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?


Favorite quote?

“Mu” - Zhàozhōu


April 1, 2013

An Interview with Timothy Stobierski

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

Photo by K. Henri

Photo by K. Henri

After graduating UConn in 2011, former Long River Review editor Timothy Stobierski went on to publish his first book of poetry, Chronicles of a Bee Whisperer (River Otter Press, 2012). Several poems in Chronicles of a Bee Whisperer have since been nominated for a Pushcart prize. On March 27th he came back to UConn to do a reading of his poetry in support of Long River Review’s 2013 issue. The following interview was conducted after the reading by Long River Review’s Catherine Findorak.

LRR: You mentioned during the reading that you started writing at a young age. What exactly started that for you? When did you start getting serious about your writing?

TS: Well, I first started writing in second grade, because every day in second grade we had an assignment where we had to write a journal entry. At the end of writing, everyone would have to read theirs out loud. At one point I remember writing one that was a bit long, so my teacher wouldn’t let me read it out loud–which I was happy about because I hated reading stuff out loud. I realized that if I just kept writing longer and longer pieces, I would never have to read them out loud. Even if I volunteered, just to throw my teacher off balance, I wouldn’t be able to, so that was awesome. Around sixth grade is when I sort of started writing the first poems that I can remember actually writing, saved on my computer that I can look at, which are horrible. And then, you know, it just sort of grew from there.

LRR: Do you still hate reading them out loud?

TS: Yes and no. As long as I don’t make eye contact while I’m reading them out loud, it’s fine. With you guys, you’re all wonderful lovers of literature, so I hope that it was bearable.

LRR: Of course. It was awesome.

TS: To family, I can absolutely not read them out loud. Or to people that I know. If you want to read it, you can read it. I am not reading it to you.

LRR: I’m the same way. So, you were an editor at the Long River Review, and your first poems were published in the Long River Review as well. How did your experience at UConn shape you as a poet?

TS: Good question. Well, actually, I would say at least more than half of the poems in this book [Chronicles of a Bee Whisperer] were written while I was a student at UConn. They were things that were inspired by either the classes I was taking with Darcie Dennigan, or Sharon Bryan,  Penelope Pelizzon, or they were inspired by things that happened, as often is the case with poetry or with any kind of writing. Life creeps in. In terms of the publishing side of things, I really credit Gina Barrecca with that, because as a part of her creative non-fiction workshop course she forced us to send work out or we failed the class. That sort of got me in the mode for sending stuff out. And the Long River Review showed me what the publishing and editing process was like. It’s sort of like a cheat sheet, because you know what the editors are going to want, just in terms of what makes their life easier. And, of course, the Long River Review will always be my favorite lit journal, because it was the first journal that published one of my poems.

LRR: Who are your favorite poets—your influences?

TS: For a long time when I was first starting out at UConn I was really into Emily Dickinson, because I had a class where we had to read a lot of Emily Dickinson. I tried writing like her, which is impossible. I don’t think she really impacted my style now—or, not obviously, it might be in there somewhere—but for a few years that was sort of what I wrote. And, again, it was probably god-awful. Other poets that impacted my style…Darcie Dennigan—I had a workshop course with her, so that’s one way she impacted it. Another way she impacted it was in her book Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse there were a couple of poems that I really enjoyed, that I tried to copy in some of my poems. My poem “A Family Saga” is sort of written as a parallel to one of her poems, “Seven Generations of Stephen Bruneros.” Billy Collins I love, because he’s just a fun poet to read. And Emerson—like I was saying during the reading, I hated him for a long time, and I don’t really know why I did. Now I won’t say I love him, but I appreciate his style and the themes in his poetry.

LRR: You mentioned during the reading that in one of your poems you tried to sort of mimic, or respond in a way to an Emerson poem because of a class assignment. Did the act of doing that help you to appreciate his poetry more?

TS: I think in the long run, yeah. That’s probably why Darcie had us do that—it was to realize first how difficult it is to write in a certain style or a certain voice, and to put yourself in their shoes to see how you’re constrained by what you can say because of how you say it. If you realize the different kind of voices you can use, you can sort of use them to your benefit.

LRR: Can you talk a little bit about your process for editing? You mentioned a lot of poems in this book you wrote while you were at UConn, and I guess last year you were sending this out to be published. How long does it take you from when you first start writing a poem, to when you’re sending it out, for you to have a poem that’s finished?

TS: Sometimes one write through is all I need, and I feel like it’s ready to be published. I’m probably wrong, but sometimes I get it down in one go, and I decide to send it out while it’s still there before I decide to go back and delete everything. Other times there are poems that I write and I’ll put them aside for a few months. I’ll look back at them, I’ll make a few tweaks and I’ll put them aside for a year, and then I’ll go back and I’ll be like, ‘what the hell is this crap?’ Actually one of the poems in my book “Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes” is one of those poems. I wrote it, and I absolutely hated it the first time I looked back after writing it. Like, what the hell did I do, what did I massacre to get this horrible poem? And then when I went back to it with fresh eyes about a year later, I realized that it wasn’t complete crap. It needed some tweaking around. But I sent it to a friend who I trusted with their eye—I trusted their editing ability—and they said they enjoyed it. So I figured it couldn’t be terrible.

