Bill Neumire’s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award. His second, due out in 2022 from Unsolicited Press, was a finalist for the Barrow Street Prize. His poems have appeared in the Harvard Review Online, Beloit Poetry Journal, West Branch, and Los Angeles Review. He reviews books of contemporary poetry for Vallum and for Verdad, where he also serves as poetry editor.
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 first chapbook came out in 2003 and sold probably fewer than 50 copies. Second chapbook similar. My first full-length book came out in 2013 and again the process was more disillusioning than anything else. Sorry to be a downer, but on the long term upside, it made me really evaluate the difference between writing and publishing; to realize that if one, as the wise old saying goes, can manage to not write, maybe you should just not write? But for me, and many others, it’s a compulsion, a way of being that has very little to do with publishing and everything to do with mental/emotional processing, with a relationship to time and mortality. So, in the sense that disillusionment spurred an articulation of those realizations, I suppose it changed my life, just not my “career.” As for comparing my work over time, I think people and relationships have always been central (my second chapbook was titled Resonance of Kin), but over time, and especially in the upcoming book, that concern has taken on more varied forms and extended outward toward a wider community.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry prioritizes pure sound in a way that fiction and non-fiction just don’t, and that pure sound is an earlier pleasure than the pleasures of the other genres. So, I mean, I was writing poems very young, before I really had the chance to gravitate toward stories (except in the sound rhythms of stories, which is their poetry). Also, I think fiction and especially non-fiction are about memory in a way that lyric poetry doesn’t have to be, so poetry was available to me even at an age when memory of lived experience was in short supply.
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 do a ton of reading, and that information and those rhythms and sense of devices, styles, forms, is always churning to a boil, but the actual moment a poem begins is usually pretty sudden, though I definitely regularly write, say, single lines, lists of words, mini-anaphoras, etc. As far as drafting, though, my initial outburst rarely looks more than maybe 50% what the final poem will be, though always the central element of the initial draft--an image, a rhythm, a form--remains.
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’m definitely a poet of the lyric variety, and my poems tend to come individually for a while before any sort of obsession becomes clear. It’s often a bit subtler than that seems, though, as usually my individual poems are working out some sort of preoccupation--a particular question, image, storyline, character, etc.--I just don’t see it for several poems.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I absolutely love doing readings, though I rarely do. I’m a den animal by nature; I love being around people, meeting new people, physical proximity, etc. I also love the differences between the way a poem is enacted on the page and aloud--these experiences cast different spells. But writing and reading poetry is about connecting with people more than anything else, and what better forum for that connection than a poetry reading? That said, readings are often geared toward folks who have a new book out, and since my books have come out nearly a decade apart...not as many opportunities as I’d enjoy.
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?
My first book was called Estrus, which refers to the animal urge to seek each other out and procreate, but more broadly, the idea was that all beings seem to be designed to move toward each other, to connect. I think that is the primary question my work has been after: what do we do with this urge to know each other in meaningful ways? How much can we know anyone else? How much can we know ourselves? I think my second collection, #TheNewCrusades, deals more specifically with knowing oneself as a man, understanding one’s gender and relations to others.
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 dislike the idea that a writer has some kind of specific responsibility to the culture at large, that we need do any more than write what we are compelled to write, and share it as we see fit in order to hopefully forge connections, regardless of how abstract those connections may be.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
When I find an editor who wants to work with me, I’ll let you know.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It’s a long game and you have to be in it for the right reason: because the writing itself satisfies you. The rest is salesmanship, commercialism, trendiness, and a deeply subjective art form. The biz of poetry may love you for a moment, disown you another, but if the writing itself satisfies you, you’ll be content for the rest of your life.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Well, for me, my only critical prose is reviews of books of contemporary poetry, and that has been very easy as a transition. I love staying current with the immense flood of voices out there, and forcing myself to articulate the movements of another’s poetry collection in a way that inevitably forces me to better understand my own, and to move forward in my writing with new ideas about what the art form can accomplish.
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 I had a routine! Two kids, teaching, coaching, many interests...I write when and how I can, in bed at night, on breaks at work, waiting for appointments, on post-its in the car. That said, my teaching schedule means I get a ton of writing done in the summer, on weekends, and breaks.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn, mostly, back to raw sound--I read the dictionary and just write down words I like the sound of; I seek out different ways lines or sentences begin; I try to read a poet or school of poetry I’ve never read; I find metrical poetry and bury my ear in it awhile. I dislike prompts and exercises, but these things, things I was doing long before being stalled was an issue, are always curative.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of 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?
Any kind of factual non-fiction writing really helps me write: to take the language of facts and data and transform it into rhythm and image and story is a very satisfying process.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
James Wright was the first poet I can remember collapsing into. Ben Lerner, ee cummings, and Sylvia Plath all come to mind. The dictionary. When I was a teenager, I read straight through it (I’d write a check mark at the top of each page) just writing down words I didn’t know and liked the sound of. And, given that I never got an MFA or followed any kind of traditional route, the online poetry communities I’ve been a part of have yielded nourishment I am ever grateful for.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Save someone’s life without them ever knowing I did it.
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?
Law or astrophysics. I’m sure I’m not cut out for either, but both interest me, and I’ve seen several poets make careers as lawyers, and I think the devotion to language has overlap that helps one lawyer well. Astrophysics, to me, seeks the same kind of large answers art does, and so, though practically I’m sure I couldn’t do it, I’d really enjoy the theoretical nature of it.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Compulsion. I mean, writing is not my livelihood; I teach for a living. But writing is a way of living, its own epistemology. So I guess the real answer is I didn’t have much choice.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Great Expectations, Dickens.
Land of the Lost, Will Ferrell.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Weird things. A long, narrative poem adapting Homer’s Odyssey, but with Bill Murray as Odysseus, and with the cyclopes as a group of fanboys. A long narrative poem about my grandfather, who was consumed in flames in a gas tanker explosion at work, but somehow survived. Some essays pieces about a brief period of voluntary living in a car-ness, accidentally becoming a ninja, etc.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;