Seth Landman lives in Massachusetts, and is a member of the Agnes Fox Press collective. Recent poems have appeared in Ghost Town, jubilat, Jellyfish, io, Lit, and other places. He has published a few chapbooks, most recently A Note on the Text (above/ground press, 2012), and collaborates with the poet Seth Parker on Tyoyeu (@tyoyeu and www.tyoyeu.blogspot.com). His first trade poetry collection, Sign You Were Mistaken, appeared in January with Factory Hollow Press.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In many ways, the title of the book itself, Sign You Were Mistaken (SYWM), changed the way I went about writing poems. I used to worry a great deal about the quality of my poems, but when SYWM came to me—not as a collection of poems, but as a phrase repeating in my head over the course of a great deal of time—it coincided with a realization that not only would it be impossible for me to ever feel like I got a poem “right,” but that no such thing as “right” existed in the first place. This was extremely liberating, as I’ve never been much of an editor.
The title does not come from the first line of Paul Simon’s song, “American Tune,” but is helped along by that line in retrospect. “Many is the time I’ve been mistaken.” What a great place to start! That’s where I want to begin everything, really. My preferred rhetorical situation is one in which I am already apologizing. For what, I can’t begin to explain.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I don’t know. I’ve always been a far more voracious reader of prose. My favorite books are mostly novels. Also, autobiographies by people like Larry Bird. The first poem that ever stopped me in my tracks was T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As I’m answering this, I have a vague sense that the writing I like most makes me feel as though time is flying by and I can’t catch it. Or rather that the writing engages with that feeling in a way that feels honest to me. I don’t have a good answer for this question, even though I think about it quite a bit.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I hesitate to say this, but generally I do write quickly, and the writing does resemble the finished product pretty much. My 10thgrade English teacher, Mr. Murray, reminded us one day, “It’s easy to hit the target if you use a machine gun,” and while it’s a troubling metaphor, and he meant it as an argument for concision, I like to think of it in another way. I’m interested in the scatter—all the weird crap I need to say to get at a target I didn’t know I had in the first place. After a reading I did recently from a long poem, Heather Christle told me (I hope I’m getting this right!) that she felt like the poem was made up of episodes, and that sometimes it felt like I was saying, “And now for a very special episode of…” I like that. They can’t all be special episodes. I’m not interested in showing you a bunch of special episodes.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Poems begin when I get the urge to write them, usually starting with a line or a few words. I never have much sense of what is going to happen to them, but more and more I find myself settling into forms over time. When I’m finding myself writing lots of poems in a particular form, writing feels so easy. Other times, it’s excruciating. The best is when I’ve gotten familiar enough with a pattern of thinking that I can write a whole poem alongside a thought I’m having in such a way that the poem itself feels like a scale-model of a moment of my thinking. Those poems are life-savers. I mean that in the most serious way possible.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t know how to answer this. I’ll say that for a few years now, I seem to be getting worse at reading my poems with each subsequent reading. It’s not a skill I’m improving. I’m getting more nervous, to the point that I’m legitimately worried that I’m going to pass out or worse one of these days. At the same time, I love that this is true. For a long time, I wasn’t sure exactly how much I gave a shit about my own poems, and I’m learning that I give a shit big time. When I am reading, I am having a highly emotional, overwhelming experience from which it takes me a lot of time to recover. I’m kind of glad to be able to say that, even if it’s difficult.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Not sure what the questions are, but I’m sure I don’t have the answers. I’m trying to express myself. I can’t think of anything else to say about this that would be true.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
It would be convenient to imagine that by expressing myself, I am like a small-town cable access show. Maybe it matters to a few people; probably I already know them. My ambition, certainly, doesn’t go beyond that. Sometimes, I’m trying to explain something to someone, and by the time I’m effectively communicating anything, the whole exercise seems so stupid and pointless. Other times, I’m doing something mindless and/or mundane, and it feels imbued with heavy, almost religious importance. What can I possibly make of these moods? And yet, as a writer, when it works, I feel like something is actually communicated. Something gets across. It’s a total fucking privilege, and I’m afraid that giving a shape to the role could just explain it away.