LRR: This is kind of a hard question. What makes a poem successful? What sort of things do you look for—either while you’re reading poetry, or in your own poetry?

TS: That’s not that difficult of a question, because I figured at some point someone was going to ask me either what the book was about, or what the process was like. I kind of went over this in my head and came to a pretty sound conclusion–in my mind, anyway. When I write a poem, regardless of whether there’s a storyline that goes to the poem, whether there’s a certain plot, whether there’s a certain play with language–which in some of my poetry, you’ll find– what I try to do is to make the reader feel something. And if the reader reads or listens to a poem and comes away not feeling the emotion that I set out to make them feel, then I sort of failed in that aspect. Sometimes a poem can take a reader in different directions, and that’s not necessarily a failure. But overall, a good poet, in my mind anyway, is someone who is able to make the reader feel something. Hopefully feel something other than hate for the poet.

LRR: That’s a good answer. Can you describe the experience of having your first book published? What’s some advice you’d give to young writers who would like to one day have a book published?

TS: The first thing is the process—with a book of poetry it depends on the press that you’re submitting to. Some presses will only want the first, say, 10 poems of your manuscript, or they’ll want the whole thing. And if it’s the first 10 poems, just pick the 10 strongest, that’s what you want to use. The press that published my book wanted the full manuscript—that was about 80 pages. So I sent it out to the editor, who I didn’t know beforehand, so it was kind of a blind call. I heard back about a month later with an email saying that the editor was interested in pursuing it. The next step in the process was drafting up a contract, which the publisher takes care of and sends to you. If you have any kind of clout or if there are certain things you are adamant about—like if you want a certain percentage of royalties, or if you want to retain reprint permissions, that’s where you’d sort of iron out those details. I was so happy to have a book of poetry published in my name that I didn’t really care at all about any of that, and I just signed the contract and sent it back. And I’m personally fine with it the way it is. With River Otter Press, which published my book, all of the profits from my book and a few other books they’ve published in the last couple of months go back into letting the press publish more books, which is something I’m more than happy to help with.

Then you go into a few rounds of editing. First it’d be structural editing. If there’s anything the editor or editors—I actually worked with three editors for this—if they think that a poem needs work, on the structure, or on the language, if they don’t think that it’s quite right, that’s what you’ll focus on first. Then after the big edits are taken care of, you’re going to go through and read it, probably four or five or six or twelve times, for copyediting. You’re looking for the misplaced comma, or the extra space between words. It’s really tedious, and it’s really difficult to do, especially when it’s your work, and when it’s something you’ve had to read about twenty times. It sort of just starts to go over your head. You’re not even paying attention by the end of it. For that process, it’s so awesome to have a number of different eyes looking at it. For me I had the editor-in-chief of the press, the poetry editor, and myself plus a few friends I had read through it once to hopefully catch any glaring mistakes. After that the publisher then has control over the rest of the processes. Picking a cover image, if there will be a cover image, is something that hopefully you’ll have some say in. I did. I’m actually the one that suggested this picture. But a lot of times, especially at bigger presses, you won’t. They’re going to try to pick a picture that will make the reader want to buy your book. It might not be something that you originally envisioned as being the cover of your book, but they do have your interests at heart. They want your book to sell. And they come at it from a marketing perspective, while you come at it from a literary perspective.

After the cover issue, the press puts it into production in terms of layout. You get a wonderful copyrights page, and all kinds of stuff. You might have a cheesy author photo taken.  Then you’re just dealing with layout and making sure the paragraphs line up and that all indenting is correct. Especially with poetry, where lines are jagged and whatnot, you want to just make sure things are the way they should be. Then just before it’s sent to print, you will go through it probably twenty times in one day because you are freaking out about whether or not you missed anything, and then it goes to print. And depending on the publisher, depending on how large the order is, and the printer, it could be anywhere from a month, to three months, or a year—well, hopefully not a year, that’s a long time– before you have the book done and for sale and on Amazon and hopefully bookstores. Lots of bookstores won’t carry something by a small literary press.

LRR: I feel like that’s true for a lot of poetry.

TS: Well, poetry in general, yeah. Poetry is not seen as a moneymaker. And in reality, it’s not. Unless you are a bestselling poet, like Billy Collins, you’re not going to make generally any money from poetry, and you should just be resigned to that. You might get some fame and glory—maybe. But you shouldn’t go in it expecting a big paycheck or anything. But yeah, once it’s done and printed, you should receive some author copies, that’ll be settled in your contract… After that, you’re just going around and publicizing it. You’re sending out queries to reviewers seeing if they’ll carry your book on their blog. If you know anyone who is a book reviewer, you’ll send them a copy, usually for free, just hoping that they’ll read it and like it and write a review about it. Or read it and hate it and write a review about it. Because really as long as there’s something out there, it’s better than nothing.

The end of the process is the despair with which you look at your book’s Amazon ranking, which will always, always, just crush a little bit of your soul. Except for that first day that it’s released and everyone you know has gone on Amazon to buy it. Because then it’s like, oh, #15,000? That’s awesome! And then–I think, at last look, my book was something like #2,064,104.

