Let’s begin with your (poetic) origin story.
Start with family. I am fortunate enough to come from a family of readers, writers, storytellers. One of those families with bookshelves in every room. My parents read and read to my brother and me, read us more books than I can remember: the ones that stand out in my memory are Treasure Island, Where the Red Fern Grows, To Kill a Mockingbird. Besides Mother Goose, the only poetry book I specifically remember being around was my father’s collected poems of Theodore Roethke. One year we went to a Halloween party where everyone was to recite a poem for the occasion; I memorized Roethke’s “The Bat.”
Place. We moved from Michigan to Alabama the year I was turning four. I grew up in a tiny ramshackle house three miles outside a small town twenty miles outside Birmingham, Alabama. The rhythms and music and weather of the South remain inside me. But I was always acutely aware that I’d moved there from somewhere else. I’ve spent my life feeling like an outsider, like everyone else has a connection that I don’t. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to think that everyone feels this way, that this is just life. I’m guessing my poems are my attempt to come to terms with this sense of disconnection. But that’s just a guess.
Writing. I thought I was going to be a novelist. I still might be someday. I was an English major. I started grad school in fiction writing. I quit and worked in newspapers for more than a decade. I lived in Florida and Kentucky, then serendipitously Michigan again. I did an MFA in poetry, commuting to Kalamazoo for classes, coursework and thesis spread over several years while also working for the sports desk of the newspaper in Grand Rapids. Again, just guessing, but I think my poems are restless. Unsettled. Acutely aware of their own temporariness. Not just my poems; all poems. All art? What else is important enough to create art about?
Now. I teach, I write, I read. At my job, at home, I am surrounded by people who value words. I am reading Ender’s Game to my kids, wondering if this will be the book they remember.
Titles of chapbooks and titles of poems can be so tricky to get right, but offer such an opportunity for the poet. I love the poem titles in your forthcoming chapbook The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press). Reading the table of contents made me laugh with delight. Perhaps pointing to some writers and their work with titles that work, can you talk about your titling process?
This whole chapbook came about because of the title “The Sword Swallower Wonders What’s the Point.” The title led to that poem, and I had so much fun that I wrote “The Tight Rope Walker Gets High” immediately afterward, and the project quickly took on a life of its own. I feel sheepish admitting that sometimes the title comes first, like I’m cheating somehow. Am I the only one who feels this way? Yes, sometimes I write the poem first and then flail about looking for a title until I settle on (or settle for) something. But sometimes, as in this project, the titles come first and lend shape to their poems from the very beginning. The title is the idea, the unifying force, the narrative – then within the poem, I’m free to play with language, to fight against the title or work with it, to complement and contrast, to confound or fulfill the expectations established in the title. In this case, I was going for punny titles, while the poems themselves are darker, more somber. At the risk of over-explicating my own work, I was hoping this contrast would say something about the circus life itself: glitz and show on the surface while the hours outside the spotlight are much more difficult.
I am drawn to long titles both as a reader and as a writer. I suspect this stems from my previous life and all those thousands of headlines I wrote as a newspaper copy editor. There’s an art to headline writing. You have a finite space, three or five or nine words, whatever the page designer’s assigned, and you have to capture the essence of an entire story, the most newsworthy heart of the piece – and you also have to be clever or creative enough to grab the readers’ attention. This is something I miss about real newspapers that is not replicated online, where the headlines even in allegedly respectable media outlets are more likely to be “25 Things You Will NOT BELIEVE About Fuzzy Kittens.”
Poets whose titles I greatly admire include Catie Rosemurgy (for example, “Miss Peach Returns to High School to Retake Driver’s Ed”); Karynna McGlynn, whose debut collection was called, brilliantly, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl; Collier Nogues (example, “In My Father’s Father’s Airstream Trailer”); and Timothy Donnelly, whose Cloud Corporation is full of gems like “The Malady That Took the Place of Thinking” and “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris.”
I adore your poems. There’s a loneliness so exquisitely drawn in this chap. The couples in many of the poems add to the pace, the space, the way those of us who are outsiders—like the circus freak—feel. Why this chapbook right now in your life?
Thank for your kind words. It pleases me to no end that you like the poems. This pleasure fits my answer here, because human connection is a fundamental purpose of art. We seek to understand ourselves and each other by reading, by viewing, by listening, by creating. I write because I want to discover something about myself and the world around me; I write because I hope someone will read my words and recognize something about themselves. This chapbook is about masks, makeup, costumes, performance. The circus. The show we are all putting on for each other every day. We are all lonely.
I’m being melodramatic. I am not actually a lonely person. I have a happy marriage and two active, eager, wonderful kids. I have dear friends and supportive, inspiring colleagues. My life is great, which I say in all sincerity. Maybe, then, that’s why this chapbook right now – because my life is in a good place, I feel safe to explore what the comedian Louis CK calls the “forever empty” we all have inside us but don’t like to acknowledge.
What is inspiring you these days? I am reading so much good poetry these days it kills me. Kills, inspires, whatever. I am freshly in love with Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable and Lucy Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion. I am in an online writing group, and the poets in the group flabbergast/inspire me every month with their prompts and poems. This semester, I am teaching collections by Bob Hicok and Traci Brimhall, a prospect both daunting and inspiring.
How are you trying to get better as a poet? Read every day. Write more days than not. Listen to the world around me.
Your chapbook credo: Now I wish I had one of these. I’ll work on that.
Number of chapbooks you own: Around 20.
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 40? Just a guess.
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I buy and read their books. Sometimes I review them on Goodreads or write about them on my website. I recently provided a blurb for an excellent chapbook called His Late Wives. I could always do more.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I have spent so much on book-contest entry fees that my poetry balance sheet will never be in the black. I am fortunate to have a job that means I can afford to write poetry without worrying about earnings.
Your chapbook wish: That lots of people read my chapbook when it comes out. If some of them like it, that would be nice, but mostly I just want them to read it.
Residence: East Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Job: I teach writing to college students at Grand Valley State University.
Chapbook education: I am self-educated when it comes to chapbooks, I’d say. There was a time not that long ago when I didn’t know what a chapbook was, beyond “a book shorter than a regular book.” A conversation with my friend Brian Clements, author of four chapbooks including not meant for you Dear Love (Mudlark, 2012) < http://mudlark.webdelsol.com/mudlark49/contents_clements.html>, led me to think of a chapbook as necessarily more unified than a full-length book of poems, cohering around a central idea or question, and by virtue of its brevity, expressing or exploring that idea quickly. Ooh, this is starting to sound like it could turn into a credo.
The non-chapbook portion of my education includes an undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College and an MFA from Western Michigan.
Chapbook Bio: My chapbook The Insomniac Circus is from Hyacinth Girl. I am presently working with my friend W. Todd Kaneko on a chapbook inspired by Slash, the guitarist. The rest of my bio is pretty non-chapbooky: born in Michigan, grew up in Alabama, ended up back in Michigan as an adult; wrote some things, planning to write more things.