Euclid Shudders and the newly released Airport music. He also has an essay in the recently released volume Theory That Matters: What Practice After Theory edited by Kacper Bartczak and Malgorzata Myk. In 2009, he guest edited a special section devoted to Miron Białoszewski and contemporary Polish poetry for the ninth issue of literary journal Aufgabe. Recent poems can be found in Chicago Review, SERIES, Van Gogh’s Ear, and the anthologies The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Millennium and Chopin with Cherries: A Tribute in Verse. In September of 2011 he completed an artist fellowship at the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony for the Arts where he worked on a new manuscript. Currently, he is a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Nizwa in Oman and was previously on faculty in the Department of American Literature & Culture at the University of Lodz, Poland.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I learned a lot from the first book being published, but it was a study in fortitude and contrasts. I sent out Euclid Shudders to more than thirty publishers, and got rejection letters that ran the gamut. Perhaps the lowest point was getting my own query letter sent back to me with a single line scrawled on the bottom: "We're not taking unsolicited manuscripts." And the most confusing rejection was getting a three-page single-spaced reader's report that was the most in-depth and complimentary evaluation of my work I've ever read to this day -- which of course ended the last paragraph by saying the publisher didn't have a place for the book. When I had gotten twenty-eight rejections, I actually thought, "Twenty-eight is a perfect number, which is nice in a way." (A perfect number is a number whose factors add up to itself.) A couple of weeks later, the National Poetry Series notified me the manuscript was a finalist, which shocked me but also reminded me that maybe I'm not totally off-base; and a few months after NPS released their selections and the manuscript was passed over, Litmus Press accepted the manuscript for publication, which was thrilling.
There are no givens in poetry, which is both the promise and at times the problem. Euclid Shudders hadn't even been out a week and my father asked me, "Now that you have this poetry thing out, when are you going to do something real with your life?" A week after that, my cousin rather passive-aggressively wondered, "So . . . what are the sales numbers?" On the other end, I received some very surprising emails from people I had never met who had read the book. It's incredible how books and readers connect, and the chance to get feedback from readers inevitably changes future projects.
As for more recent work compared to older work, I lose feel for the older work after some time. I suspect that the newer work is looser in some ways, contains more mud and splinters and nicks. The line roams and wanders and is OK with its own awkwardness.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As I reader, I came to fiction and nonfiction first. I didn't start reading poetry with any kind of seriousness until high school, and got more immersed in college, where I started writing a few clumsy poems. I had some really wonderful teachers, and they encouraged me to read various things. Lauri Ramey introduced me to writers like Edmond Jabès, Gottfried Benn, Paul Celan, Gertrude Stein, Robert Duncan and Michael Palmer. Jeffrey DeShell had an entire course on Kafka, which was amazing, and it was through him that I encountered Thalia Field's work in an anthology he edited. These writers blew open my sense of what writing could be and could do -- and dared me to take part in that ongoing conversation.
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?
A general or even gestural sense of a project emerges pretty quickly. The writing is probably on the slow side, though much of this has to do with simply having time to write. Maybe a more accurate description would be to say the writing happens in bursts with various gaps in between. The writing itself is a result of copious notes. Some parts may appear more or less similar to final versions; other parts may go through various kinds of surgery.
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?
My first book, Euclid Shudders, was very much thought of as a book pretty much from the beginning. Airport music started as a series of different hinges that seemed to interlock over time. Almost anything I write comes out of a first line. The opening line nags me until the rest gets written. Probably I've absorbed that from Emily Dickinson in some way.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Normally, yes, public readings are a productive part of my creative process. I view language and writing as living organisms, and the chance to share that language with other people is something I'm extremely grateful for. I learn a lot about what works, how poems can bounce and bend, how much silence is useful. Having said that, I haven't given a reading in nearly five years. I lived in Poland for four years, and there was less than zero interest in arranging any readings for my work during the entire time I was there. I moved to Oman last year, and there's not much context for how a poetry reading in North America or Europe typically functions. Poetry is very respected and appreciated in Oman, but there's a different tradition of recitation, which isn't something I have any skill at or training in.
I have a reading in Chicago at Myopic Bookstore in August, which I'm looking forward to -- though I'm also a bit uncharacteristically nervous, since I haven't read in front of an audience in quite some time. And I'm hoping that while I'm in the U.S. this summer, perhaps a couple other readings can get organized. I'm certainly open to them and increasingly aware of how precious the opportunity is.