That’s in a very large nutshell the process that I went through. The one [piece of advice] I can say without a doubt is that if you’re a writer of any sort, you need to submit. It’s something that will be hard when you’re not used to it—when you’re first starting out. You won’t want to, because either you are expecting it to come back as a rejection, or you just don’t think it’s any good—you yourself don’t think it’s any good, or you don’t think someone else is going to think it’s good. Then you just wind up keeping it in your bottom drawer somewhere, or in all likelihood on your computer. But you have to force yourself to send something out.

When you get a rejection—because you will get a rejection—just keep submitting it. If you think there’s validity in the editor’s statement that there’s something wrong with your work,  go back and edit it, go back and read through it again, and see if you can change it and make it better. But keep sending it out there. Unless you think that it’s a lost cause, which sometimes is the case, and then you just move on to your next work.

The other thing that I would say for advice would just be that you’re going to need someone else to read your work if you want to be a writer. That’s sort of what completes the process of being a writer–having someone there to read it. And most of the time, everyone is not going to agree with you, with what you’re saying. They might not think it’s that good, or they might not think you have any valid statements in it. You want to take their comments under consideration, but you don’t want their comments to shape your work. Again, if after 25 years of writing, you haven’t had anything published because you haven’t budged to anyone’s criticism, you might want to go back and reevaluate everything. If someone offers constructive edits and criticism—take it, but don’t let someone else’s ideas of what your work should be becomes your idea of what your work should be.

LRR: That’s good advice. I have three more very important questions. What is your favorite word, your favorite animal, and favorite color?

TS: My favorite animal is a tiger. No special kind of tiger, just the regular orange, black and white ones. My favorite color is green, because my eyes are green and I’m egotistical. My favorite word…whenever this kind of question comes I usually go to the word “defenestrate” which means “to throw something or someone out a window.”

LRR: Interesting. I didn’t know that word.

TS: I learned that from Gina Barecca, actually. I tend to like words that were common but aren’t common anymore, like “haberdashery”. Things like that. I guess if you want to put one on record, go with “defenestrate”.

LRR: Okay. I think that’s it. Thank you very much!

TS: Thank you for having me!

March 15, 2013

An Interview with Bruce Cohen

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



Bruce Cohen has written three volumes of poetry: Placebo Junkies Conspiring With the Half Asleep (2012), Swerve (2011), and Disloyal Yo-Yo (2009). He teaches creative writing at UConn. The following interview was conducted by Long River Review’s Tatiana Gomez.

Long River Review: So tell me about the experience that inspired you to write your essay “On Submitting Poems: By Any Means Necessary” for Rattle magazine.
Bruce Cohen: The thing that generated or inspired me to write that essay was this experience I had with Florida Review, and I wrote it in the essay. What happened was the poetry editor accepted like four poems from my packet and I never got a contract. You usually get them within a few months or something, so I feel like six months have passed. I wrote to the magazine and I said I never got my contract so I’m letting you know, and they wrote me back and they said oh, sorry, but there is a new editor and we’re not going to honor the previous editor’s commitments. So I wrote back and I said, you know, basically I watch Judge Judy and I know that he was an agent of the magazine; it seems like you should honor it, because I have an e-mail and everything indicating that you guys wanted the poems. They wrote back and still said sorry, that’s just how it is. So that is kind of what inspired me to write that funny essay about submitting poems.

The funny thing was that happened literally like three or four years ago and just two weeks ago all of a sudden I got this letter from Florida Review. And the letter indicated that we’re really sorry, we’ve had a horrible backlog, and we’re just getting back to people, thank you for your patience, but we won’t be publishing your poems. And it was these poems from like four years ago. It had been already rectified.

LRR: That’s horrible. How do you accept something and get someone’s hopes up, and then just deny it?
Yeah, I don’t know.

LRR: Poems are often very personal to their writers. How do you feel about editors suggesting changes to your poems?
I’m super receptive to that for a lot of reasons. First, I love it when people are careful enough to read your work so closely that they offer specific suggestions. Also, editors have a very hard job and they read so many submissions that they really have a good sense of what works and what is satisfying. So generally, especially with editors that have published my work before, they obviously get what I am doing, so I’m super receptive to their ideas. And a lot of times their suggestions are fabulous. Every once in a while I might not agree, but mostly they’re right on.

LRR: Do you feel that maybe because editors get a lot of work they might miss something? I feel that sometimes when I read a lot of material at a time I end up missing things. It might be my lack of experience, but there have been pieces I read two or three times and it’s not until the third time that I realize how good it really is.
I think that has to do with the nature of reading. Sometimes I get a new book and I’ll read it and I’ll think oh well that didn’t do anything for me. And then a friend of mine will say oh did you read so and so’s book, it’s fabulous, and then I’ll think, oh I read that, it wasn’t very good. Then I’ll look back at it a second time and then all of a sudden I see things I didn’t see the first time, because maybe I didn’t read it carefully, or just didn’t hear the voice. So I think you’re right, we as people tend to overlook things.

