Geoff Bouvier’s first book, Living Room, was selected by Heather McHugh as the winner of the 2005 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. His second book, Glass Harmonica, was published in 2011 by Quale Press. He received an MFA from Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts in 1997 and a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University in 2016. In 2009, he was the Roberta C. Holloway visiting poet at the University of California - Berkeley. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his partner, the novelist SJ Sindu, and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I don’t remember the first book I ever read, but it fundamentally changed me. The mere fact of words – lines of little scribbles that were somehow signs of meaning – shifted my basic understanding of everything.
The first book I wrote – “The Cake Who Lost Its Crumbs,” when I was three – taught me that I could sculpt those little significant meaningful scribbles. My audience was my mother and father, who were quite encouraging.
The first book I published, thirty-three years later, relined my confidence. Though Living Room found only a modest audience, it did earn me some inroads into academia, where I’ve been able to cultivate a life of the mind.
With my new book, Us From Nothing, I wanted words to again shift my basic understanding of everything. I had to try to understand who I am, why I’m here, where I came from, and where I might be headed. It took me 7 years to research and revise what became a serial epic prose poem about the most important milestones in human history.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Psychologically, from the moment I learned to read, it was the words that got me, first and foremost. The mere fact of words. I didn’t care about stories or characters. Those words were drawing attention to themselves as words. That’s the poetry. That hooked me.
Factually, I grew up in a house full of books – my parents were both teachers and readers – but the shelf with the poetry books was the only one with cobwebs on it. I think I gravitated toward it because no one else ever touched it; the poetry books could be mine, all mine.
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 an inveterate reviser. It takes at least a hundred versions of me to make one good line. Everything changes radically from draft to draft. It’s a long and fun process to mint a memorable phrase that sounds like it just appeared spontaneously at the tip of my tongue.
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?
With my new book, I knew I was writing a book – an epic poem – right from the beginning. But that’s the first time I ever did that. Usually, I’m just writing stuff down – I call it “collecting bricks” – and then eventually, I’ll turn back pages and look for bricks that might combine with other bricks, so that I might start building something. Eventually, the poem, like a wall or house, starts rising into view. Come to think of it, I built a lot of my new book that way also, even though I knew beforehand (once I’d curated the table of contents, at least) what the various parts of the epic poem were going to be.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do love to do readings. I think any good poem should be read out loud. And recently, I’ve started projecting my poems onto screens when I read them to people, so that they can read along. Everyone seems enthusiastic about that. It makes public readings even more fun.
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 deeply believe that we don’t yet understand the way the world really works – coming at the whole thing piecemeal, as we have – and every time I sit down to write I’m trying to advance my understanding. I’m always asking myself, “what does poetry need, and can I help provide that?” Implicit in that question is “what does the world need, and how can my writing help?”
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?
I think everyone in the world should be a writer (and a reader). Imagine that world! In the meantime, though, I think it’s a writer’s role to show others the code to empathy, beauty, truth, and understanding.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Depends on the editor! But, in the end, I’m always grateful to have someone who makes me think deeply about my work.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
10 - 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 like to wake up and “have a morning.” For me, “having a morning” means ascending slowly into my waking mind with a writing apparatus nearby. But I do most of my writing these days in the evenings (“writing nights”), and I start to feel irritable if I’m not able to have a morning or a writing night for more than two days in a row.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m an advocate of having more than one project going at a time. When one stalls, I just turn to another. Sooner or later, they all get done. And if none of my projects are calling to me, then the sparks of inspiration almost always find me during a good long walk in the woods.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’m actually scent-sensitive, and have a very strong sense of smell. As such, I’ve worked very hard over the years to detach associative memory from my olfactory sensors. Further, my concept of “home” is shifting and modular; there is no house or place that encapsulates “home” for me. All that said, my partner – the novelist SJ Sindu – who, in the decade she’s known me, hasn’t been able to wear scented lotions or perfumes (sorry, my love!), has a natural pheromonic smell that is absolutely “home” to me. So, there’s my answer: Sindu’s smell reminds me of home.
13 - 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 was a musician first, and I think about everything musically. To me, every good poem is very much a musical composition. I’m also biophilic, and my first, deepest and most enduring love is birds, trees, grasses, flowers, rocks, rivers, lakes, oceans, mountains, insects, and wild animals.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Franz Kafka (the GOAT), John Ashbery (GOAT poet), Gilles Deleuze (A Thousand Plateaus would be my desert island book), Giorgio Agamben (the person alive or dead with whom I’d most like to have dinner), Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Eduardo Galeano, Kamau Brathwaite.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I love traveling, and I haven’t yet been to Japan, Australia, Hawaii, Iceland, Greece…
16 - 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’m a professor, and writing and professing (“living a life of the mind”) are my dream jobs. But if that hadn’t worked out, I’d be a professional poker player.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
To state this again in a different way… when I was so young that I found great meaning in tinker toys, I learned that there were these intricate black scribbles arranged in lines on white rectangles, and those scribbles could tell your mouth what to say, and your mouth could relay those scribbles to another person’s ear, and I thought that extraordinary transfer was the master code for everything. I started making little books when I was three or four, and I’ve never stopped.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I think Virginia Konachan’s Bel Canto is a great book. I wrote a fawning review for it. And I think Asteroid City was a great film, and I’m not even a particular fan of Wes Anderson.
19 - What are you currently working on?
What do you write about after you’ve written about everything? Immortality! It took me a while to find that next subject, but for the past month or so I’ve been on fire with my answer-call to Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode. The working title is “I’ll Never Forget.”
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