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?
I don't consciously concern myself with any particular theoretical underpinnings, but theory -- like everything else -- is information, and we're all awash in it, so I'm sure it enters into the equation somehow. In terms of questions, I'm inclined to echo other writers who "think through writing" -- I write towards the questions. Keith Waldrop has a line in a poem "Real answers simply repeat the question," and this has always stuck with me: it renders into language the mathematical concept of something that is finite without boundary. The circularity and rhythm.
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?
I'm paraphrasing slightly, but I think Robert Duncan once wrote something like "Go write yourself a book and put therein what might define a world." I don't think I could state it any better. Of course we're now dealing with the blinding speed of technology, and I know various people have suggested that the Facebook status or the tweet are last new genre to be created. I was an early adopter of Facebook but a few years ago found it more useful to close my account than to "Like" the latest video of a cat farting out the Carmina Burana. I appreciated a certain kind of immediacy from Facebook, but I resented how I would get sucked into political arguments and petty dramas. The cost is that I'm less informed on certain events and flows, but I'm less irritated and read more things I find energizing.
To read is to enter a site of contemplation and inquiry. Don DeLillo seems to worry that writers have lost the ability to shape consciousness while simultaneously admitting he's not sure they ever had that ability in the first place. I trust that reading offers a uniquely intimate experience of time and imagination, and while the forms of presentation are changing, the possibility to offer these experiences, critiques, and differing viewpoints are invaluable. And books presume a certain amount of patience, particularly given the preponderance of stimuli available now.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
In poetry, I'm not convinced there is all that much active editing going on compared with fiction and non-fiction, which can be ruthless and brutal in terms of editing and rewrites. I think a better word to describe poetry publications would be curating. Poetry publishers select manuscripts or poems and they appear in the form of books or journals. I've never personally seen or known of anybody that has turned in a poetry manuscript that went through huge and multiple rewrites done under the supervision of a publisher. There might be rewrites, sure, but not massive overhauls. More like nip and tuck.
When I worked at Dalkey Archive Press, I had the privilege to see how active editing can contribute to the success of the book, forcing the writer to defend choices (some of which can be rather flimsy), but also to consider that alternatives exist that simply make the book better. John O'Brien has a knack for seeing flaws in manuscripts and weeding these out; and I have a great deal of respect for Martin Riker's editorial acumen.
As a writer, I rather intensely edit my own work, and somewhat pathologically destroy drafts. Having said that, both publishers of my books -- Litmus Press and Burning Deck -- offered valuable commentary on the manuscripts, which either helped me with some last minute rewrites or prodded me to consider some things in a new way. It wasn't difficult to work with them -- it was very helpful and insightful. And of course I'm grateful.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Avoid debt. It boxes you in and limits options.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I'm not particularly invested in genre distinctions, and both my first book and second blend different genres within them. Critical prose is something that I've done largely out of the necessity of working in academia, though I do find it stimulating and productive to articulate ideas while at the same time trying to frustrate the limits of formula. And this has given me ways to reconsider the page as a two-dimensional plane. Translation is the most demanding thing I've done, and it disturbs my sleep more than anything else. The endless permutations, the relentless detail . . .
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?
My writing is intimately tied with my reading and note-taking. If I'm not reading, I'm not writing. In terms of routines, I need my notebook, my laptop, a desk, and some music playing. I also need chunks of time to concentrate, so when I'm teaching, most of my writing happens during breaks in the semester. I've also been fortunate to have a couple of artist residencies, which were extremely useful to make progress on manuscripts because residencies are the only situation where I have completely unfettered time and can write just about any time I want without disturbing anyone or having my time split between other demands.
If I'm immersed in writing, I try to have a coffee, look at some pages from the day before, read the news, maybe a bit of a book, and then I sit down to work. I like to have enough space to hang pages on the walls, to really look at them, walk around, let them breathe a bit. I try to work long enough that I'm irked and push myself but not so long that I'm staring at the same line for an hour.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It depends on the type of stall. If I'm in the middle of a sequence, simply knowing when to stop is important. Just taking a break, going for a run, taking my dog for a walk, watching some TV, playing soccer, having a conversation, all of those things are helpful. With the manuscript I'm working on now, I hit a sort of wall where the beginning is pretty much finished and so is the ending, but the middle evaded me. I made a few passes, but figured out eventually I needed to just leave it alone for awhile, and finally a picture emerged. For me, simply living my life and paying attention to details -- really trying to be present -- is crucial to the writing process.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of freshly cut wood.
