Interviews

February 27, 2015

“I don’t want to miss out on living because I’m too busy writing” – Hanging Out With Kate Monica

By Nikki Barnhart in Interviews

The most surprising thing I learned about Kate Monica, UConn’s 2015 representative of the Connecticut Poetry Circuit, was that poetry was not a life-long pursuit for her. Rather, she used to hate it. Her work is so fluid and natural, informal but still balanced and graceful that I assumed she had been writing it her whole life.

She grew up loving prose and novels but it wasn’t until freshman year and English professor Bruce Cohen’s class that she became interested in poetry. In his class, Monica was exposed to “different, good writers” such as Sharon Olds and Philip Larkin. “It opened my eyes,” she says. The experience led her to try out for UConn’s slam team, becoming a teammate in her sophomore year.

Kate Monica is a 21 year old junior, and so far, her work has been published by the Long River Review, the Newer York, Electric Cereal, Orchid Children, Holey Scripture and Control Literary Magazine. In 2014, she won Collins Literary Prize for poetry.

Her work is decisively modern and strikingly poignant, even when focused on the commonplace. She explores “discomfort in different ways,” and features “characters that don’t quite belong. They desperately want to communicate but keep missing each other. I’m interested in those little moments of desperation that we all feel but we don’t know how to help each other.”

One such poem, titled “1 Nov 22:00,” published on Electric Cereal, is in the form of a Facebook chat between “a decorated general of Vietnam War” with anthropophobia so crippling he hasn’t left his house in 15 years, and a high school girl. In the chat, the girl gently tries to help him overcome his phobias (“you should try texting your grandkids”) but she will not do the connecting for him. (“If you see my granddaughter at school, will you tell her I said hello?” “that would be kind of weird i think. i don’t really talk to her. and she’d wonder why i knew you at all. it would just be rly weird.”

I ask her if she thinks she belongs to a particular school of poetry. I suggest “confessional” and she agrees. “Even when I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about myself. Even if I don’t mean to, it’s confessional anyway,” she says.

Some of her inspirations include musician Laura Stevenson (“genius”) and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (“effortless”), a subject of one of her poems. Frank O’Hara is another “genius” in her eyes – “his work is effortless, like he just thought of it.” William Faulkner “has great characters, which I think is essential, so people can connect.” She also cites comedian Maria Bamford as an inspiration. “She has really well-written jokes. She’s simultaneously really dark and whimsical and hilarious at the same time. She balances depressing and funny so she doesn’t lose readers.”

As a writer, Kate Monica describes her style as “a sense of urgency.” As a performer, she says, “frantic and nervous – at least that’s what I’ve been told. That’s less intentional, and more just me being actually nervous.”

The Connecticut Poetry Circuit, an annual competition that selects 5 poets from all Connecticut universities public and private to perform a series of 15 readings, is the first time Monica’s been paid to do a reading, so “it feels more professional than doing it for free. It’s interesting to meet more people and see their different styles of reading,” she says.

I ask if she’s more comfortable writing or performing and she tells me that, “I’m more comfortable just writing. There’s much more to worry about when performing. When you write, you can just let the words do the talking, when you perform, you have to make it sound how you want. In performing, you lose opportunities to be ambiguous because the reader can’t go back. It’s harder because you do it in one take.”

I ask her what she thinks a poet should be, and she thinks for a moment. “There’s this one quote…,” she says, and pauses. “Let me look it up,” and she does on her iPhone. “Here it is. ‘Poets comfort the disturb and disturb the comfortable.’”

“Who said that?” I ask.

“It says Banksy,” she furrows her brow at the screen. “That can’t be right.”

Regardless of who actually spoke the words, they hold especially true, I think, in Monica’s own work.

“Someone who is a poet should be uncomfortable in the world,” she says. “Like they can’t handle how beautiful and awful the world is so they have to synthesize it in order to exist comfortably.”

I ask her my bombshell question – “who are you and what do you want?” – and she thinks for a minute. “I can answer the ‘what do you want,’” she offers. “I don’t want to miss out,” she says.

I reference that Oscar Wilde quote – “inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. They live the poetry they cannot write” – and we debate it. We both don’t quite agree. We think there has to be a balance.

“I want to prioritize living over thinking about living,” she says. “I don’t want to miss out on living because I’m too busy writing.”

