. But I began to think of myself as a photographer too lazy to go out and photograph things, so instead I wrote my photographs as poems.

Your website says you’ve read 876 books. How certain are you on that number?

That number is out of date. It should be larger. I like to read. I just bought another biography of George Custer and I can’t wait to start it. Though I’m really loving Dean Young’s new book right now.

I started tracking every book I read about a year ago, when I (belatedly) discovered there are now websites that make that sort of thing super easy. If you tell me you’ve somehow been tracking this since the first book you read as a child, I will both not entirely believe you, I’d be incredibly envious of you.

No, I didn’t start counting the number of books when I learned to read, though I wish I did. Here’s how I got that number: I read about two book each month when I was in the army, for a total of 96 books. I also had an estimate from college and my MFA program. Then I estimated 20 books a year of general reading, mostly fiction and history; lately, more history. You can guess how old I am. Oh, that number doesn’t include books of poetry, which tend to be about 80 or 90 pages.

You have 98 fountain pens. Is that all at once, or over the course of your lifetime of fountain pen ownership?

I have gotten rid of, lost, and given away fountain pens over the years. I think I have 103 fountain pens right now. They are the instrument of choice when it comes to writing poems. I don’t like to write fast and the fountain pen slows me down. I write everything longhand in a notebook. I later type my poems into the computer. Sometimes I write the same line over and over again and enjoy watching the ink dry. It gives me a chance to think about the line. I currently love stub nibs, but that changes. Sometimes I’m into super-flex. A fountain pen, cigar, and glass of good wine (or bourbon)—now that’s the way to write a poem.

The next best thing to writing with a fountain pen would be to write with a manual typewriter. While I love my Apple, computers have no souls.

You’ve taught writing for years. What has been the hardest thing to teach students about writing, and about being writers?

I’ve taught copywriting for years, both at Art Center College of Design and at USC. The first thing I try to do is dispel the idea of talent. Copywriting, writing, even poetry, is something that is learned. You study it. You read it. You write it. You learn it. I’m not a big believer in talent. I believe in passion and hard work.

I imagine it could get tricky to dispel the idea of talent, particularly where larger egos are concerned. Do you ever have people fight you on that?

Yes, many people believe in talent and want to argue the point. But they are wrong. We all come into the world the same. Obviously, no one is going to teach you how to be a great poet or a great painter, but you could be taught the craft. How passionate you are, how hard you work at it will make the difference. The primary job of a writing teacher is to inspire. Oh, there are some rules to point out, but the job is about inspiration. Students teach themselves. If we’re lucky, we’re along for the ride.

You said that same thing in a video for a series that offers advice on different aspects of writing—poetry is the art of language, and poems don’t need to have a narrative. Along those same lines, your new book is described as “a stage for language to do the unexpected.” But there’s a lot of heavy subject matter in these poems—death, fear, pervasive heartbreak—and lots of brief glimpses of people dealing with these things. Would you say that the language is still the most important part of this particular book, or do the stories of people, like the woman who winds up dating the person she tries to rob at gunpoint (“The Intimacies”), outweigh the art of language as the most important part?

The toughest specific thing about teaching poetry is that poetry is the art of language. Telling a story is the art of fiction. The two are different. If you have stories to tell, you should be writing fiction.

With that said, yes, you can tell stories in poetry. Homer did a pretty good job of that. But the story isn’t the point. Of course, we have to do something with the language in our poems. Words mean something, so a narrative often emerges in a poem.

When Monet started painting haystacks, I suspect it wasn’t out of a newly found love for haystacks. He was using them as a shill for exploring light, weather, atmosphere and perspective—painting. So in my poems, things like love, shoelaces, clouds, etc., are shills for language. I don’t start with a subject. I just start to write. How’s the old cliché go? God gives us the first line and we sweat for the rest.

I guess I write surrealist love poems. But the truth is, I’m an Eastern European Duendest. So I’m obligated to have death and strange stuff in my poems. The poet can’t escape who he or she is; something of us is going to manifest itself in the language. For the sake of conversation, let’s call that narrative. But that’s not the point. I write my poems one line at a time. I write one line, and try to think of something interesting that might follow that line. If I can’t think of anything, I sometimes go to the dictionary and find a word that I haven’t used in a while, or ever, and make that the star of the next line—and the poem gets built, written, step by step, line by line.

