Nick Admussen on what makes us sit down and write poems

You are the author of the three chapbooks Movie Plots (Epiphany Editions), The Experiment in Morbidity (Grey Book Press), Watching Lumia (Winged City Press), and a fourth chapbook forthcoming from Two of Cups Press, Neither Nearing Nor Departing / 不即不离. Talk about your writing process of poems and the writing process of a chapbook. Do your poems tend to gravitate towards one another and then coalesce into a series? Does your work build as an obsession on a theme or idea that is then distilled into the chapbook form? Or something else? In your answer, discuss chapbook work you admire and how that informs your own writing process.

I think everything that I end up making as a chapbook starts as a poem that feels good to write, one that I want to write again. In the case of Movie Plots, it was a poem about a hemophiliac action hero that wasn’t so good and didn’t end up in the final book—but showed me the method that I used to write the rest. With Watching Lumia, I jotted down some things I liked in front of a piece of art at the LA County Museum of Art, and realized I wanted to do a lot more of that, and ended up coming back to sit in front of the same art piece once a week for a few months. In Neither Nearing I was trying to say something autobiographical by triangulating my father’s history, what my family was like growing up, and my study of classical Chinese. I never end up writing anything “again,” probably, but from the time the first poem in a given style gets written, it feels a little bit like a race to write as much as I can before the flush of ardor fades. Including the poems I’ll eventually throw out, to make a chapbook I need to write fifty or seventy pieces before I lose interest in the method, or stretch it out of shape. I think a full-length collection would take a hundred or more poems — I’ve never found a method like that. For a long time, I was trying to make full-length collections in two or three parts, but at the end of the day they turned into amalgamations of chapbooks. Both Experiment and Neither Nearing are parts of collections that never came together. I just finished another chap that started in the same corpse that grew Neither Nearing.

The chapbooks I like best recently, though, aren’t like this at all. I’m thinking of Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic and Chen Chen’s Kissing the Sphinx. Both feel like mini-collections in that they build the poet’s voice from loosely related pieces, and are followed quickly by full collections (Calling a Wolf a Wolf and When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, respectively) that include some of the same poems. Both those poets have strong voices, though. I don’t think I have that single voice, or perhaps if I do, it’s a voice I don’t like, one I want to take apart. One of the full length collections I’m submitting right now is called Surfactants — substances that can wash or dissolve. I think the voice I inherited from the community I grew up in was authoritative but not trustworthy. So I’m trying to build something new rather than reveal or express myself.

In your chapbook Movie Plots (2011), there’s a line in the poem “Asian Horror” that reads “you will never escape, difference has been your fantasy, every person is a cell, every person flinches from pain….” The poem “Murder Mystery” has a 98-word sentence that begins with “She realizes” and ends with “is all arbitrarily focused aggression.” Both of these poems suggest that a character comes to a realization that is more insight than acceptance, more naked than hopeful, more raw than comforting. Talk about tension in poetry. When you build your poems, what do you do to create a path for the reader to follow? How does emotional tension evolve across a given set of prose poems in a chapbook? 

I’ll say upfront that I am still struggling with the way to make an entire chapbook arc, to take you from one emotional experience at the beginning to another at the end. It’s a formal problem, but it’s also a problem of self-expression: these works, even very short ones, might take years to write, and many of the changes I experience over those periods are so concrete (I changed jobs, I moved in with someone, I sort of quit drinking) that the poetry has no interest in them. I’m changing and developing in one way and the chapbook has to change and develop in another direction, according to its own logic. I think the short space of the chapbook suits me because it partially liberates me from the expectation that I should be telling a human story rather than the story of a movement of art. I can hit a single note, or a combination of notes, and instead of having to craft an entire musical phrase I can just let the chord ring out for a moment. Movie Plots I think gets closer and closer to more basic strangenesses about the cinema as it gets closer to the end, but that definitely isn’t an emotional journey.

Individual poems are different. I think I’m capable of bringing some readers from one feeling to another inside the space of the single page. I looked back at the drafts to “Murder Mystery” and it looks like I composed the long sentence all at once, verbatim as it was eventually published — a little rant of fear about being loved for one’s horribleness in a patriarchy that enjoys horribleness. Then I stopped and reflected on it, and wrote the last two sentences, which turn a bit to blame the woman who’s encouraging this behavior (you can see me defending myself here — I wouldn’t be like this if everybody wasn’t complicit!). And that phrase “feathered reward” triggered me to go back and give her an identity and a situation and an experience, and the poem stopped being about me seeing myself through other peoples’ eyes, and started to legitimately be about someone else — this being the formal requirement of a movie, which is almost always shot in the third person, and which needs to see an experience before it can feel that experience. The end result, I think, is much more sympathetic with the woman and is less self-indulgently about poor old me. A big part of that transformation came from the requirement of the chapbook’s form, the need to make it seem like stage directions for a movie.