Kate Monica’s poems have such a vivid heartbeat; they are very much alive, very much dependent on someone who has felt and lived and experienced. It seems to be a pretty symbiotic relationship. I think she’s safe from her fears.

 

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February 24, 2015

“I am first a creature of the imagination” – an interview with poet Benjamin Grossberg

By Nikki Barnhart in Interviews

Benjamin Grossberg, Spring 2015 representative of the “Writers Who Edit, Editors Who Write” series, is passionate and personable. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions, and the resulting conversation is a thoughtful reflection of all the different roles a writer can play. Supplement your experience of his reading with his answers, or read them on their own – either way, Ben’s answers were enlightening and thought-provoking. photo

 

A Polish filmmaker once made a film focused entirely upon one question: who are you and what do you want? I love this question and all of its deceptive simplicity and will be framing all of my interviews around it. So, who are you, and what do you want?

Is it a good thing to be able to answer this question, to know and be able to articulate the answer? Maybe it’s better if there’s a little more churning, or if the answer is too complicated to formulate.

I’m not sure who I am beyond a half-dozen social roles that you could find out from a cursory internet search, and I guess I want . . . what? . . . to know and be known, to surprise and engage myself writing poems, to be good to as many people as I can, to stay healthy. That’s not very exciting, is it?

Right now I’m sitting at my desk with a cat on my lap, and every few minutes she lifts a paw up to my keyboard, wanting to scoot herself onto it. What I want is for spring to come, or at least to stay home tonight. It’s going to get down to negative ten.

 

Editing questions:

 1) How has being a writer helped you as an editor? Do you find yourself more empathetic towards submissions, less so or neither?

Being a writer may well have made me more empathetic to submitters. But that kind of empathy doesn’t have much bearing on the work of winnowing poems for The Antioch Review. Reading for a journal is an intimate but merciless process. The poem either evokes, or it doesn’t; the language forks some energy, or not. That said, I am never, even in my head, even in the privacy of my own couch, flip about submissions. I do not mock or superciliously dismiss. And often I do feel touched by the gesture of reaching out on paper — paper! — with poems, the hopefulness of it, the sweetness. Every month, The Antioch Review gets work from people who clearly never read poetry and have no formal training, who approach and practice the art almost wholly on received notions. Yet there’s deep feeling there: they, too, “get the news from poems” in a way, as the process connects them to something inside themselves which is, I think, often important and beautiful. And I do feel moved by that, and probably some of this empathy comes from my experience as a writer, knowing what it feels like – to be opened up by the act of composition.

Of course, I also know that such opening doesn’t necessarily translate to the reader, or mean much to anyone else in the world.

If my work as a writer has helped my work as an editor, it is in this way: stumbling through three-and-a-half books now, I have long exhausted my original notions of what a poem is and does. As a matter of fact, I’ve exhausted my second and third notions, too – so I know first hand, in late-night work, that poems are various and variously glorious. Being a writer – and being a teacher — has made me aware of discovery in a host of modes. As an editor, I seek to find great poems, your proverbial needle-in-hay-stack search. So the wider my ability to understand what a poem can be, the more full and flexible my understanding of what that needle might be, the more likely I am to find it.

 

2) I’m sure you get a massive amount of submissions. How does your reading process work? How long do you think about each piece before making a decision?

I have a set process. I get a box of submissions every other month; the box contains between 100 and 150 envelops, most of three to five poems. There’s a second associate editor who gets a box on the months I don’t. My job is to mail Judith Hall, who makes the final decisions, ten percent of the envelops I see. From these, over a course of two or three months, Judith selects the ten or so poems that appear in the magazine.

I read ten envelops a night. Usually that takes between one and two hours. More than half the envelops can be disqualified quickly. The poems either aren’t well executed – as if the act of composition wasn’t hot enough to fire the clay – or the stakes aren’t high enough. Stakes should be understood widely here: sound, form, subject matter, voice. Some kind of artistic heft was missing.

And sometimes there is one envelop of the ten which distinguishes itself right away. When a submission is good, really good, the light in the room changes. The submission itself seem to change the context. I feel myself shift from editor to reader. I fall under the poems’ authority.