LRR: Yeah, I guess if it’s not good enough to stand out the first time then the editors don’t want it. You often say that fiction writers are more mature than poetry writers, why is that?
Because my wife is a fiction writer.

LRR: She is more mature than you are?

LRR: Okay. Let me ask you about your titles. You have great titles for your poems and books, like Disloyal Yo-Yo and Placebo Junkies Conspiring with the Half Asleep. Do you have a process for coming up with titles? I feel that that is one of the hardest things to do, half the time I just slop something on.
I just make them up.

LRR: You just make them up, they just come to you? I feel that a lot of young writers have horrible titles.
Well, one thing I’ve noticed about some young writers is that they kind of just tack on a title that’s an afterthought because they think that they have to have it. To me I think the titles are just as important, if not more so than the first line, which I think is very important. The title sets the emotional and intellectual tone of the poem, but it gives you some insight into the sensibility of the writer. It’s like a good painting should be framed in a particular way, and a title is important to me in that way.

LRR: So you really don’t have a process.
I don’t.

LRR: You’re just good at titles.
No. I mean, it’s nice for you to say that. I’m attracted to and I remember things that are a bit unusual anyway. So if you have a boring title like, you know, “The Blue Book” or something like that, it just doesn’t do much for me. I like art that stimulates me.

LRR: I completely agree. I’ve seen a lot of great pieces with awful titles, and that alone may prevent them from getting published. Editors sometimes get so much stuff that they are looking for any reason to throw stuff out.

Let’s talk about your poetry. It is very surreal. It’s very different. I’m just curious, are you influenced by any particular author? A mixture of authors?
I’m influenced by almost everyone I read. My teachers were very kind of traditional confessional poets, and I feel like I have that narrative kind of meditative underlining feeling in my poems. But I’ve been attracted to a lot more surreal imaginative writers as well, and that certainly has kind of infused into my work so it does feel surreal.

LRR: You’re really funny in class. You have a sort of dark sense of humor, but that doesn’t really come up a lot in your poems. Do you have a poet persona? What is your poet persona?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know, sometimes my poems feel funny to me, but I guess they’re not funny to other people. I guess there is a poetic voice that everyone has that when they go to it it’s almost like your conscious voice echoing your true essence versus your public persona where you’re talking, knowing that you have an audience. In your poetic voice you’re assuming you’re not talking to anybody but yourself, so that is very different from your public voice.

LRR: Oh okay. So you don’t have an audience in mind when you write your stuff?
I feel like I have an intimate audience. Generally I think of a particular person that I’m writing to, or in some cases to myself. It’s like a self-therapy kind of thing.

LRR: What was it like publishing your first book? Was it chaotic?
No, because I waited a very long time. To be honest, this sounds bad, but I didn’t really care about publishing a book. I just wanted to write the best poems I could write and then I would send them out periodically to magazines, and I thought if I could just get them published in some good magazines I’d be happy, and I was. I was completely satisfied with that. Then at a certain point I realized I had twenty or thirty poems that were published in really good places that I liked, and they felt like they kind of fit together, so I put the book together and sent it out to a bunch of places one year, and I was lucky that it got taken. I got another book taken with a bunch of other poems. I sent two of them out, and I got another book taken like two days later, so it was a kind of weird thing. The funny thing was I felt like I should’ve been happy and excited, and of course I was happy. But it happened all too quickly that I just said this is kind of weird, this is peculiar.

LRR: So you weren’t all like, “I want to be a writer for a living; this is what I really want to do.”
No, no, because I always wrote poems. To be honest it doesn’t matter if I got published or never published or whatever. I just wanted to write.

LRR: I bet you’re grateful, though, to get your stuff out there.
Oh, yeah, I’m very grateful. I’m happy. I mean the thing is periodically I think all writers feel like they want to be validated by the outside world, feel like this is worthwhile, so when you get a publication that’s sort of what it says to you.

LRR: So if being a writer wasn’t your first career option, what did you do on the side, while you were writing?
Well, I ran academic support programs for athletics for like thirty years.

LRR: Oh, wow.
Yeah, I studied poetry at the University of Arizona and then they had asked me to start this program for athletes. It was one of those being in the right place at the right time sort of things, and I just started it and it became a career.

LRR: So everything just fell right into place.
Yeah, but I never stopped writing. I always wrote. And to be honest I never wanted to be a poetry teacher back then, because I didn’t want to be victimized by having a whole life of teaching poetry and having to publish. I just wanted to write the way I wanted to write. My style emerged slowly to be honest. I didn’t have like a particular vision. I just experimented a lot until I found a voice that seemed to work for me.

LRR: What’s it like teaching?
I really love it. I just have the best time. It’s really exciting, it’s fun talking about poems that I like and aesthetic ideas. I’ve read so many essays about poetry, about people’s aesthetics and ideas. Just to kind of talk it through is always exciting, and it’s exciting for me to read new writers, like young writer stuff, because it’s very refreshing and very different. Our class was very good.

LRR: It really was, we had really great people.
Yeah, there were so many talented people and they were trying different things. I’m just loving it to be honest.

