Monday, March 03, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Rob Schlegel

Rob Schlegel is the author of The Lesser Fields, winner of the 2009 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and January Machine, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. His poetry and criticism have appeared in Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Jacket2, New American Writing, The Volta, and elsewhere. With the poet Daniel Poppick, he co-edits The Catenary Press [see the '12 or 20 (small press) questions' here].

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was published the year I moved to Iowa City, where my wife was enrolled in Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Winning the Colorado Prize gave me the confidence to email Geoffrey G. O'Brien to ask if I could sit in on his course, "The End of the Poem." As a result, my more recent work is engaged with more formal constraints. Before moving to Iowa City, I was a student in Joanna Klink's incredible graduate workshops at the University of Montana, which is where I received my M.FA. Moving from Missoula to Iowa City is like being traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Boston Red Sox. You move from one rich and complex poetry culture to another. Despite their relative isolation, Missoula and Iowa City are two of the most fertile (feral) creative communities in the country.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My father is a painter and sculptor. As a teenager I used to sit in the passenger seat of his car while he made sketches of cows in fields west of Portland, Oregon. Often we’d be listening to music. One day my father played "Desolation Row" from Highway 61 Revisited. I sat stupid for eleven minutes, rewound the tape and listened again. A few days later my father and I were in Music Millennium and I found Dylan's The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, (1961-1991). I went home and listened to "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," on repeat for three straight hours. I realized then that the real work for me is the cultivation of the soul by way of the imagination and intellect.

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?
Except on very rare occasions the “final” poem looks nothing like the original draft. Over half the time I spend "writing," is actually revising. What is a final draft, anyway? My recent poems incorporate a bit of research, so I've been keeping a significant number of notes while also developing some sense of the poem's ark.

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?
About six months ago, I woke up with this rattling around in my ear: "Mabel get your beanie on! It's February 3rd!" Who is Mabel? Where did she come? No idea, but the lines spawned a poem called "Taurus Teez," which is about a family of t-shirt designers selling shirts out of the back of their Taurus. More recently, I woke up with this in my head: "Me and Baryshnikov are high and wrecking the house." The day before, the photographer and bookmaker David Schulz told me about how Baryshnikov's real-life daughter briefly attended the college where I currently teach. Dave was driving me up a very steep gravel road (no guardrails) and my palms were sweating. This poem developed into a dramatic monologue told from the perspective of an obsessed Baryshnikov fan that equates the dancer with Saint Roland, the patron Saint of Riga, Latvia (Baryshnikov's birthplace). Both of these poems have become part of a larger sequence that is a loose reimagining of Flaubert’s “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator.”

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

One of my favorite readings was at Studio One in Oakland. It was the last of a series of readings I gave after my first book was published. That night, I fell asleep in Suzanne Dyckman's guest bedroom, feeling weirdly anxious at the prospect of ever writing poetry again. Reading “finished” work somehow distances me from the initial act of writing. That feeling of starting something new never feels more impossible than immediately after reading my own poems. 

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?
Right now I am interested in how ekphrastic writing might exist alongside the dramatic monologue (Robert Browning) while at the same time expanding to include room for loose narratives. New poems are trying to fuse the voices of artists and saints. One of the most recent monologues fuses the voices of the poet and filmmaker Nick Twemlow and Saint Julian the Hospitaller, who is the patron saint of Carnival workers. The haunting after-effect of Nick’s short films is uncannily similar to the bizarre horror play (or helljoy) that seeps from the grimy machination and flesh of the midway. But there are so many other theoretical questions! Some of my favorites are continually raised and addressed at The Claudius App; The Volta; Boston Review; Montevidayo. The most interesting questions are asked by poets/artists/writers who might not have any idea of what is going to happen next in their process, which is terrifying because if they are truly giving in to the moment—utterly open and vulnerable—haven’t they lost themselves! How can they know who are they are, or where they are? To me this is the real light inside any creative act. The light that exists in becoming (for now).

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?
When I think about my role in the "larger culture," I feel like crawling into a sleeping bag and hiding in a basement somewhere in eastern Montana. I feel this way because I am convinced I'll never have a better response to this question than the one Franco Loi provides when he says: "What a poet offers, in time, is the ongoing proposal of a person who is outside all the cultural representations. The official culture of a city, of a nation, is put into crisis by poetry. From the poet's speech the city enhances the vision of itself and of its own social and conceptual motivations, it remembers in a renewed way the figure and nature of what it is to be human. I mean by this that a society, in the highest sense of the word, is that which listens to the poet. Accepting poetry is accepting the different, the other. Thus the openness of poetry toward the city is the openness toward the possible, toward the unknown and the infinite that's above it." But just when Loi gets me thinking about the city, my friend Brandon Shimoda gets me rethinking the entire concept of "city," and the poet's role in this “place” that might not even exist. In a recent interview at BOMBLOG, Brandon says, "I think that in the United States city is where people go when they realize, consciously or not, that they don’t trust the American experiment and that they want, rather, to climb back into the womb of the King. Unless they were born there, in the womb, which has, in many instances, been yanked out and discarded, or otherwise turned inside out. This is in the guise of great trust in the American experiment and a belief that it is centralized in city. This is not true of all cities or people, but there is a general loss of faith in country. And country is where people go when they have lost faith in city." I wonder how John Clare would answer this question. Ashbery? Marianne Moore?