And then I’m left with the three or four envelops in between. Here is where the bulk of my time goes. These submissions I read again and again, and always out loud. Sometimes I put a few of the envelops aside, come back to them the next day. I’m looking for something, some quality that’s really remarkable—a very particular, beautifully executed aspect of the writer’s aesthetic. It makes sense, I think, for writers to send well-unified submissions: a group of poems that take up a single aesthetic project or theme, rather than trying to “show range.” At this stage, I’m trying to understand a project, to discern an aesthetic. I want to understand a new poetic, and then think about whether it might be a good fit with the magazine. The envelops that make it through this process go in their own pile.

So – ten envelops a night – I slowly move through the box.

I finish this process at the end of the month with three piles. The first, by far the largest, is submission we cannot use. The smallest pile — usually less than ten envelops — are those I will definitely send on to Judith Hall. And then I have a pile of about fifteen envelops which I must whittle down by half. This second round of whittling is similar to what I described above, except more clearly comparative. It is now a zero-sum game.

The process is labor-intensive. But it’s exciting to read poems – often by very accomplished poets – in manuscript form, before they acquire the gloss of publication. And it’s even more exciting to discover poems you love by writers whose names you hadn’t heard before. The reverse is true, too: even very good poets sometimes send work that is less dazzling. That’s a useful reminder. No one, it seems, is a “poem machine.”

But the real reason I do the work is because I take so much from this art — as I submit regularly to journals and contests, and as I look for readers. It seems only fair that I give something back, too. It’s for this reason I also review books, usually six a year. The poetry world can only function, I think, if we take on an ethos of service. Otherwise — with so many writers and so few readers — the whole enterprise can begin to seem a little solipsistic.

 

3) What grabs you in a piece? Do you find yourself gravitating towards similar styles as your own, even subconsciously? Or totally different?

I don’t think I’d be much good as an editor if my own style tightly defined what I could appreciate — but surely there must be some connection there.

I strive to find the best — work that is fresh, sharp, and involving — whatever the aesthetic. I do like poetry that integrates substantial thinking, and I do have a bias toward understanding what I read. I suppose in this I’m with Marianne Moore: “we do not admire what we cannot understand.”

But that said, I’ll forward on to Judith Hall even work I don’t particular love, or understand, if I think it is very good, or innovative, or uses language in a remarkable way. At Antioch Review, we are especially interested in innovative use of language — so for our particular venue, that can help tip the scales.

 

4) What was your experience with literary journals before working on one? Has it changed your overall feelings?

I worked on my first literary journal as an undergraduate, and I submitted my first poems then, too. I didn’t work on Gulf Coast at the University of Houston. I was intimidated by the editors, who were older and seemed glamorous. In retrospect, I wish I’d been more assertive about that. But, off and on since I was nineteen, I’ve both worked on and submitted to journals.

Being inside the process has shown me both how objective it is and how subjective. I say objective because in my experience submissions are an even playing field. At Antioch Review, envelops from new poets and those from well-published poets sit side by side; the quality of work is what matters. (Though if poets are of a certain stature — say, Pulitzer Prize winners — I will automatically send the work to Judith Hall, so that she can correspond with the writer in question.) But the process is also subjective because very few people – two, finally are involved in the decision. As an editor, I try to be careful, but I am sure I get things wrong sometimes. My feeling, then, is that no particular journal is the final arbiter of worthy work. I do think the process is fair, but I don’t think it’s definitive.

My bottom line? Send your work to lots of venues—and while you are waiting to hear back, send other work to other venues. Be confident that your work is being read, but take the weight off any particular submission by having many envelops out at once. Perhaps, as a final arbiter of value, the collective process of submitting is more useful than any particular journal.

What else have I learned? Oh, maybe to be gentle when things don’t go right, when submissions get lost or it takes a very long time – over a year – and all you get back is a photocopied rejection slip. (This has certainly happened to me on numerous occasions.) The work of reviewing submissions is slow and generally uncompensated, and most of those doing it are struggling to find time for their own writing, too.

 

Writing questions:

5) I heard once that “poets are forever trying to recreate the first poem they really loved.” What was the first poem that you remember really moving you?

The first poem I remember really moving me was Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” The “moving” felt physical. “Lazarus” took me to an internal, visionary place. I fell out of the classroom in which a professor was reading the poem aloud, and I found myself in a black box theater with Plath’s images flashing before me. Pick the worms off me like sticky pearls . . . A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling. It must have been a combination of the music – literally hypnotic – and the power of those images. The final one I can still see clearly: Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air. I won’t describe what I saw; the words diminish it too much. But the image took me wholly, and when the professor stopped reading and there was suddenly silence, I sat stunned. I didn’t know where I was. It took me a minute to adjust to the light, to the fact of other students around me—that I was there, but had been somewhere else.

