Thursday, June 06, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer's newest poetry collection is The Fear (Copper Canyon Press in 2023). His new novel, Sleepaway is out in 2024 from Acre Books. He is also the author of several other books of poetry, including The Art of Fiction (2021), How He Loved Them (2018), Churches  (2014), In a Beautiful Country (2011), and National Anthem (2008), all from Four Way Books.

He's edited several volumes of poetry, including New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008; w/ Wayne Miller), Literary Publishing in the 21st Century (Milkweed Editions, 2016; w/ Wayne Miller & Travis Kurowski), and Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries (Graywolf Press, 2017; w/ Martha Collins).  

With Wayne Miller and Martin Rock, Prufer directs the Unsung Masters Series, a book series devoted to bringing the work of great but little known authors to new generations of readers through the annual republication of a large body of each author's work, printed alongside essays, photographs, and ephemera.  


Prufer is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston and the low-residency MFA at Lesley University.

Among Prufer's awards and honors are many Pushcart prizes and Best American Poetry selections, numerous awards from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation.  His poetry collection How He Loved Them was long-listed for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and received the Julie Suk Award for the best poetry book of 2018 from the American literary press.

Born in 1969 in Cleveland, Ohio, Kevin Prufer studied at Wesleyan University (BA), Hollins College (MA) and Washington University (MFA).

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book came out when I was still in my mid-20s.  It was accepted for publication before I defended it as an MFA thesis. I was certainly not ready to have a book out and it did not do well in the world.  It got one entirely negative (even nasty) review in a major literary quarterly, and then it vanished. Still, I had a book out from a reputable publisher, so I felt pretty good about it at the time.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I always liked poetry.  I had to memorize it at my toney boarding school and I came to love the cadences of Eliot and Frost and Dickinson, even though I didn’t necessarily understand the poems all that completely.  In college, at Wesleyan University, I took no poetry classes, but I wrote poems and edited the undergraduate literary magazine.  One day, I sent a single poem out to a magazine I’d found on the shelf of a local bookstore and—in retrospect, amazingly—they took it.  Somewhere in the middle of all that, I became committed to poetry in a lifelong sort of way.

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 pretty fast.  I get an idea and run with it as far as I can.  More often than not, though, I end up dropping it and going with something else, running with that, instead, and usually dropping it.  But for individual pieces that do make it into books: the first drafting process is fast.  Then I revise a lot.  I don’t take notes.  I do read a lot, though. 

4 - 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?

I’m usually not working on a book—not when I’m writing poems.  I just get to a point where a book seems inevitable.  It is not a fraught process for me.  I gather the poems into a manuscript.  I think about how they are in conversation with each other and I try to make that conversation interesting.  That is all.  The difficult part is always writing the poems. My novel, Sleepaway, however, was always going to be a book.

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

I am ambivalent about readings.  I do a lot of them and I’ve had a lot of practice.  Because of this, I know how to read poems out loud.  (It takes practice, truly. And sometimes coaching from more experienced friends.) But I often leave readings exhausted and nervous and wanting, more than anything, a drink or three.  Alone.  But that’s just my own nonsense.   I think a poetry reading is a good way to encounter poems which are (or ought to be) experiences of both music and language.   These days, I’m reading from my novel.  I’m still learning how to do that, though.  It requires a slightly different set of skills.

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’m not sure what the current questions are and, if I were sure, I would probably try to avoid them.  I am interested in the way time passes and in the ways writers control the passage of time.  I’m also interested in history, the way history lives inside our senses of who we are and inside our language.  And I’m interested in the inevitability of decline—social, historical, personal, mortal—and how that inevitability shapes our art and selves.  I guess these are eternal questions.

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 used to admire the Victorian idea of a writer as someone who thinks carefully about ethics and values and communicates those careful thoughts to readers who need to hear them.  Now I think that the role of writers is to participate in a larger, multidimensional conversation of literature and art.  All of us, writers, artists, or not, get to listen in on that conversation, which is vast, polyvalent, and multiply simultaneous, and, in doing so, learn about who we have been, who we are, and who we might become.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Depends very much on the editor.  I’ve had many, most of them quite good.  My current editors, at Copper Canyon Press and Acre Books, are extraordinarily good.  And when I get good editorial advice about my writing, it is never difficult to take it.  It usually feels, instead, essential and inspiring.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

For writers?  It is this:  “If you are chicken-shit all by yourself in front of your own computer while you are writing a poem or a story or an essay … then when aren’t you chicken-shit?”  I know that’s more of a question than a piece of advice, but it was given to me by a writer I admire when I was rewriting the same kind of poem over and over again.  I needed to be a little bit braver and try things I was uncomfortable with – there, in front of my computer, alone, with a glass of wine, at night.

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

It has been easy.  I love both genres and am curious about the tools available to me in each.  They are different, certainly.  The tool of the poetic line is formidable and many-bladed and it is hard, sometimes, to work without it.  But I’ve found that the paragraph has its own excitement and velocity.

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 write late at night only. With a glass of wine and music.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I read books.  Lots of them.  I am always reading a book or two.  But, unlike most my friends who aren’t writers, I read like a writer.  That is, I ask, “why did the author choose to do it this way? Why not that way?  What’s governing the odd choice of tense here?  Or the shift in point of view?”   Those kinds of questions are important to me because they give me ideas for my own writing (and help me understand other writers’ choices).  I can see how they might interfere with my enjoyment of some books, though.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

4711.  A cologne from Cologne.

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?

Mostly books, yes.  I always have music playing while I write, so in a vague way, music.  And, of course, my own experience as a living person.  That’s probably the biggest thing.  Still, I can’t overestimate the writing of other people as formative.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

In prose, Emily St. John Mandell’s Station Eleven.  And all of Willa Cather.  And everything by Henry James.  Flannery O’Connor.  And Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.  In poetry, Keats.  Eliot.  Delmore Schwartz.  Catullus.  Russell Atkins.  Laura Jensen.   I could go on and on. Truly, I am a useless machine that reads.  Those are a few, off the top of my head.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like to finish the novel I am writing now.  And I would love to go to Sicily, to visit the Classical and pre-Classical sites there, sites I’ve read all about for years.  I would also like to be able to go back in time.  I’d travel way back to the 4th or 3rd centuries in Western Europe—maybe Ravenna or Trier—and try to understand what it was like to be alive then. 

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 the news for a while, for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.  But I didn’t like it much.  I was going to teach high school and then I was going to get a PhD in comparative literatures (German, French, English).  I’m glad I didn’t do any of those.  I’m very happy being a writer and also working with talented younger writers as they learn who they are and how to write through that.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It was inevitable.  I’ve always written.   There wasn’t something else.  I remember showing my third grade teacher my story about a penguin.  “I didn’t copy this,” I told her. “I wrote it myself.”  I didn’t say this because I was insecure.  I said it because I knew my story was so great that she would think a professional, famous writer had written it if I didn’t inform her otherwise.  Probably a writer who had won many major prizes.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Black Earth by Timothy Snyder was the last truly great book I’ve read.  It terrified me.  Strangely, the last great film I’ve seen was on the same subject. Zone of Interest.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m editing a book of poems by authors you’ve never heard of (but should have heard of) for Wesleyan University Press.  I imagine it will be an alternate (or antidote) to the familiar Norton anthologies.  I’m doing this with a couple friends, Martin Rock and Adrienne Perry, both excellent editors and writers.  And I’m writing another novel.  And I’ve got a new book of poems mostly done, too.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;


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