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Difficult sometimes, but with SYWM it has been so wonderful. Emily Pettit edited the book, and she had so many great suggestions about the sequence of the poems. She really took the time to consider my hang-ups and ride out my fleeting moments of bullshit. The book she helped me make—I’m more proud of it than the book I would have made otherwise. I feel like editors often try to change shit just to justify the protocol. There was none of that going on here. It was all essential, and all focused on enhancing the poems as my poems, with all of their problems and warts retained, and not on making them more likeable or something ridiculous/impossible like that.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Shut up.” (I’ve heard it many times.)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (solo to collaborative)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve done a lot of collaborative writing, and for a while it felt really easy to flip back-and-forth between my own writing and collaborative writing. More recently, I think my writing has gotten a bit more honest. As a result, it’s harder to feel engaged in shared products. On the other hand, I love the experience itself of writing with another person, so long as the finished product is unimportant. I love the recklessness of writing the best poem ever and not even writing it down, and I would never, ever have the guts to do that all by myself.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a routine; I’m a slave to whim. I always start the day with a shower ASAP.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Moby Dick, mainly. Failing that, I’ll go to music—Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, stuff like that. The truth is that when my writing stalls, I’m usually pretty content to just turn elsewhere for a while—I watch a ton of sports—and not worry about it.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I can’t think of one. My brain keeps going right to light and color. My mother is a quilter—she makes quilted wall-hangings. Here is a write-up of an exhibit she had a couple of years ago in Danvers, MA. It includes a photograph of a quilt she made for me on the living room wall in my parents’ house. Turn down the lighting a little in this photo, and it smells like home.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh, I think all of these things do.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
First and foremost are my friends who are poets, but there’s too much work to list. Melville’s Moby Dick. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. A whole lot of James Schuyler, Alice Notley, and Eileen Myles. A stranger—but no less important—influence is Mike Gorman, the TV play-by-play man for the Boston Celtics for my entire life so far. He has this amazing musicality to the way he calls the game. He sounds effortless, but I know he’s not. One time, when I was a kid, we were playing the Bulls, and Gorman—just in the middle of all this chaos—goes, “Tough shot, won’t go down; Pippen’s there for the rebound.” It’s a gorgeous sentence, and he pretty much sang it, and I remember it, like, a thousand years later. You can’t beat that.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to travel to Finnish Lakeland.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I couldn’t honestly call “being a writer” my occupation, unless I was referring to the freelance writing I do about basketball. Even then, it doesn’t really ring true. I write poems, but there’s nothing occupational about that. That’s answering the letter of the question, but if I’m going to answer the spirit, I don’t know. Maybe a basketball coach? I haven’t figured this out yet. There’s a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin suggests that he could be a caveman. That sounds pretty good.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
First, I liked writing for whatever reason, and I also loved reading. Later, I wrote enough to become confident in the act itself. Now, when I have an inspired thought, it is instinct to go write it down, and since there’s no way of exactly doing that, I end up writing poems.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just re-read Housekeeping, which I’ve done probably once a year for the past decade. It’s a perfect book, and during this most recent reading I was particularly tuned in to notions of the afterlife. Lately, I don’t feel so stupid hoping there is one. On the other hand, the last great movie I watched was The Virgin Suicides. I hadn’t seen it since it came out on video. Such a beautiful, weird movie! Now that I think about it, both of these works deal with family and loss in some pretty profound ways. Can whatever is broken ever be fixed? Fixed is the wrong word, of course, and certainly there are harms done from which there is no recovering. Not to go too far off on a tangent here, but it seems to me that one of the things we should be learning from science is that our questions matter! Where have we looked, and what have we noticed, and what do we already think before we begin looking, asking, wondering? I’m trying to make a habit out of reminding myself that no one knows anything. I’ll go out on a limb though and suggest that we should probably be nicer to each other.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing up two book-length poems. They go on a bit, and they’re messy, but I really like them. At the end of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau talks about an “unwritten sequel,” and in Moby Dick, Ishmael says, “God keep me from ever completing anything.” I’m not sure how smart it is to embrace this stuff, but I’m writing with it in mind.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;