It hadn’t occurred to me before you asked this question, but maybe that experience is one of my goals for a poem. I am first a creature of the imagination, of wanting to see and be shown cool things. I think that’s why my first book is full of dramatic monologues from the age of discovery (Henry Hudson, Amerigo Vespucci) and classical mythology, and why my third book looks to outer space. Imagination is what engages me, still, in the way children are engaged: with wholeness and joy. But of course, there are ideas and emotions to contend with, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite figured out what to do with those.

6) I’ve read that your book, “Sweet Core Orchard” was inspired by an orchard you worked at in Ohio. What are some other important muses that drive your work? Any other strong places, people, feelings, moments?

Maybe it works the other way around: poets have concerns, and we’re always looking for vehicles to express them. (Is that the other way around?) So the apple orchard didn’t so much inspire me, as it allowed me to explore two of the concerns that open me up most fully to utterance. The first is mythology, stories that stir the imagination. (In this case, Old Testament apple tree mythology.) And the second, a feeling of being displaced, of homelessness. That farmhouse and orchard were home to me; when I planted those trees, I thought I’d stay there forever. Sweet Core has an ecstatic ending: the discovery of home, or, in mythical terms, the planting of a new “paradise.” Though it turned out I was forced to move just five years later.

Space Traveler channels my life-long love of science fiction. That book, started as I left my orchard and moved, alone, cross country, reflects the experience of rootlessness. But I’m not quite sure it’s accurate to say that science fiction inspired the book, so much as I groped for it, for science fiction, as the vehicle to express what I needed to think about—leaving the home I loved—and as a way to fire my imagination.

7) I’m always interested in the varying perspectives on the matter: what was your MFA experience like? Do you still draw on things you learned from it today? And how did it compare with your Ph.D experience?

I pursued my MFA and PhD at the same school, The University of Houston, so there was a lot of continuity in the experiences—though PhD study is by its nature more solitary, more about the grind of research and the impending reality of being a professor. (And the impending stress of the job market—the possibility that you won’t be a professor.)

When I think back to those days now, they are much as they were then: a blur. During that time, I hoped that in the years after I’d be able to sort out what I was learning, to be able to say with some precision, this I learned, and that. I’m still not sure I can.

But I can point to one thing. At The University of Houston, there was a definite respect for tradition, and for the scholarly poet. Graduate School is largely a socializing process, and in my case, the values of Houston – valorizing erudition, carefulness, and form – found fertile ground. I believe that scholarly work feeds poetry, and that poetry requires ardor, as well as a willingness to take on the arduous. My teachers there, including Richard Howard and Edward Hirsch, modeled the marriage of intellect and passion. How to be wildly learned and carefully enflamed. This combination stays with me – in my life as a reader and a teacher, and, I hope, as a writer.

Of course, there were other things, too. The workshops were terrific; my classmates were terrific. They examined poems carefully and with high standards. I internalized those standards. After a while, you want to have something lauded in workshop, so you strive toward its standards. And, of course, the friends I made there are irreplaceable.

 

Teaching:

8) And on top of all of that, you wear a third hat- teacher! How do all of these professions inform one another?

In a very mechanical way, my work at The Antioch Review and my work as a teacher are deeply connected. I discover poets and poems as a book reviewer and editor, so I am continually updating the material I bring to the classroom. The new material keeps me engaged, and it ensures that my students are actually reading contemporary poetry. I also teach a class on literary journals, so it is imperative that I know how these journals work—and know what the trends are, what going on in the culture of literary publishing. Additionally, I run a reading series at the University of Hartford, and my work with Antioch Review helps me choose who to invite — whose work I admire, who would be a good model for my students. My work with Antioch Review is like an extended course in contemporary poetry that I’ve been taking for the last decade, and the learning of that course constantly feeds my classroom.

The connection to my work as a poet is less direct, but no less important. I am constantly reading and thinking about poems, about the way poems work; I am never far from the logic of poetry. As a result, even when I am not actively composing my own poems, I am still immersed in the art — exploring what poems do, the new ways they can use the language.

