Friday, January 31, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Christopher Bolin

Christopher Bolin lives in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and teaches at the College of St. Benedict / St. John’s University. He has published poems in jubilat, Lana Turner, Post Road, 1913: A Journal of Forms, VOLT, and Cura. He is a recipient of fellowships from the James A. Michener Foundation and the MacDowell Colony, and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first trade poetry collection, Ascension Theory (2013), was published by the University of Iowa 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?
The writing of my first book (Ascension Theory) was a series of acts of faith.  First, there was faith in the process of writing poems which may or may not belong together:  faith enough to avoid pursuing countless series of poems which might have produced poems more quickly, but wouldn't have pushed me into new territory.   There was a faith in pursuing each moment of the poems as an "unknowing" participant in the logic, the music, and the terrain of the poem:  faith enough to let the poem reveal itself to the imagination.  And, ultimately, there was a faith that poems revealed to the imagination--would crystallize so fully that they would offer an experience to their readers.  I would say, then, that the first book revealed the mindset I hope will guide other books of poems.

My most recent work moves back and forth between a series of poems with a single speaker and 'stand-alone' poems scanning environmental (and spiritual) degradation (as I am unsure there is any separation between the two and all too nervous we will find out).

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to writing fiction first, as young person.  However, I found it ill-suited for the density of language with which I was working. Of course, at the time, I was also mistaking 'density' for 'intelligence'.  Perhaps more accurately, one could say I was mistaking opacity for depth and I was lucky enough to find a few readers who suggested I concentrate on poetry.  They might have been (incorrectly) assuming that poetry supports opacity, but the switch seemed to have the opposite effect.  I found myself working against the tendency toward opacity.  My guess is that I knew, intuitively, that the verticality of poetry--as opposed to the arc of fiction--required a certain amount of clarity (even as it moved through disorienting terrain). 

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 poem may take a few weeks, if I'm not forcing myself to the computer for enough time, daily (allowing teaching, parenting, and laziness to intervene).  In the end, a one-page poem, might be 100-pages of text that has been written and discarded, along the way.  For me, each poem is a process of spending enough time in its terrain, to have its crisis reveal itself.  At times, this happens quickly (in a single sitting), over the course of a week, or even a couple of weeks...

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?

Largely, I am writing poems which, only *after* the fact, are in anyway linked, in my mind.  I think this is a product of not wanting to become too "knowing" about the poems (and thereby close myself off to possibilities for poems (or even lines) that present themselves).  I have also experimented, over the last few years, with series of poems with an obvious "book-length" sensibility.  Ultimately, I think it's important to disorient yourself, a bit, as an artist:  to force yourself into uncomfortable terrain:  to tilt at your own  sense of yourself as artist.  I've found new ranges, poetically, in forcing myself to move back and forth between "writing a book" and "writing poems."

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy doing public readings, though I think of them as something that happens "after the fact."  I am thankful that people will leave their homes and trek somewhere to listen to poems (mine or anyone's), but I think of it as wholly separate from the act of writing.  In fact, I think being too aware of an(y) audience wouldn't allow me to fully encounter the poem as it presents itself to the imagination.  But, yes, as an outgrowth of an incredibly solitary process, I quite enjoy giving readings:  seeing the briefest looks of recognition, on the faces in the audience, is the closest any writer gets to evidence that the poems truly exist beyond himself. 

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 have any theoretical concerns, per se, but I am often engaged with a quickly disappearing natural world and, more recently, with a world wholly mediated (increasingly, inevitably, and somewhat alarmingly) through technology.

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 am taken with the idea of writer as "witness," just as I am quite sure that, that is too heavy of a mantle to wear while writing, for many of us.  I am quite engaged in my community, and I find it important, not so much for my writing, but for acknowledging the privileges of having been given loving parents, having attended good schools, having been lucky enough to have been born with a strong internal locus for motivation, and having had caring people intervene when I was coming untracked. And so, I have created creative-writing programs for at-risk youth (with the help of some of my most intelligent and dedicated university students). 