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?
Math and numbers are things I've always been intuitively drawn to from a young age. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry, Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, infinite matrices, reading about the Riemann Hypothesis, twin primes . . . these things constantly renew my sense of wonder. Just recently, Yitang Zhang proved the "bounded gaps" conjecture, which was exciting only serves to animate more interest in the beauty of prime numbers, which for me is deeply emotional.
Music and visual art are equally important to me also, the pulse and rhythms. Growing up near Midway Airport in Chicago, my days were soundtracked by the planes flying overhead or the nearby freight-trains tapping their tracks, and these are incredibly measured sounds. There's a great deal of math in music; and a great deal of music in math. And with visual art, I tend to see the sequences of what I write as three-dimensional visual images. I can't really work on a sequence until I know what it looks like, the architecture of it. Sometimes the scale can be expansive, like the paintings of Sean Scully, but other times it can be something small, an amplified detail, like Gerhard Richter's paintings of rolls of toilet paper.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Besides some of the other people I've already mentioned, Anne-Marie Albiach, Cormac McCarthy, Henry James, C.D. Wright, William Blake, Peter Gizzi, Barbara Guest, Miron Bialoszewski, Ivan Angelo, Georges Perec, Martha Ronk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jacques Roubaud, Witold Gombrowicz, Craig Watson. And of course my contemporaries and friends are a fount of energy and encouragement: Justyna Bargielska, Raymond Bianchi, E. Tracy Grinnell, Sarah Lang, Sawako Nakayasu, Kristy Odelius, Martha Oatis, Sarah Ruhl, Larry Sawyer, Stacy Szymaszek, Lina ramona Vitkauskas, Dana Ward, Scott Bryan Wilson, and too many more to count.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
See the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. Travel in South America and Asia. Drink a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's 23-year.
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?
Since my writing doesn't support me fully, I've had to do other things. I've worked doing landscaping, I've worked in banking, and I've worked in publishing and academia. I've always connected with architecture and visual art, and these are fields I can imagine being involved with. And I sometimes think about being a bartender or a carpenter.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is able to absorb and engage the widest possible range of gestures -- and for me, this was the first and strongest hook. In writing (and reading), time stretches and folds differently; our imaginative and speculative faculties can run at full-steam; the rhythms, images, movements, and ideas from almost anything can be engaged through writing -- and that is both intimate and a public conversation. As I said, the arts and mathematics are very important to me, and I can continually explore this through writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last book I read that really left me exhilarated and dizzy and gratefully silent would be Underworld by Don DeLillo, though I read that a few years back. Maybe a bit more recently, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami was a delight. I'm impressed by Murakami's lightness of touch, which reminds me of Italo Calvino in certain respects. And I agree with Calvino that using lightness well and effectively is one of the hardest things to do in writing. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter was hilarious and depressing in equal proportion. Jennifer Moxley's book of essays There Are Things We Live Among impressed me. And King of Infinite Space by Siobhan Roberts is a fantastic biography of the brilliant geometer Donald Coxeter. I couldn't put it down and flew through it in two days.
As for film, I have to point back to my early comment about not being invested in genre distinctions. I think the fetish for film has taken a real hit since the emergence of cable television. My view would be that a show like Six Feet Under was a five-year episodic film. The first season of Breaking Bad is deeply embedded with references to cinema like Hans Namuth's famous video of Jackson Pollock painting, and very complicated camera sequences, sometimes averaging six different shots in less than five seconds. And again, there's a different relationship to time with more serialized structures and narratives, which appeals to me. Of course I like watching films too. I've enjoyed these films that are a kind of early '80s throwback: Drive and Killing Them Softly, for example. With Drive, it was refreshing to see a film with so little dialogue, such weighted restraint.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm finishing up a hybrid poetry / prose manuscript I've been working on for a few years that centers on horrific violence through the prism of Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. And I've begun work on a series of critical essays on mathematics as narrative, which I hope eventually will make up a book.
I've also begun practicing yoga, which has been very positive.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;