The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and Per Contra, and his story collection is called Saturday Night at Magellan's. He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My earliest work favored rhymed and metered poetry, and my current work is all prose poetry. I used to take great pleasure in resolving a formal constraint placed on the poem. It's the problem of finding a rhyme for "bazooka" and making it seem natural and inevitable. I'm enjoying the comparative freedoms of the prose poem. I feel like they've given me permission to be wild.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry in high school. The Milton and Keats we were reading left me cold, but when I was 15 I got interested in the Doors' music, which led me to read Morrison's biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, which name-dropped all the poets I would have an early interest in (Rimbaud, Ginsberg, etc.), which led me to Ginsberg's poem "Howl," which I found in my older brother's Intro to Literature textbook when he went back to college. The hook was set at that moment.
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?
Everything depends. Some poems are done in 2 weeks; others take 10 years. If I had to guess, I'd say I average about 20 drafts to finish a poem.
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?
I confess I don't put a lot of effort into the organization of my poetry books. Yes, I want all the poems to be strong, and I generally pick poems that have a similarity of subject matter, narrator, tone, etc. However, I don't care all that much. When I read a book of poetry, I never read it from start to finish. I open it up at random and start there. Usually the poem I start with is short. Or I'll read the first and last poems of the collection, reasoning that this is where the good stuff would naturally reside. There is only a small percentage of poetry books where the order of the poems is actually important. In most cases, you could order them randomly, and I'd be just as happy.
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 readings, but it's time away from family and routines. And of course, if I'm giving a reading, I'm not working on my writing projects, so I'm wary. As long as the readings don't disturb the Jenga tower that is my life, I'm happy to give them.
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've never even thought about this. I'm certainly not partial to any flavor of poetry as a reader. The only reason I'm writing prose poetry exclusively right now is that I haven't exhausted my interest yet. As soon as I start to get bored with them, I'll move on to something else.
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?
Poets have no role in the larger culture. Poets in America are fourth magnitude stars, and everybody's night vision has been ruined by cop shows and football.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it gratifying when it happens. Too often, the editor merely accepts the work for publication, rather than helping to shape it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Read everything. Write every day – even if it's just a half-hour. Keep everything in the mail.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It's easy for me to shift between the genres now, but I held off even attempting to write fiction until I was 45. I was a coward.
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 goal is to write every day, no matter what. I have a family and work three jobs, so I don't have the luxury of a regular writing pattern. But I'm good at exploiting whatever time makes itself available – commuting by train, waiting in the lobby during my daughter's dance lesson, waiting at the doctor's office, waiting for the spin cycle to finish on the washing machine. I can usually fit in at least an hour of writing per day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Yeah, I'm very suspicious of the word "inspiration." I always have many works in progress, so it's almost unheard of to have writer's block. If the novel gets tired, I work on my poems. If the poems are going nowhere, I'll revise a story. Etc. If I'm really not interested in pushing a pen across the page, then I'll read – not to get inspiration, but to see how someone else confronted and resolved the same problems I'm working on. If even that's a dead end, I'll go for a walk in the woods. In fact, going into the woods is always helpful. I don't wait for writer's block to occur before entering.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Piles of autumn leaves in the yard.
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?
Sure. I would say everything. I aspire to be as promiscuous as possible when it comes to influences.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I'm always reading. Because I teach, some of that reading is re-reading the poems and stories I teach. Beyond that, I just want to read whatever I can fit into my schedule. My favorite things to come across are works that I myself could not have imagined.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd like to publish a novel. I've got one that I just finished, but I'm still in that stage where I'm not positive it's ready. I can't think of anything else to change, but it still hasn't been picked up by an agent or publisher.
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?
The writer part stays no matter what, but I've also been a teacher and an editor. If I thought I could swing it, I'd become a mailman (the walking around kind) or a forest ranger.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Well, my first real aspiration was to be a bass player in a rock band. But my bass playing stopped improving at a certain point. Except for the first 6 or 7 years, my writing was always better than my bass playing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Amy Hempel's Collected Stories. I don't see a lot of movies, and it's been a while since I saw one that was "great." Let's say The Graduate as a safe move.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel called "Moscodelphia." A short story collection called "The Blue Piano." A collection of aphorisms called "Oddments." A new, as-yet-untitled collection of prose poems.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
12 or 20 (second series) questions with Charles Rafferty
Posted by rob mclennan at 8:31 AM
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