In the end, though, I think poets are doing vital work, for the larger culture, by creating poems that allows readers to traverse crises and to emerge (a bit more) re-sensitized to the world around them.  It is (perhaps increasingly?) difficult work to feel and to think *beyond* ourselves, but there is no other way out of the cycle of war and environmental degradation and political repression...and poetry is a vehicle for "experiencing" that which is beyond ourselves.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

The editor for my book, Ascension Theory, was Mark Levine.  Mark is, easily, the most intelligent and generous reader of poems I've ever encountered.  I had a number of years to refine the manuscript before it was accepted for publication, so there were not as many edits as one might expect.  That said, every edit that Mark offered was pitch-perfect and vital.  Per my dealings with Mark, I would say that an editor who cares more about "poetry" than protecting any (aesthetic, political, editorial) agenda makes the editorial process a *learning* process--revealing things to the poet that had hidden in plain-sight. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Robert Hass once told me to, "beware your social self."  I was a graduate student and trying to navigate being "in the world" (socially, politically, etc.) and a growing sense of myself as an artist.  Bob saw some tendencies to speak short-handedly (or humorously) about things for which I obviously cared very deeply.  Luckily, he pointed this out and, in doing so, made clear (in an instant) how easily the creative process can become corrupted by speaking/living short-handedly.  In other words, I think there was little hope that I would have become a poet--that I would have pursued poems with as much rigor as necessary--if I would have remained that "social self":  the one who used short-handed language and humor as defense mechanisms against caring for the world.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I have written some essays on the intersection of medicine and metaphor, and some short-fiction.  I find that jumping genres reveals quite a lot about poetry (insofar as it reveals lists of "pertinent exclusions"--things that poetry does not afford, as readily).  I also find moving between genres particularly helpful to my teaching of poetry and fiction and essay-writing, in that my students (even if they don't know it) often want the clearest boundaries drawn between genres, and while I cannot provide these clear lines (believing that they fall away, frequently) I can allay their anxieties about existing "between" genres.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begins?
I prefer to work in the morning.  I prefer to have a cup of tea and a heater blowing on my feet (I work in my basement).  I am usually brought to the page by an image.  I work for a few hours and then I read, or pick up my son from school, or go biking.  Over the years, I've been asked by students many times about writing routines, and I've come to the conclusion that you must do *anything* that gets you to the computer and keeps you there (and does not, itself, create a distraction) and that you must be willing to let the routine evolve over time. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to other poets--historically, to Stevens and Niedecker and Ammons and Oppen and many others.  I turn to visual artists and to films.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fresh-cut cedar.

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?
I find encountering visual art can be as important as encountering an important book.  When we lived in Brooklyn, I went to the Brooklyn Museum almost weekly, and to MOMA and the Met, frequently, and wandering those corridors felt very much akin to engaging poems--and to adding to the imaginative "stores."  There are paintings whose materiality and (almost pure) expressiveness and engagement with the world speak directly to what I hope to accomplish in a poem. 

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I love teaching creative writing and I enjoy re-imagining / re-engaging creative-writing pedagogy.  I often find myself rereading essays by Richard Hugo or Phil Levine or Donald Justice (or any number of other writer/teachers) in an effort to push my teaching--and to see how my understanding of their ideas has shifted with experience.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Poetically?  I couldn't say, except to say:  nearly everything.  Life-wise?  I would paddle a canoe to the Hudson Bay.

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 would have continued working with young people in the wilderness.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I needed to write poems.  I would have felt, had I pursued another occupation, that I wasn't living the life I needed to live.  There are many times another occupation would have been easier, but never "right."

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Chronology will not be correct here, but, the first that comes to mind:

Poetry:  Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong
Fiction:  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Film:  Burnt by the Sun

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a second manuscript of poems (titled "Human Headed") that includes a long(ish) series of poems from a particular speaker, and sections of poems that deal with changing/disappearing landscapes (and the people caught in these disappearances). 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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