So I suppose the process for poems that have this tone is that I am myself often tense, and the low-level clench of that anxiety and paranoia shows me the world in a particular way. The form or method of the poem takes my tension (the long sentence, where I know what’s coming at the end and the pain of it is the almost infinite number of possible details that can be filled in) and translates it into something that will hopefully touch on unexamined or otherwise interesting tensions in readers’ lives — the way that discoveries can be disorienting and frightening, how they can come on all at once.

I’m not always tense, though, I swear. I’m fine. I’m gonna be ok.

In Signature’s essay “4 Things Every Thriller Writer Can Learn From Charlotte’s Web” notes that good writers create strong characters. “You care about the characters,” the author Brad Park writes. We’ve addressed issues of emotional tension, craft, the writing process, and inspiration, let’s move to character development in poetry. From your chapbook The Experiment in Morbidity (2013) that explores the process of death and dying, the poem “White Van Dreams” employs the passive voice that inspires empathy—I am stroking, I am touching, I’m feeling, I’m watching, I’m not taking notes. From your chapbook Watching Lumia (2013), a long ekphrastic poem, uses second point of view. From your forthcoming chapbook Neither Nearing Nor Departing (2017) that focuses on classical Chinese traditions and family, your poem “Character Sketch” also uses second person. Both of these poems use of point of view that pulls the reader into the poem as it creates intimacy. Talk about the creation of characters in poetry and the ways poetry invites readers to empathize and become emotionally invested in the world of the chapbook.

I fear I dilly-dally. That I’m not sure the characters are worth caring about. That the stakes are unclear and that there is nothing stacked against the protagonist, who floats in space subject only to invisible forces that he or she can’t discern. The second person in the way I habitually use it I think doesn’t create an intimacy between the reader and the subject of the poem, but proposes the reader as the subject of the poem — there’s hopefully not too much volition inside the poem that’s set against, or placed in relation to, the person reading. The actions of the speaker happen to the reader like our decisions in dreams, where we don’t choose to act as we do when we’re waking — the dream chooses what we do. That’s the feeling I’m trying to get across in “White Van Dreams,” for example — the gerund that’s already happening without us ever doing it.

The reason I write like this, maybe, is a conviction that what I do or feel isn’t the only or even a particularly good reaction to the world that is presented to all of us. I want to give my provocations to you so that you can figure out what you’d do, and in some ways so that I can figure out what you’d do. The other part of it, maybe, in the particular poems you point out, is some kind of quixotic response to limit and loss. Part of the problem of Watching Lumia is that you don’t get to see the art while you read the poem — it would make so much more sense if you could, but you don’t get to sit where I sat, because we’re far away from one another — and so I want to put you there. “Character Sketch” is the same thing, addressing a dead person with an impossible “you” because however else could you talk to them? So I dream the you of the poem into the place where I want some real you to sit. I try not to forget that you are almost never actually sitting there. Like I said, more futile than strong, and with desperately unclear stakes. And yet often when I open a book and it says something like “The poison gel dripped onto Michael’s hand, and he wished he was back with his father, fishing on the Genesee River,” I close the book. Timothy Donnelly’s first book starts “Let there be lamps of whatever variety / presents itself on the trash heaps…” I read that book all the way through. Maybe I’m trying to think through the mysteries of emotional investment in the first place, and its relation to fantasy and dream. The desire to make emotional contact and the worry that such contact is false is what makes me feel the most — lonely, hopeful, cynical, brave, quiet — and it makes me sit down and write poems.

What makes a good chapbook? I think a chapbook can be good if it has just one great poem — it’s only going to be fifteen or twenty poems all together, so the rest can set the mood, or teach us to read the book’s voice, or even just build a space. My favorite chapbooks are all gold and worth rereading slowly, but a lot of the ones I like have a sort of litheness, they get in, leave their mark, and get out.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Jeffrey Gustavson, the editor of my first chapbook, Movie Plots, has written some chaps himself — he totally transformed the way I thought about the physical design of individual poems, especially the vast array of decisions we have when designing prose. I also have come to really envy and respect the way that he specializes in his own voice, works it, perfects it.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I think the poets can fend for themselves. I’m more interested in supporting presses, because there’s really nothing more difficult, complex, and thankless than being a chapbook publisher. I buy what I can and when I’m lucky enough to work with a chapbook press, I try to always remember that it is owned and operated by volunteers and philanthropists.

What’s next for you? I’ve got a free verse chapbook about going through puberty on the Internet ready for submission, a nearly-completed project of prose poems, and a hybrid verse/prose work of science fiction that I’m still trying to write. Hopefully at least one of those will be worth $6 to someone somewhere.

Chapbook bio: Nick Admussen is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Neither Nearing Nor Departing from Two of Cups Press, which is now available for preorder. He is also the author of Watching Lumia from Winged City Press, The Experiment in Morbidity from Grey Book Press, and Movie Plots from Epiphany Editions. His poems have appeared in publications including the Boston Review, Fence, Blackbird, and at DIAGRAM. He lives in Ithaca, New York where he teaches Chinese literature at Cornell University.

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