LRR: So it’s fun to teach writing? I feel that you can’t really teach good writing. You do a great job at teaching us about HOW to say what we want to say on paper, but you can’t really teach people WHAT to say on paper. Does that make sense?
Yeah. If you remember, we talked about that Richard Hugo essay–I like that line where he talks about ‘all the time I’m telling you how to write like me, when really I want you to write like you.’ So, you know, when I critique the poems and say the things I think–it’s how I write. If some of the things I say are useful, then great. If not then you just kind of let it go. But I can’t do anything other than tell you how I write and my aesthetic and then I try to be receptive about what other people are doing. But you naturally are influenced by other things. It’s like when you read a poem that you like. You might want to try to imitate it, like a cool image or something that gets triggered in your associative mind.

LRR: Yeah, we all steal from other writers and make it our own.

LRR: You often say that good art makes people who aren’t comfortable in the world comfortable and people who are comfortable uncomfortable. I completely agree but I also feel that sometimes, or often, people are more likely to consider and appreciate something that is close to them, that they can relate to, rather than something that will make them uncomfortable. I guess maybe that’s why a lot of great artists are uncomfortable in the world and make art to comfort people who, like them, are uncomfortable. I guess what my point really is, is that I think some people are language people and others are idea people. Like some people value the quality of the language, the words, the small things, while others value the larger picture that the piece is trying to make. Have you had the problem with your poems, or any of your work, where you felt like your point was completely clear, but it turned out to not be so clear because of the ways in which you were trying to convey your message?
That’s an interesting point because it does seem like a lot of poets lean more towards language and others lean more towards ideas, and the poetry that I’m most attracted to is the poetry that intersects those worlds. That has meaning and really human emotions and ideas, but also is linguistically incredibly interesting and amazingly imaginative and comes alive. Those are the poems I like best. I don’t like flat poems all that much, and I don’t like wildly imaginative poems that don’t affect my life, and I’ve never really had that problem.

LRR: How do you publicize yourself? Do you do readings around the country? Do you have a twitter account?
 I’ve done a couple of readings around the country but I’m not crazy about it. I mean, I’m barely on Facebook. I’m really old fashioned. I really like good poetry and literature, so I just spend my time working on that as best as I can, and periodically send my stuff out.

LRR: You write essays too. Is your essay voice different than your poetic voice? How do their processes differ?
Well the funny thing is when I write poems I never sit down with an idea, and with an essay I start with an impulse, an idea or scene, and then I kind of work with those. But I’m not a writer who has structured ideas and brings them to the page. I’m always in a sense of confusion when I’m writing and I’m very receptive to whatever hops into my mind.

LRR: So you write your essays out of ideas and your poems just spring out.
It seems like, more than that, the poems are often triggered by an image or a phrase I hear, or an observation or something that just kind of seems like it’s worth exploring.

LRR: Usually about how long does it take you to write something?
It all differs. I’m a reviser because I’m not a good first draft writer at all, so everything that I’ve ever done has major revision done to it. And I’ve become patient with it in the past 5 to 10 years. I used to rush poems, and I don’t anymore. Like if I have a first draft, I’ll let it sit for a while and tinker with it.

LRR: Do you ever have your wife read your stuff?
Yeah, it’s great. She is a fabulous critic. Like you say, my poems tend to be surreal, and she helps me bring them back down to earth because you know fiction writers–they are more restricted to the logic of the world. But she also just has a good eye and ear for what sounds good.

LRR: Do you read your poems out loud to yourself?
Yeah, all the time, because sound matters. The music matters to me. Also, I don’t like lines that have a lot of unaccented syllables and when you read it out loud you can hear when the music sags. I like a kind of muscular, insistent line that is very sharp, so I like to hear the accents of my lines.

LRR: What type of stories and things inspire you to write essays?
I’ve written essays about my boys, kind of memoirs about raising my boys, and a lot of them are baseball related. But I’ve also written some essays on poetry. The thing is, our lives are made up of stories, and every time you tell a story you kind of change it a little bit. And they become kind of mythical. Those are the type of things that seem to be the literature that I write. Stories of our humanity. I’m more interested in the stuff that I don’t know the story behind, and I want to figure it out in the writing.

LRR: It seems like you have different voices for your essays and your poems. Do you ever look back and criticize stuff you wrote a while ago?
Yeah and I hate it. I think that [with] everyone when you look back at stuff, you hate it. You think I should’ve done this or I should’ve done that…but I feel that people do the best they can at that given time. But I think you’re right, you make a good point that people have a different voice for different genres that they work in.

LRR: Do you have a favorite poem that you wrote, like this is a Bruce Cohen poem, that one poem that you’re just really proud of?

LRR: Really you don’t?

LRR: Essays?
No. I mean, I’m a worker. I’m like a blue collar type of writer. I feel like I just want to pump out everything that I can as much as I can, and I think it’s important for me to not think that I’ve had any successes. I really think that I haven’t written a good poem or a good essay yet. I’m just kind of working towards that, so I’m trying to get better.

LRR: That’s funny. I think maybe you’re being modest. I think you’ve written great stuff and not just me, you get really good reviews.
Well, it’s not being modest. I’m just being sincere. If you want to write you compare yourself to the best stuff, and you know clearly I don’t think my stuff measures up to that. But that’s what I’d like to work towards. I don’t think I’ll ever get there, but I feel that it is good to have lofty goals.