It seems like your poems as a whole, not just the new book, tend to be set on a background of death. It’s accurate to say death is one of the big themes in all of your books. I know you have a number of years in the military in your past, but the death in your poems usually seems much more generalized—not something that could be categorized as “war poems.” Do you consider this to be related?

No, my poems are not war poems, or related to my time in the army—though my army years shaped me quite a bit. I really liked being in the army and I’m still great friends with guys I served with. Of course, there are a couple of army poems in the books.

Someone once said there are only two things to write about: love and death—and love is simply the way we negotiate with death. I don’t choose my subject matter; it chooses me. When I try to control my subject matter too much, it turns into something else; what you would call creative nonfiction, or a play. Writing is the journey the poem takes the poet on. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

I never meant for the poems to be related, but there’s no avoiding it. All the poems are related to the poet. Perhaps we could say that people have themes, or people are themes?

You said in a recent interview that you like to make up facts and include them in your poems, and then people often believe them without checking to see if they’re true. Has there ever been a time you decided to leave out one of these “facts” because it was just too unbelievable? Is there even such a thing as too unbelievable?

Nothing is too unbelievable.

People are too caught up with truth. We’re not writing non-fiction, we’re not writing memoirs, or even fiction; we’re writing poetry. It exists in a gray area. I like the fact that people expect poems to be true. It gives poets tremendous power.

But since we’re on the subject, let me say, for the record, that everything in my poems is true. There are two types of truth. The first deals with the facts of a situation, what happened, etc. The second truth is the emotional truth. Why did it happen? What did it feel like? The emotional truth is the more honest truth. There are three sides to every story: what you said happened, what I said happened, and what really happened.  Language is honest, even when it lies.

I’m glad we settled the truth issue.

Me, too. What’s the most unbelievable thing you’ve written about that was true as far as the first type of truth is concerned—the “facts of the situation/what really happened” type of truth?

I was attacked by vampire bats while walking through some hills in Italy at night. I fought them off with an M-16—went through an entire magazine in the fight. I came close to becoming the living dead, condemned to walk the earth for eternity. The army and the Italian police didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation.  It was a harrowing experience. It’s the basis for part of the poem, “Death Obscura.”

Also, while walking through the woods in Germany, I was attacked by a rabbit. It leapt at me, bit into my left hand—it was a bloody mess. Had to get stitches. Fortunately, we were able to catch the rabbit. Cut its head off and sent it to a lab to check for rabies, which it didn’t have. It was just mean. I’ve never written about that. One day I will.

Why are artichokes the only vegetable that mates for life (“Rituals”)? I’ve dropped that delightful tidbit into a few random conversations since reading it. Mostly, people give some sort of vague confirmation and then change the subject.

I have no idea why that is. I guess I could look it up. By the way, I was disappointed to learn that strawberries are not in the least bit monogamous. They look so faithful!

Perhaps it has something to do with artichokes having hearts. Are they the only ones with hearts? Regardless, it remains a mystery. 

When I read Extravagance, I didn’t get the impression of a unifying setting that runs between poems, and many of the poems feel as if the speaker doesn’t have to be the same person from one to the next. This gives a sense of universality—the speaker could just as easily be my next-door neighbor, my brother, myself. But that makes me wonder how you decided that these particular poems go together in this particular book. What makes them a book in your mind, and not just a bunch of poems?

Your next-door neighbor, your brother and even you are all speakers in the poem. You don’t just read the poem; you experience it and become it. Poems should be universal. Great writing should bring a poem to life, and great language moves a poem into art. Not that I’ve accomplished great anything at this point, but there’s always tomorrow.

I don’t recall how I arrived at the order. I think I ordered them by voice, or something like that. Of course, I had lots of help from the people at BOA, and not just with order; some keen editorial comments as well.

I group the poems in Extravagance in three categories: surrealist love poem (I’m a romantic at heart); short, flat-footed surreal something-or-other; and the semi-journalistic, fact-based prose poem. I think everything in the book falls into one of those camps. If you find a fourth category in the book, please name it and let me know. The next time someone asks, I’ll say I group everything in four categories.