In my experience, being a poet means that you need to reinvent the art for yourself with each new book. Perhaps that sounds extreme: “reinvent the art for yourself.” But in my practice, the fire of discovery must be part of the composition process for me to turn out my best work. So I can’t simply write the same poem again and again. Once I understand an approach or strategy too well, a dullness sets in. That doesn’t always happen quickly. I probably wrote over a hundred “Space Traveler” poems before I felt a little bored by the trope, before the poems began to feel formulaic to me. But it does happen eventually. So it’s imperative that I read constantly, imperative that I discuss poems constantly — especially with undergraduate writers, who force me to see things afresh, as they do. The day I stop exploring new ways to be a poet is probably the day I stop being any kind of poet at all.

As I formulate the art, complacency has no place in it. “Complacent poet”: an oxymoron.

 

General:

9) What is your favorite line of poetry, ever?

Just one!?

When King Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia, he says: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” The finality and tumbling music of those five trochees breaks my heart. I know of no statement that better nails down the finality of death.

Or Prospero’s response to Miranda’s exclamation of joy at the end of The Tempest. She suddenly meets an array of different people, where before she’d known only Caliban, her father, and (briefly) Ferdinand. She says, “O brave new world,/ That has such people in’t!” Prospero’s reply is four monosyllables. It couldn’t be simpler in diction or articulation — or more devastating in content: “’Tis new to thee.” Ouch. I can’t say the line without hearing an aching thud of silence after it.

Whitman needs to be mentioned here, too: “Edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,/ Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,/ Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.”

And Tennyson, “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.” What an amazing way to establish point of view in a dramatic monologue: immortal Tithonus, who wants to die.

And Keats, “To cease upon the midnight with no pain….”

And Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” God do I want to believe that.

There are contemporary poets I might name here, too. CK Williams and Mark Doty, especially. I think of Doty’s definition of joy: “heaviness / 

which is no burden to itself.” Or the end of CK Williams’ “The Cup.”

 This is an impossible question, isn’t it? One favorite!? If you’re going to pin me down, I’ll stay with the Lear.

 

10) What is something you would recommend to anyone? Book, song, activity, advice, anything.

Chocolate . . . human touch, as often as possible . . . more sleep (again, as often as possible) . . . a dog or a cat, but only one (you don’t want them controlling your life) . . . rereading your favorite book (I’ve read Siddhartha, Pride and Prejudice, and King Lear no less than twenty times each) . . . acquiring those things that you love viscerally and immediately, and passing on all other stuff (again, whenever possible) . . . telling people how much you like them . . . giving up on family members who consistently hurt you. . . .

By “chocolate,” I mean dark chocolate—85% cocoa or better.

I have to say just one thing, right? Again, just one? Well, I recently saw the film Mr. Nobody – an ambitious, playful, beautiful mess. And Jared Leto has dreamy eyes. So, yeah, I’m going to recommend that.

 

 

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April 27, 2014

In Transit With Paul Muldoon

By Nikki Barnhart in Interviews, LRR

 

It’s an overcast morning in early April, and I am riding in a car with Paul Muldoon. It is not often one can speak those words, and I try to absorb this moment, the immediacy of having the New Yorker’s poetry editor and literary royalty in the seat behind me.

Muldoon is an Irish writer who has published over a dozen books of poetry as well as criticism. He’s a Pulitzer Prize Winner, a Princeton professor, and “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War,” according to the Times Literary Supplement. He found his way to UConn and I found my way to him through the Wallace Stevens Poetry Program.

I met Muldoon at nine o’clock sharp at the Nathan Hale Inn, along with Professor Dennigan. He shook my hand graciously and I instantly felt his warmth of character. He looks more like a well-groomed rock star, like the lost Beatle, than a poet really, with his Buddy Holly glasses and curly hair. Professor Dennigan offers him to ride shotgun in her car, but he declines, allowing me to sit in front instead as he settles into the backseat. As we depart campus, Muldoon speaks of his few days at UConn, sharing his affinity for Dog Lane Café. We chat a bit more, even though small talk with a poet is an event in itself (what can one say about the exchange of social pleasantries, the greetings and the figures of speech?), until Muldoon himself starts the interview. “I understand you have a few questions for me?,” he asks me. I start off by asking him on his views of the relationship between writers and editors. I venture that T.S. Eliot quip of, “Most editors are failed writers, but then again most writers are too.” Muldoon responds, “It’s just as neat to say most writers are failed editors,” and says that Eliot himself was lucky to have Ezra Pound.

