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My first book was an unpublished novel from the mid-1990s, The Kerry Way and the Pentecostal Counterculture. It was a local exploration of the shifting political tide in the United States and the pervasive influence of whatever Christianity has become, set in rural Missouri. I’ve never been able to finish it. The book taught me that I have to work slowly and deliberately. That experience helped the development of Blue Mound to 161, my first book-length poem. The more deliberate pacing gave me time to invite more historical strands into the narrative as well as more space in which to re-imagine the work’s larger shape.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I always say that I’m a novelist disguised as a poet. I like to work within an epic impulse—long poems that explore trajectories in American history and culture, blowing the local up and rethinking connections. It’s what Charles Boer called the “annalic” impulse—working with a story that’s both epic and local in scope, while recovering the mythic qualities of figures in personal and common memory. It propelled his great book, VarmintQ.
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’m a sentence-writer, so it’s a laborious process. A friend compares it to being a stone mason building a wall. You pick up one stone after another, examine their shape and re-imagine their place within the wall. You have to fit them in a process of trial and error to get the thing built. The editing challenge is that often I’ve worked so long on some sentences that it’s difficult to shed them in the revision process. I need a grade-school English teacher around to slap my knuckles.
- Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?
Lyric poems (and short stories) tend to be diversions when I’m stuck within a longer project. I typically want to follow the fuller line of an idea. I get distracted too easily as a writer. I wish I had more of that obsessive impulse that carries projects to completion. For instance, for years I’ve been piecing together a novel about a Thoreau ancestor who lives in a high-rise condo above the Lake in Chicago. He keeps getting distracted from the Lake though, more focused on the microbes crawling through his colon. Psychologically, I guess it’s a figure of my writing process that emerges there.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings can be fun, although the hierarchy that can be inherent in a lot of readings is annoying. I prefer reading with others “bluegrass” style, trading licks one poem or paragraph after another, focusing on the writing rather than the voice. I think that in jazz Ralph Ellison called it “antagonistic cooperation.” More of a conversation than “I liked your poem. Now what do you think about my poem?”
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 was a kid in the Nixon era so the shifts in American (writ large, in the sense of the Americas) politics are both horrifying and fascinating to me, the anxieties and narratives that late capital feeds on. I grew up listening to a lot of distant radio (particularly from New York, Detroit, and Toronto), so I’m curious about the relationship between geographical space and culture there. In school, I’ve tried to develop a grasp of the range of political developments in Latin America across the past decades. In the United States, politics has devolved into root points of identification, often more about anxiety and psychological stasis than polis. At present, I’m wondering if the whole Trump phenomenon simply reflects not only a racist impulse in American culture, but the situation of American men who felt ambiguous feelings or even outright hatred from their fathers. That hatred offers a terrifying point of identification. How else does one understand the “sons of Trump?”
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that the communal place of writers was to recall and retell the common stories. Of course, writers have been displaced in contemporary culture by other “tellers”—TV, Hollywood, and now, streaming services. Vonnegut claimed that this situation left writers with only one place in the culture—getting drunk at weddings and dancing on tables. I gravitate towards that communal role. It’s seems essential. I’m continually amazed by the great writers who offer a means of re-imagining the world around me—writers like Rebecca Solnit, Ed Roberson, Dan Egan, Cecilia Vicuña, and the late Muriel Rukeyser. All writers who remind me about the “roads that lead back into my own country.”
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve rarely had challenging experiences with editors. Work always feels like “another rough draft” to me, so it’s generally an easy process to embrace revisions. That said, I feel funny asking friends, “Hey, would you give this a read and let me know what you think?” Great readers are perhaps even more rare than great editors.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Michael Anania: Great writers rarely appear by themselves; they more often appear in groups. His words and teaching have fostered a generous, collaborative spirit in workshops and friendships.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I need to work between poetry, fiction, essay, and script as a means of working out challenges and impasse in projects. Script-writing has influenced the way in which I imagine characters. Narrative forms have impacted my sense of lyric play in poems. Adaptation between genres has offered me a means of revision. Translation offers a means of inhabiting someone else’s thinking.
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?
A great deal of my work gets done in the margins and back pages of books. I string together sentences and paragraphs in those spaces as a means of starting more sustained pieces. That process generally avoids the dread “blinking cursor” for me. I used to write a lot in the early mornings, but that time has generally been absorbed by teaching online. I miss that open space.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve been fortunate to avoid prolonged stalls by moving between genres. If I’m stuck on an essay or fiction, I’ll work on a poem or review. Reimagining fiction passages as scenes on stage or screen helps, too.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Honeysuckle, wet sneakers, and chlorine.
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?
Maps, memory and place. The Illinois poems (Blue Mound to 161, Hostile Witness, The Bonegatherer, and the forthcoming prairied) all get their impulse from one stretch of road or another. I traveled a lot by car and those glimpses from the windshield (and the parallel mapped lines) are always close at hand.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In terms of poetic voice and impulse, Michael Anania, Rosmary Waldrop, Ed Roberson, and Barbara Guest have been significant in my work. For fictional terrain, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Barry Hannah, and William Gay. I also still really love Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
A socio-cultural or political biography of a Chicago figure.
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 worked in pastoral ministry and Hospice chaplaincy for twenty years before moving solely into teaching and writing. I enjoyed the range of that work—maintaining a communal center, counseling, teaching, and of course, getting some time each week to say what was on my mind.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My only means of making sense of things. I would be loathe to give up the conversation in reading and writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I really loved Meghan Lamb’s Failure to Thrive. Really strong Rust Belt storytelling. In terms of poetry, I was struck by Ed Roberson’s To See the Earth Before the End of the World and Sylvia Legris’s Garden Physic. Also, I recently watched Cecilia Vicuña’s films in the retrospective on her work at the Guggenheim. Short pieces on quipu knots, sound, and seashore.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A review of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria, holy war and hallucinogens in post-Putin Russia. I’m also trying to find traction on a Chicago mystery and some love poems from a surveilled city.