—interview by Allison Paster-Torres

 

 

 

 

 

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This entry was posted in Interviews on March 16, 2016

“Hot Flash” by Caitlin McDonnell

They come early for us.
Skinny, stressed women, the flame
that burns twice bright.
My sister calls them honey badgers.
On the subway, wrapped in winter wools,
the sudden fever; a sharp descent
to the hothouse inside
where vines and fungi grow:
Pink early flower, Scrambling Clematis.
Wood Ear, Inky Pot, Stinkhorn.
I trust the hypothalamus to mediate
body and brain. Like city apartments in winter,
the heat overcompensates for chill.
Here’s a house full of bees.
Do you think the honey badger cares?
Like riding a wave, the rhythm like labor,
which taught me to surrender to pain.
I loosen my scarf, wonder if it’s visible.
Her face is so red, a student said aloud,
as if I couldn’t hear or it didn’t matter.
I close my eyes and wait, breathe
into all that dies or rots in musty
ferments. Let it go, let it go.
Honey Badger don’t give a shit.

McDonell,Caitlin photoCaitlin Grace McDonnell was a New York Times Fellow in poetry at NYU and has received fellowships from Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her poems and essays have been published widely, most recently in Salon, and she has two published books of poems, Dreaming the Tree (belladonna 2003) and Looking for Small Animals (2012). Currently, she’s an English teacher and lives in Brooklyn with her six-year-old daughter, Kaya Hope.

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This entry was posted in Poetry on February 10, 2016

Poetry of Place and Making a Place for Poetry: An Interview with Matthew Thorburn

ThorburnMatthewPhotoMatthew Thorburn’s A Green River in Spring is the winner of the 2014 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize. Inspired by various classical Japanese and Chinese poets, such as Wang Wei, many of the poems offer beautiful descriptions of nature: “The birds wing their way south. They take/ the sky with them, each black scrap” (from “Birds Before Winter”). Staying rooted in the natural world, Thorburn weaves images of Chinese landscapes together with fantastical scenes, such as Taoists either becoming cranes or riding them to heaven. The author of three full-length books of poetry—This Time Tomorrow, Every Possible Blue and Subject to Change—as well as another chapbook, Disappears in the Rain, Thorburn is particularly influenced by travel—especially to Japan, China, and Iceland. He is currently at work on a book-length poem, Dear Almost, which will be published later this year. In April 2014, he started a series of author interviews called What Are You Reading? on his website. Starting in December 2014, those interviews have been regularly featured on the Ploughshares blog. When Thorburn isn’t writing, he works as a communications manager at an international law firm. He resides in New York City with his wife and son.

Thorburn and I exchanged questions over email and covered topics as diverse as what it’s like working on a collaborative poem, making time for writing, and the importance of place in poetry.

So much of your poetry seems connected to specific places. While this book seems to be rooted in China, it seems like Japan and Iceland are also important places to you. I read in an article from The Riverdale Press that a poetry project your high school class took part in with a class from Japan was an important experience for you as a poet. What inspires you to set your poetry in such different landscapes? What is it about these countries that appeals to you?

I appreciate you noticing that. You’re right: a sense of place is very important to me, as both a writer and a reader. I like to feel grounded, to know where things are happening in a poem. That’s something I’m drawn to in the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney, two of my favorites—the feeling that the emotions and events of these poems are occurring in very particular places and times. In my case, China, Iceland and Japan are three places I’ve been fortunate to get to visit—and places that I just kept thinking about after I’d come home. The poems in my most recent book, This Time Tomorrow, all take place in those three countries—and my next book, a long poem called Dear Almost that will be published later this year, returns to Japan as well.

Writing about these places is a way of getting to go back to revisit them in my memory and imagination. I guess I’m fascinated by the differences between places, whether it’s the landscape or (even more interesting to me) the culture: how people do things or what they call things in one place versus another, how something can have very different meanings in different cultures—the way white is the color of bridal dresses in the U.S., for instance, but is associated with death in China.

ThorburnMatthewBookThe acknowledgements section of A Green River in Spring credits the ideas for some of these poems to reading classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Who are some of the poets that have influenced you the most? What are some of your favorite translations and what do you think makes one translation better than another?

I’m strictly an amateur when it comes to reading Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation, since I don’t know either language, so for me the best translation is simply one that’s a compelling poem in English. I first read the Essential Haiku anthology, edited by Robert Hass, as a college student, and it’s still one of my favorite books. I love those versions of poems by Basho, Buson and Issa—their immediacy and specificity, the tenderness and humor, their attention to the changes in the seasons, and the way those poems just keep echoing outward after you read them. All those qualities keep me coming back to these poems, and are things I try to emulate in my own writing. More recently, I happily spent many hours working my way through David Hinton’s massive anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry, reading his versions of favorites of mine like Wang Wei, as well as “discovering” many wonderful poets who were new to me, like Meng Hao-jan.