LRR: I think you can get there, and I think that because you really are a good teacher.
I really appreciate that, because I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed doing it.

LRR: You’re a good teacher because you’re honest and you care. I’ve had really great professors throughout my UConn career, but sometimes I felt that they were too nice. Or in other words, too easy, and didn’t really challenge me to become better at whatever they were teaching me.
I’m polite.

LRR: You are polite, but I love your brutal honesty, because a lot of people don’t get smacked in the face. Not literally, but when people come to your class you tell them straight up–well that was horrible, or that line was just garbage, instead of well good work you tried, maybe you’ll be better next time. I think that brutal honestly is what led the people from our previous class to become even better by the end of the semester. Embarrassing us worked well.
Yeah, the work from that class was fabulous. I try to treat everybody’s writing like they’re my peers and I want it to be the best possible product. I’m honest to people. I’ll say what I love about the piece and what needs work. That’s what I do to my friends. It’s hard because there is not a right or wrong answer. If you put it in a cookie cutter, if you say this is what makes good art, it sort of defeats the purpose. Art should be reinvented constantly, and every piece of writing should be different from anything that came before it. Even though that’s kind of impossible, that should be the goal. But to say this is what makes poems good, it’s obsolete the second you say it. So you have to kind of take it on its own merits and then respond to each piece.

LRR: Since you don’t have that one favorite writer, who are your favorite writers?
I read a lot of short stories. I love Ray Carver, George Saunders, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. And some other younger writers like Miranda July. But with poets there are just so many poets I love.

LRR: Do you think you have established a permanent voice, or that it will change?
BC: Well, I feel that my voice constantly changes.

LRR: I noticed a pattern in your poems and even your essays. Even though they’re extremely surreal they do follow the show rather than tell rule. Often this rule is broken by a lot of good writers but you strictly stand by it. I can’t think of anything that was emotionally instructing. Do you do that on purpose or did they just end up that way?
My teachers were Steve Orlen and Jon Anderson, and they were fabulous teachers and fabulous friends and very generous. So I’ve tried to model myself after them. One of the things that they both preached, which made a lot of sense and was taught by one of their best teachers, Donald Justice–they all said in a lot of different ways that you should not instruct people’s emotions, because it sets the poem down. So I’ve always tried to avoid telling people how to feel and think. I just wanted to put the situation and the images out there and let people feel and absorb through the images.

LRR: So what inspired you to write? What were you or what are you trying to accomplish?
I’m very curious about the world. I always feel a bit mystified, and I always felt like everyone else understood how to be in life and I was like an outsider that didn’t quite get it. So I always wrote to sort of explore and figure out how people live and how they understand life, because I always found it so complicated and confusing and it helped me sort out my inner self. I don’t really try to accomplish anything, but I try to explore ideas and feelings and psychologies and just, you know, how people are.

LRR: So how did you or do you handle rejection?
Well, I’m blue collar about that as well. I have my batch of poems and when I’m ready to send them out I send them out to a few places, and if they get rejected I just put them back out there and just kind of keep it going. I don’t take it to heart because there are too many issues with rejection; sometimes magazines are just at fault. Sometimes they just don’t like your stuff, sometimes they just didn’t get a good read, sometimes it never got to the editor–it could just be the graduate student screeners or whatever. So I’ve never taken it personally, to be honest.

LRR: So besides the incident with Florida Review there are no rejection horror stories?
I read an article recently, I don’t know if this is true or not, and I’ve never even thought about it, but it said that someone did some kind of questionnaire or study or something; it said that male writers had a tendency to not care as much about rejection and female writers had a tendency to be more affected by it. And it kind of paralyzed some of them into sending their stuff out.

LRR: That’s probably true, especially with new writers.
I think you should just be very businesslike about it.

LRR: Have you noticed any good or bad patterns in student writers?
I haven’t been teaching long enough to really see any patterns, but some of the common problems are that people write with what they perceive to be poetic diction, which ends up sounding kind of archaic and not very interesting to me. And some veer towards abstraction as opposed to the sensual images of the world. But those are problems that are easy to solve.

LRR: You mention food a lot; do you think you’ll ever write about food?
I read all the great food writers like Ruth Reichl and M.F.K Fisher, and I’m the cook of our family. It’s funny, I’ve made a few stabs at it and it hasn’t really worked out, but my wife is always telling me I should do it because I’ve read so many.

LRR: Do you have any advice for people that want to become writers and poets?
If you want to be a writer you have to read a lot. If you don’t, it just doesn’t make sense. I always thought in my mind that I wanted to write the type of poems or essays that I wanted to read, like I just imagine myself as a reader as opposed to a writer. So I write as though I’m a reader.

LRR: Well, that’s all of my questions for today. Thank you so much for doing this for the magazine.

April 15, 2012

An interview with Kay Ryan

By admin in Feature Story, Interviews, LRR, Poetry

On April 9 and 10, Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan visited the University of Connecticut as the 49th annual Wallace Stevens poet.  Amanda Norelli wrote an introduction for Ms. Ryan on the blog last week, which can be read here for those unfamiliar with Ryan’s accolades.  The interview was conducted by the Long River Review‘s Devin O’Hara.