Muldoon continues. “Every writer needs an editor. I think that’s the most important bit – writers need editors. You need to edit yourself and that’s not enough. You are not as strict as you need to be.”

Professor Dennigan asks if he has an editor. He says, “I have my wife. She’s very good. She’ll tell me if it’s rubbish. I don’t want to hear if it’s okay – I want to hear if it’s not okay. Editors tend not to bother their writers and they don’t want to upset them, but then everyone gets upset and a lot of rubbish gets published. Somebody needs to tell them, “excuse me, you’ve lost your drive, we can’t publish this.’”

“Everybody wants to think they’re great, but a less than good book is not doing anyone a favor, least of all the person who wrote it,” Muldoon says.

I switch topics of conversation to asking about his career trajectory. Muldoon’s job and life are the dream of many students, but “Best American Poet” isn’t a job you can apply for. I’m interested in Muldoon’s path, as he too, was a student once.

Muldoon’s first job was a radio and TV producer for the BBC, which he describes as “awesome.” “It’s related to the business of creating art, and one can feel fulfilled,” he says. He draws a link between the business of production and poetry: “Construction, it’s all about construction. Creating poetry is about construction.” He also explains that there’s “something immediate” about production, much the same as a poem.

I ask him how he got to be the New Yorker editor, and he says that, “Somebody asked me if I would think about doing it. They called me up and said, ‘We need a poetry editor. You wouldn’t do it, would you?’ and I said, ‘well, maybe I would.’”

He tells us that his receives a huge amount of material, predictably, but explains that he doesn’t necessarily respond immediately. “If you respond immediately, people think you didn’t think about the poem, or they respond with another.”
He enjoys his job, but says it can be quite difficult. “There’s so many considerations.” He also finds himself dealing with people he knows “quite a lot.”

He stands strong with his views of publishing only the best, and not because of names.

I now have an idea of Muldoon as an editor, but I would like to know him simply as a man. My next questions are more personal. I ask him about his musical inclinations. He says that, “Funnily enough, most listening has been in a motoring car.” He says that he doesn’t listen to a huge amount of music, but he does attend a fair amount of concerts. I ask him to name some of favorite artists and he rattles of a list of classics: Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, The Stones, Leonard Cohen, Springsteen, Neil Young. He mentions Cole Porter, and we ask for his favorite songs. He gets quiet for a moment, and I turn back to see him examining his iPhone. “’I Get a Kick Out of You,’” he reads. “’Let’s Do It,’ ‘Under My Skin,’ ‘You’re the Top,’” he lists.

 He says that he listens to some contemporary music, and tells a story of going to see Kanye West with his daughter. “She made me,” he explains. He describes the concert as “deadly.” I ask if he considers West a poet, as some do. He responds, “I think he’s a genius in his own mind.”

Muldoon sometimes writes songs of his own, and is in a band of his own, the Wayside Shrines. I ask how he differentiates material for songs and poems, and he says, “Certain things comes to me in a format that suggest that it’s more likely to function in that [a song] mode than any other.”

“Don’t hang up on me babe, cause I’m hung up on you,” he half-sings, “That’s not for a poem.”

“On some level, one doesn’t want to be writing all the time, certainly not writing a poem all the time.”

I ask him about non-literary inspirations and he says he garners inspirations from films, and explains the relationship between visual media and imagistic poems. “They’re both telling stories, through a series of images.”

I ask him for a list of his essential books, and he says his desert island book would be Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “It has everything, great stories, great images, ideas, quite central to many other works of art.” He is also partial to Ulysses, and the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson.

We close the interview to allow for the rest of the ride to be casual and relaxing, and it is, as we talk about music and college and Muldoon’s travel plans (he is headed to Ireland tonight) but at one point, he announces, “If I die, I want you to know I had a fabulous life, and you can quote me.” And here is exactly that, because that is the lasting image I have of Paul Muldoon, and the image I wish to leave you with.

 

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April 9, 2013

An Interview with Michael Schiavo

By catherine1f in Creative Writing Program, Feature Story, Interviews, LRR, Poetry

Michael Schiavo founded Long Review Review during his senior year at UConn in 1998. He is the author of The Mad Song (2012) and several poetry chapbooks. You can read his blog at The Unruly Servant. This year’s LRR staff caught up with him to discuss the past of Long River Review, poetry, and other literary concerns.