Did you start reading Chinese and Japanese poems in translation before going abroad for the first time? Has visiting these places changed how you visualize and understand the poems at all?

Yes I did, but no it hasn’t. I think the first Chinese poem in translation I ever read was probably Pound’s version of “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” That was in high school. (If you’re interested, I talked about that reading experience in this essay on classical Chinese poetry.) I later learned that is not actually a very good translation, if you define “translation” at all strictly, but as a poem in English it got me hooked. The very limited time I’ve had the chance to spend in Japan and China didn’t really change my relationship with those classical poems—though it made me more interested in reading contemporary writing from or about these two countries.

I found your recurring themes of winter, snow, and whiteness, such as “Color of death,/ forgetting, of snow drifting down like sheets that cover each/ table and chair” from “Before the First Black Horse,” to be incredibly striking. I also noticed, to a lesser extent, that singing seems to be a subtler recurring theme in A Green River in Spring. In “Before the First Black Horse,” both the speaker and Lao Wen sing, and the reader is advised not to come back in their next life as a stork, since storks cannot sing. Although there’s no singing in it, you have a poem called “Song” in which the speaker requests a piano be rolled out. What was it that inspired you to include these references to song and singing? What connection do you see between singing and poetry?

I appreciate you noticing these things. I think it’s natural for me to write about singing and songs because I’m always interested in how my words and lines sound, and I try to play with all the ways phrasing and punctuation and line breaks can work together to create a certain rhythm and give a poem a song-like quality. For years, I did almost all my revising out loud—and sometimes drafted poems aloud, using a digital recorder—though lately I do much of my revising on my subway commute to and from work, or during my lunch hour, which makes it harder to do this without seeming like a crazy person.

Do you feel like editing while on the subway or during your lunch break makes the editing process more difficult or stifles it in any way?

Well, it means working in shorter bursts of time, but as I get older I tend to think I work better when time is limited. It helps me focus in a useful way. As I mentioned above, though, working in these situations also means not revising out loud—or at least revising out loud very quietly to myself. I guess if you really want to write, then you find a time and place when you can write. Mine don’t seem ideal, I know, though it’s a nice feeling to walk down Park Avenue and pass the plaza where I often sat over the past couple of years, writing and rewriting Dear Almost.

Who or what inspired you to include the character Lao Wen in A Green River in Spring? Can you tell me a bit about him?

Lao Wen is an old crazy-wise poet figure I made up. (“Lao” means old in Mandarin.) As I was working on some of these poems, I sometimes felt that a particular thought should be voiced by someone other than the speaker—that it would be interesting (to me, at least) to have this sense of overhearing part of a conversation in some of the poems. And as I was figuring out the shape and sequence of this chapbook manuscript, I realized that having him appear in several of the poems was also a way to help tie the poems together and reinforce the sense that they’re all happening in the same (imagined) time and place. Lao Wen also makes a brief appearance in Dear Almost, which quotes two of his poems.

The tagline of your website is “Mostly poems, a little prose …” I notice all of your published books are poetry, so that seems to be your favorite form. What draws you to one form over the other? Do you have any plans for any works of prose, such as a collection of essays, memoir, or novel?

Yes, poetry is my bread and butter. The little bit of prose I write is mostly in service of poetry: book reviews and the occasional essay to help spread the word about books I’ve enjoyed and think more people ought to read. I’ve contributed reviews to Pleiades for a few years now, and more recently I’ve been putting together monthly interviews for the Ploughshares blog, which give me another way to tell people about writers and books I’ve enjoyed reading.

My next book, Dear Almost, is a book-length poem that takes place over the course of a year, from one spring to the next. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to writing a novel.

You’ve published both full-length poetry books and chapbooks. How and when do you know whether what you’re working on will end up as a chapbook or full-length book of poetry?

My previous chapbook, Disappears in the Rain, was a single long poem, so A Green River in Spring is really the first time I’ve worked with a chapbook-length selection of poems, rather than a book manuscript. In fact, I originally approached these poems as one section of a book manuscript I was trying to assemble, but then decided they made more sense as their own smaller stand-alone manuscript. That’s partly because I drafted about half of them in a period of a few weeks—my last burst of new writing before my son was born.

Once I put this one together, though, I realized how much I like this format—thinking in this smaller, tighter frame of 10 or 20 poems. I like that brief, concentrated focus; the chapbook form seems fleeter, compared to the long journey of a book. I also really admire the beautiful small press production of so many of the chapbooks I read these days. In our digital world, I love that so many chapbooks are these wonderful handmade artifacts.