In 2008 you told The Paris Review that “During the laureate year [you] won’t write poems. [You] won’t have any time. And [you] won’t have the freedom of mind that it takes to write poems. But that might give [you] an appetite to get some writing done later.” How does it feel to finally get back to writing?

I was the laureate for two years, it turned out, because that interview was in 2008, and I accepted another year in 2009.  Following those two years, it has felt really wonderful to be liberated from a lot of public engagement; I really think it does take a lot of empty time in order to write—with no obligations, no external demands—so, it’s been great.

Have you been busy juggling all of the other awards, appointments, and speeches you have to give?

You know, this is the first trip I’ve taken this year, so I’ve really been at home for three months without any external requirements.  In April I’m doing a lot because of poetry month, but it’s been great to have a lot of free time to “wool-gather.”

Have you encountered any difficulties and felt like you were rusty, or have you fallen naturally back into rhythm with your writing?

You know, I recently wrote a little poem in the last year or so called “Monk Style,” and it’s talking about Thelonious Monk. Do you know Thelonious Monk?

Wasn’t he a musician?

He was a jazz composer and piano player. I was listening to NPR at the time, and somebody was talking about Monk, probably a biographer.  He said that when Monk came in to record, it took him maybe forty-five minutes to get his stride, that it was hard for even Monk to play Monk, which I thought was so cool! I have this little poem I’ll say it for you:

(For an audio recording of this poem, click the link here: Kay Ryan- “Monk Style”)

I think I got it a little bit wrong; it’s hard to quote myself. But in any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that whatever in me it is that composes is always there and it doesn’t always get bigger, or littler, or change, but it requires a few tricks and some approaching in order to engage it. It’s kind of wonderful, a mystery to think that it’s something sort of busy with itself all the time, something that I can reenter, and yes, having more time makes that possible. But it always has to be reentered. I mean, I don’t know — maybe there are some people that get on a roll, but for me, every day is a new day; writing seems happily to be accessible to me.

You released The Best of It: New and Selected Poems last year to critical acclaim.  What made you feel that a “best of” collection was right at this point in your career as opposed to a book of entirely new material?  What do you feel a book like The Best of It signifies about your career as a poet?

Well, you know, that’s really a trick title. It does sound like I’m saying “this is the best of my work,” and of course, if I’m publishing a New and Selected it ought to be. I mean, what in the world else would it be besides what I consider the best of my work? But also in the book there is a little poem called “The Best of It.” May I read it to you?  It’s very different:

“The Best of It”

However carved up

or pared down we get,

we keep on making

the best of it as though

it doesn’t matter that

our acre’s down to

a square foot. As

though our garden

could be one bean

and we’d rejoice if

it flourishes, as

though one bean

could nourish us.

So this is about, you know, that old expression “making the best of it,” thinking about how people work so hard to make the best of it and keep trying to make the best of it. It’s a very different kind of poem. So what does the book signify about me as a writer? Well, I published it when I was sixty four. It’s sort of the highlights of my career to date, which one might imagine is the bulk of it in the sense that I probably have most of my writing years behind me. I don’t mean the best ones, but probably the majority of them, unless I live ridiculously long, which I have no interest in doing. So I guess that’s what it is, it’s saying, “This is it.”

Then, in essence, it’s the work you’re most proud of and want to show people?

Well, yeah. It’s the work that, in my mind, holds up the best. I left out two entire books when I put it together. It’s a combination of four others: Flamingo Watching (1994), Elephant Rocks (1997), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). With the first two books it was apprentice work; I was still figuring out how to do it, which took me a long time.

Is there any difference between Kay Ryan the performance poet and Kay Ryan the poet of written word?

Utterly. That’s a good question, because I feel that the great thing about writing for me is that I have access to levels of thought and discrimination that are entirely unavailable to me in other situations. In sitting down, in quiet, in manipulating language, that door is open, the key is turned. And in public or on stage, I am a show person, I enjoy making people laugh, and I do it. In a way it’s kind of deceptive; I present my poems in a way that shapes people’s understanding of them — it may make them look easier, more accessible. I don’t mean accessible in a bad way or a good way, just that they may seem more immediately knowable than they actually are. In other words, the reader might have to actually work with them longer to know them than I might make it seem, and I do that because I really love the exchange with an audience. I love generating a kind of sense of rapport and a sense that we are understanding these things together, that we are doing these things together. I hate leaving an audience out or leaving them behind, just talking at them; I want to engage them. Of course, the paradox is that if a poem is an interesting poem it’s not going to be gotten that way, you know? Some portion of it will be exchanged, but it is still going to remain a mysterious object and is still going to require or invite private contemplation. So yeah, I like to stand up and put on a good show. And it’s a much more… it’s just much more superficial. I think that my main interest in poetry is that I read it silently. I mean I don’t even like to go to poetry readings. I like to give them but not attend, because I like to read the work and I want the voice in my brain to do the work. How about you?

I like to read them out loud to myself, in my own space, in my own quiet. I can just make out the rhythm and rhyme a little better. The craft aspect comes more natural to me that way.