LRR: You founded the Long River Review in 1998. What was that experience like? What sparked it? How would you describe the first issue?

MS: When I was chosen as one of the editors of Writing UConn, I wanted to get course credit for the work I’d be putting in. I also saw UConn’s undergraduate literary journal transforming itself from a saddle-stitched, Xeroxed publication into a perfect-bound journal, one with potentially national reach, akin to Ploughshares or Agni: a journal housed at a university that would publish work from writers at all levels of experience. I’d edited and designed my high school literary journal for several years and also made chapbooks of my own work. Joan Joffe-Hall, who helped create Writing UConn, gave her blessing and I got encouragement from the Individualized Major program and the English department to propose a revised format. Wally Lamb was a huge help. He was teaching at UConn at the time and had just been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. After hearing my appeal, he agreed to back the printing of the first issue. When the English department saw the final product, they gave permanent funding for the journal and gave course credit to all students who held the position of Editor.

I hope that the first issue was a good blueprint for the subsequent installments. All the issues that have followed have taken on their own character and it’s great to see Long River Review evolving to this day. It’s necessary for each editor to put their own stamp on their issue, while giving space to the great work done by UConn students.

LRR: How old were you when you first started writing? Was there a particular catalyst?

MS: A fifth-grade project in poetry is the earliest concrete point I can reach to find the spark’s moment, but I really got going in eighth grade writing short stories. Poetry came about a year later when I was a freshman in high school. I was just playing with words. I still am.

LRR: Who are your biggest influences as a poet?

MS: I agree with Emerson’s stance that “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, — a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” I’m influenced by any poet that takes this approach in their own way, that sees language as Nature, and a small sample of those writers would include Emerson himself, Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Harryette Mullen, Clark Coolidge, Doug Crase, Charles North, Paul Violi, Bernadette Mayer, lots of Johns (Ashbery, Berryman, Cage) and contemporaries like Samuel Amadon and Morgan Lucas Schuldt.

LRR: Do you write on a steady basis or do you wait until you’re inspired? Do you have any writing rituals?

MS: A little of both. Sometimes the words can’t be stopped. Sometimes it’s fun to help them out a little, but usually never necessary. The writing tends to come in bursts and I just follow the wave. If I’m not in the mood, I’ve found that I shouldn’t really force anything. It’s best for a poet to go and live a little so he can come back to the page with new sounds. I had the form for my first book, The Mad Song, in my head for years: 13 chapters consisting of five paragraphs, one per page. Each paragraph would have a certain sentence count — three of them would be 13 sentences and the remaining two would be either 6 or 7 sentences. When I’d meditated on the form for long enough, I tried it on the page. Tried long, Jamesian sentences/paragraphs at first. Didn’t work. Then, in 2006, when I started working at the Vermont Studio Center, everything aligned and the entire poem poured out of me in 10 days. It was dictated to me from somewhere else. I didn’t ask where or who, I just followed it through to the end, knowing I had a certain form to fill, and with the suspicion that if I asked what was going on, where this was coming from, it would stop. The only ritual I have is to have no ritual.

LRR: Are you currently working on anything?

MS: I have six manuscripts that are complete, or nearly complete, waiting for an editor to take a look at: Green Mountains, containing poems I’ve come to call “ranges”; Buds, dub versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets; Roses, a series of sketches of said flower; Adventure Sonnets, inspired/based on the Choose Your Own Adventure book series; a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues; a translation of the Dao De Jing. I started to translate the Inferno, but got distracted. I’ve also been making notes on spheric meter, a new way of approaching scansion. I’m considering doing another series of The Equalizer, and I’ve recently launched a print poetry ‘zine called Gondola. Issue 1 has early work from Paul Violi. Issue 2 features poetry from Ray DeJesús, Buck Downs, Matt Hart, Curtis Jensen, Catherine Meng, and Sandra Simonds. I plan to publish another three issues in 2013 featuring work from Aaron Belz, Brooklyn Copeland, Dora Malech, K. Silem Mohammad, Morgan Lucas Schuldt, and others. It’ll be a limited run series. I have a blog, The Unruly Servant, that I sometimes update. You can always find out more there.

LRR: If you could go back to your experience at UConn and change one thing, what would you change?