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
So far most of the editors I’ve worked with haven’t necessarily suggested major revisions. Stephanie G'Schwind, editor for the Center for Literary Publishing, is remarkably enthusiastic and a tireless advocate for contemporary poetry. Most recently I’ve worked with Ryan Murphy and Sally Ball at Four Way. They are equally brilliant and helpful.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One night Robyn Schiff told me that one of the most memorable pieces of advice she received from Jorie Graham was that she should have a baby, and collect sky miles. Also, this, or something like it, from James Schuyler: "It's time to pull up the flowers and plant something more difficult to grow." Which is what I tell myself when/if the creative process starts to feel too comfortable or predictable.

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

My own poetry seems constantly informed by what I’m reading. I’m especially influenced by poetry that I’ve reviewed. When I was living in Missoula I wrote a review of Ron Silliman’s The Age of Huts (Compleat). It was summer. I read the book when I was car camping in the Bitterroot Valley. Each night I fell asleep in this anxiously verbose state of mind (like I was drowning in a language I knew, but that was nonetheless overwhelming). When I finally returned home it was hard for me to speak simple sentences. Silliman’s poetry forced me to reconsider my own very practical relationship with language. It was like having a deep-tissue massage on my tongue/brain/ear: a painful process, but worth it in the end. Engaging so deeply with that book changed the way I thought about syntax, and it changed the way I thought about subjects, verbs and nouns.

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 wish it began with an hour of reading Joan Didion. But it doesn't. Most mornings I wake up when my 3 year old crawls into bed with me. A few minutes later I’m preparing two bowls of Grandpola (my grandfather’s recipe) with yogurt and blueberries from my father's garden in Oregon. Then we sit at the kitchen table and eat. Through the window we'll often see the neighbor’s cat pass by on the sidewalk. After that, I bike my son to his preschool, then there is maybe a little time for Didion before I teach.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Eliot said that the poet's mind is “a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together." I'm hesitant to force the particles into something too soon, lest I develop a shitty compound. So I generally don't look to return anywhere for "inspiration". For me, not writing actually feels necessary for me to refuel. At some point when I least expect it the tank overflows.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I like your style. Though I have to say I'm having difficulty thinking of a fragrance. My mother's breath? When I think about "home," I think of my friend Jeremy Abarno. His family owned Sunset Grove, a nine hole, rural golf course surrounded by alfalfa, corn and strawberry fields. Lots of gophers. In junior high, Jeremy and I walked the empty course, looking for lost balls we would hope to sell back to the golfers, who, by this point were getting sauced in the clubhouse. Hunting for the balls, I’d wear my yellow Sony Walkman and listen to Nirvana, R.E.M. and sometimes the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid. Every once in a while, when the batteries in my Walkman died, I'd hear this:

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?
Yes. Several poems in January Machine are indebted to musicians like David Berman, Bonny Prince Billy, Smog, The National, and Sigur Ros.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Whitman, Oppen, Bishop, Plath, Kafka, Borges, Beckett, Flaubert; Stevens, Stafford, Raul Zurita, Marilynne Robinson, DeLillo, Nathalie Stephens, Lydia Davis, Dana Ward, Brandon Shimoda, Kurt Cobain, Richard Pryor, Louis C.K, Melmoth the Wanderer, Caliban, George Saunders, Frederick Kreissler, Satie, John Prine.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to buy a blue 1985 Mercedes Benz 300TD wagon and drive it from the west coast of the United States to Cape Breton, where Brandon and Dot are curating a collection of beheaded statues of Saint Francis.

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?
Bicycle repairman.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
In Jr. High, High School and college I kept a sketchbook and spent many hours imitating Hopper and the Wyeth's. They were my father’s favorite artists. I started writing after hearing Dylan, and reading Hopkins's terrible sonnet, "No worst, there is none..." I could never hear or see painting's music. I also think I was drawn to the more private nature of poems, which seems counter-intuitive because isn't the poet expected to perform (readings) far more than a painter or visual artist? If I'd learned to play guitar, I'm pretty sure I would have wanted to become some version of Bruce Springsteen/Bonnie Prince Billy/David Berman/Feist/Chan Marshall.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Books: Daniel Poppick's poetry manuscript, Movies; Justin Torres's We the Animals. Film: Pina, the Wim Wenders documentary about the German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I recently completed a manuscript called Almost Air. I think the actual lives of artists and saints are cloaked in their works. In this book I intend to remove some of these cloaks in a series of dramatic monologues that fuse the voices of artists and saints. Drawing from my knowledge of ekphrastic writing and Victorian Poetry (in particular Browning’s dramatic monologues) I intend to marry the dramatic monologue with the ekphrastic encounter, while expanding the boundaries of each to allow for a narrative that might reveal the imagined (and real) desires and terrors of each historical figure and myself. One monologue, titled “Blessing the Throats,” fuses the voices of the Irish-born, British painter, Francis Bacon, and the 4th Century Armenian, Saint Blaise, who was known for blessing human throats to keep away evil and illness. Another monologue, titled “Sister Wolf,” fuses the voices of Saint Francis and the 17th Century Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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