Yeah, I don’t really want the intervention of the writer’s voice. I want to see what’s there myself. I know I’m in the minority. I really am. It’s very popular to have poetry readings now and to think that’s a very good way to encounter poetry first. I might like to hear a poem read by its author if I’ve already read it, but maybe not. I mean, what would it be like to hear Emily Dickinson read her poems? I bet some of those were never said aloud at all. Never ever, ever, ever, said—never spoken.

So do you think that something is lost when an author reads her poetry, or is there something added?

Oh, that’s a very good question! Well, I think a very good reading can cover over the fact that there might not be much there. In other words, when you’re hearing a poem you’re hearing it in real time, you can’t go back, you can’t really investigate. Sometimes, something superficial works better than something profound, because the profound thing can’t be perceived in real time. It requires a different kind of time. So, what is superficial can seem very pleasing and work very well, but if you had to hear it repeatedly it might begin to pale. I think that things that are not deeply interesting can be wonderful presented. They can create an extremely agreeable living experience. And that’s a good in itself, but if we’re talking about poetry, that’s not what interests me. So there is value added there: perhaps the agreeable or interesting personality and the reading skills of the performer, plus the fact that you have a voice. To me one of the glories of the written word is that it is every voice. When I read something, it isn’t restricted to any particular voice, so it’s enlarged in that way.

How is reading to an academic college audience, like you will do tonight, different from reading to a younger, high school audience, like you will tomorrow?  Do you approach it differently?

I really try to pay attention to my audience. I will work harder tomorrow with a high school audience to make connections, probably. I mean, it won’t make a lot of difference, but there will be some. I might allow myself more…oh, actually it probably won’t make much difference at all. I work hard to make a connection in any case. I’ll feel it out when I’m there. Because high school audiences can be absolutely fantastic and just as sophisticated as a college audience. I’ve been in some very sophisticated high schools.

Do you think that there is an extra effort from a college audience to “get it” and engage instead of a high school audience that might just “enjoy it?”

It entirely depends on how they have been prepared, in a sense. Sometimes high school classes have studied the work. I was in a wonderful arts high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico with students drawn from all over the state from various Native American tribes, just everywhere. Students were chosen on their own artistic aptitude. They had to be auditioned. They were just leaping off their chairs, engaged. They had read the work and they were so eager to respond in every possible way, personally and intellectually. They were one of the most exciting audiences I’ve had, and they were kids. I mean that’s the wonderful thing about poetry, when it can be stripped of the fear factor. Sometimes that factor is learned in college because people think it’s a test, and they think they may fail that test. These kids were going at it hammer and tongs. They understood that it was for them. Poetry is for everybody, of course. So there might be a difference, but I’m not expecting one.

If you had to suggest a poet to Professor Pelizzon and The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens to be next year’s fiftieth visiting poet, who would you suggest? 

Well gee, why don’t you get Seamus Heaney—I’m reading his Beowulf translation. I’d never read Beowulf before; it’s marvelous. I like it very, very much. Dragons, and monsters, and swords, and helmets, and gold, and treasure, and glory. I seem to like those things.

Is there anything you’d like to add? Maybe some advice for some of our young Long River Review poets?

I would say, expect to practice for a long time. Don’t be over-eager to publish before you’ve worked, before you’ve practiced, before you’ve got your chops. I think there’s an awful lot of impatience to see yourself in print. I think that it’s a very demanding, extended interest and occupation, and it should be thought of as something that one begins with an eye to the long haul. That’s what I think. I don’t think there’s any requirement to make it look like it’s your life. That certainly wasn’t the case with Wallace Stevens; it can be something that can be going on internally and very, very privately. I think one of the problems that young people are facing at this point is the loss of private life, the loss of private thought, where everything is instantly shared on Facebook or tweeted, and that the whole notion of an interior life may have become something very different than what it is for me. What do you think?

I share the same feeling. My friends think I’m weird for wanting time for myself to read a book, to think about it, to digest it. I just like to sit alone at breakfast and take it all in with my coffee. If I don’t do it I’m just not amiable for the rest of the day.

Yeah, if you don’t do something for yourself, it seems to be you can become really scattered — if you don’t have the habit of being interior or doing something that is entirely your own. Do you have Facebook?

I do.

And do you spend much time on it?

Yeah, sometimes in school it’s a great means of procrastination. It ends up being a lot of wasted time, so I force myself to pleasure read. It feels like a much more benign way to procrastinate.

Yeah, well, here’s another thing that I’d like you to remember that will console you: we don’t know what’s procrastinating and what’s your real work. In other words, what you may be thinking isn’t your real work right now might end up being your real work. And what you think is your real work now may not end up being so. At any time, there are a lot of assumptions about what are the requirements of the world or about how life is to be lived, and you always get to say, “Nah-uh.”  You always can, you can say, “This assumption isn’t my assumption.” I mean, I talk to a lot of people who feel pressured, required to, say, be on Facebook. They ask why I’m not on it. I mean, there are pressures, and they don’t have to be agreed to. And I’m not talking just about Facebook, just that you can always do otherwise.


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