You went to The New School in New York after attending University of Michigan for your undergraduate studies. What drew you to The New School for your MFA? How did your time there affect your writing?

What drew me to The New School most of all is that it’s located in New York City. Thylias Moss, one of my teachers at Michigan, advised me to apply to MFA programs in places where I knew I would want to live—so that, however good or bad the MFA turned out, I would at least be in a place I liked. And more than 15 years later, I’m still right here in New York.

While at The New School, I had the chance to study with Jason Shinder, David Trinidad, David Lehman and the amazing Laurie Sheck—all wonderful teachers. I remember going to so many readings, and reading lots of books of poems—really just taking it all in during those two years, and for years after. In some ways I’m still realizing just how much I learned during that time. I think it can be harder to create a lasting sense of community when you go to an MFA program in a big city, since everyone—the teachers especially, but also the students—has a lot of other commitments and things going on beyond the MFA program, but I was lucky to make some lasting friendships there as well.

You wrote a collaborative poem with Amanda Deutch. What was the writing process like? How did it differ from your typical writing process?

Yes, Amanda and I wrote a poem together last year as part of the festivities for the Center for Book Arts’ 40th anniversary. Sharon Dolin, who directs the Center’s poetry programs, invited all of the poets who had curated readings there over the years to join in writing collaborative poems to mark the occasion, which we’d read at a series of events during the year. We were paired up, for the most part with someone we didn’t know, and turned loose to write our poems.

This was a little nerve-wracking at first. I’d really never written a poem with someone else before, had never met Amanda, and we only had a couple months to finish our poem. Plus our poem would be produced as a letterpress broadside and we had to read it to an audience—so it better be good! But when offered an opportunity like this, you should never say no. And in fact it was fun—due more than anything to the fact that Amanda was a wonderful person to collaborate with.

We met once to talk over coffee, then went to one of the first readings in the series, so we could hear how two other pairs of poets—Marcella Durand and Rachel Levitsky, and Thomas Sayers Ellis and Rodrigo Toscano—approached this challenge. After that, we wrote the poem over email. We each came up with some lines, then traded and added new lines between the original lines. Actually, we wrote several poems this way, then chose our favorite for the broadside.

You have a son and work as a communications manager for an international law firm. How do you make the time to write?

I remember the poet and translator Jonathan Mayhew once said he wouldn’t want to do a residency at a writers’ retreat because he felt poems should be written in “stolen time”—time when you’re supposed to be doing something else. That has always resonated with me, though I guess I tend to operate more in what I’d call “in-between time”: my train ride between home and work, for example, or my lunch hour between mornings and afternoons at the office. A poem is eminently portable, usually just a sheet or two of paper, and once I have something started I often carry a copy of the latest draft folded up in my pocket (and will have at least some of its lines percolating in the back of my mind)—or keep a print-out of a book manuscript, if I’m in that part of the process, always in my briefcase.

More recently, I’ve done some drafting and revising during the first hour of my day, when my wife has already headed off to work and my son is still asleep. That dark, quiet time—say, six to seven a.m.—can be the very best hour to write, if you can manage it. After that, whatever else may happen in your day, good or bad, you’ve already accomplished something meaningful.

Speaking of in-between time, I also find trains are actually great places to work. I’m a huge fan of Amtrak’s quiet car and my fellow passengers who so vigilantly preserve that quiet. I did my final read-through of the galleys of my second book, Every Possible Blue, one morning on the train from New York to Boston. More recently, I worked through edits on Dear Almost during a train ride home from Washington, D.C. I sometimes daydream about taking a day off just to ride the train to Boston and back, so I could work on poems for eight hours, with a break in the middle for lunch at Umbria Prime!

Since you run an interview series on Emerson’s Ploughshares blog called “What Are You Reading?,” I naturally want to ask––what are you reading?

I tend to spend much of my reading time keeping up with my magazine and journal subscriptions, but lately I’ve been enjoying some terrific novels. I recently read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and just this morning finished Susan Barker’s The Incarnations. Both are captivating, moving books. I was especially sorry to see Barker’s book end. It’s a vivid, whirlwind tour through China’s history and a page-turner mystery all in one. On the poetry side, those Ploughshares interviews make a good checklist of some of my favorite reading from the past year. And up next I’m reading an anthology of flash fiction I signed on to review for a journal.

—interview by Jessie Serfilipi

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This entry was posted in Interviews on February 5, 2016