MS: I should’ve listened more to Sam Pickering! He was one of my advisors, and while I did take a good portion of his advice, he always encouraged me to take courses like Children’s Literature or Shakespeare. Unfortunately, those classes often met at 8:00 a.m., and, feeling that I had plenty of other options for English/Literature courses, often found alternatives at later times. Point being: take advantage of all the great resources at your disposal while studying at UConn, in the English department specifically, but around campus as a whole. The Dodd Research Center contains Charles Olson’s papers as well as some of Frank O’Hara’s. That’s a good place to start.

LRR: Do you have any particular styles or genres that you gravitate towards in other people’s writing? What do you think makes a ‘successful’ journal: variety, style, cohesion, something else?

MS: I like a meter-making argument, doesn’t matter genre or style. “Voice is all,” as Kerouac said, & insofar as it keeps your attention: that is, it should be a voice worth spending time with. Interesting writing will pull you along if the writer knows what she’s doing. If you allow yourself, it will teach you how to read it, even if you’ve never encountered its kind before.

For me, a successful journal will contain various voices and styles in conversation with one another. When the tone or subject matter of every piece is too similar, or the work all comes from one perspective, you start to narrow your audience, and they’ll eventually get bored. Complimentary, antagonistic: a good editor will know how the pieces fit, &, like a good writer, should constantly push herself to take a fresh look at what she’s doing and always experiment with the new.

LRR: There is a growing necessity for literary journals to have an online presence or to be totally available online. Similarly, e-books are gaining in popularity, and there has been a lot of backlash about the computerization of reading. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a necessary evil or is it beneficial?

MS: It can run both ways. This past decade of digital publishing has been a boon to poets who can now get their work out to the public faster; or just get it out to a public that wouldn’t be able to find it if it was in a tiny, DIY journal. There are journals like Shampoo orH_NGM_N that are totally online. H_NGM_N started a press a few years ago because of the following they built via the Internet. So did Coconut, which recently resumed all-around publication after a personal hiatus by editor Bruce Covey. Forklift, Ohio is a great print journal that’s been published for almost 20 years now. Matt Hart and Eric Appleby take pride in constructing a unique design for each issue, but they also have a web presence. Know how each medium works in the present day and use both, but above all, make sure you’re publishing interesting writing. Good writing transcends all media.

Writers need to advocate more for the preservation of print, not just for the classics or would-be classics, but for everything, the important work and the disposable. We can argue the aesthetics of page v. screen, we can argue margin and cost savings — or control of the market — but what’s of utmost importance to me is the civic purpose of having print publications. Amazon has already shown its willingness to delete books from people’s Kindles (1984 of all books!) and while they say they’d only do it to enforce the law, I’m not willing to take their word. It immediately puts Amazon in the position of being the anti-Abbie Hoffman: they’ll steal your book! No, sorry, I want a book that, once I purchase it, someone has to physically come and take from me if they don’t want me to read it. I also don’t want newspaper or magazine or journal articles that can be retroactively wiped of “errors” or “corrected.”

LRR: Do you have any words of wisdom for college students who want to continue writing and working in literary spaces after college? Any tips for this year’s Long River staff? 

MS: The publishing world is changing every day but what will never change is the desire to read good writing, in every possible form, on every subject. Between crowdfunding and explosion of MFA programs, it’s a unique time for students to find new forms of publication, to start a literary journal, an independent press, a newspaper, even a bookstore. We need more websites like Coldfront and Vouched devoted to literary culture across the nation, not just focused on the urban epicenters and MFA programs. Liam Rector used to say (quoting his friend Rudd Fleming): “Find those with whom you have rapport and proceed. And never proceed with those with whom you do not have rapport.” You find allies for your work in the unlikeliest of places. Take any job that pays the bills because any job will inform your writing. A good writer can mine any experience for words.

To this year’s Long River staff: have fun, enjoy the experience, listen to one another, and be open to pieces you normally wouldn’t. Make sure there’s a broad range of styles and perspectives, but, above all, make sure you publish the best writing from the UConn community. You wouldn’t want to break the streak, would you?

 

Quick hit questions—

What was the last great book you read?

Always Materialized by Buck Downs

Do you have an all-time favorite literary magazine?

Allow me a very incomplete list: canwehaveourballback?CUEForklift, OhioH_NGM_NLa Petite ZineNo Tell MotelSixth FinchTightUnpleasant Event Schedule

Favorite word?

Ah

Favorite quote?

“Mu” – Zhàozhōu

 

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