Thursday, May 28, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 8 w/ Rhett Iseman Trull)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Rhett Iseman Trull.

BT: I love beginnings; one of my favorite poem-beginnings is: "The rusty zipper, the Pawcatuck river/fastens Rhode Island to Connecticut down/to the sea" from Leslie McGrath's poem "Renewal." Is there a poem beginning that you absolutely love?

RHETT: That’s a beautiful beginning, and such a perfect opening to that particular poem in which the journey along this river is the background to a couple’s journey through the years. It’s a powerful love poem. I love beginnings like that, beginnings that feel like a lift-off, that sweep me up with the feeling that I’m about to go somewhere. And some of the best beginnings, in my opinion, are those that take on more layers of meaning once you’ve read the whole poem, as McGrath’s does in your example.

One of my favorite beginnings is in “Mood Indigo,” by William Matthews, which opens this way: “From the porch; from the hayrick where her prickled/brothers hid and chortled and slurped into their young pink/lungs the ash-blond dusty air that lay above the bales/like low clouds; and from the squeak and suck/of the well-pump and from the glove of rust it implied/on her hand…” I could keep quoting, but I’ll stop there on that amazing image of the “glove of rust.” This is one of my favorite poems and I’m amazed at how, in those first few lines, Matthews creates this energy, starts something rolling that will build and build (he keeps up that anaphora for the first 15 lines) and saturate the poem and the reader just as this “mood indigo” has built up, moment by moment, for years, inside the young girl in this poem.

BT: What would you want your readers to say about you as a poet? For example, I'd want my readers to say, "That girl can write her butt off..."

RHETT: Well, just the idea that I might, one day, have people out there that I might think of as “my readers” is nice. I think I’d like them to say, “That poem really moved me.” That’s the most any of us could hope for, sending poems out into the world: that they reach someone and move someone, communicate somehow the feeling that inspired the poem in the first place.

BT: What made you want to start writing poetry?

RHETT: I think my short answer to that would be “my need for song.” The longer answer is that I started writing novels and stories at age 5, but poetry came later. I was around 12 or 13, difficult years for many reasons, and I was visiting a friend. She was older than me—in high school already—and had a beautiful voice. We were in a musical together that summer. She had one of the main singing roles, while I was ever-delegated to the chorus where my off-key singing might blend in and be lost among the stronger voices. But I loved it, loved being a part of the show and disappearing into my character (I always thought up elaborate back stories for my character, even in the chorus) and channeling the intensity of my feelings into songs.

Anyway, I was at her house and I think she sensed that I was struggling with some great unnamed depression that I’d been trying to keep all locked up inside; she showed me a notebook filled with poems she’d written, sort of in lieu of a journal. She let me read a few of them and I was struck. I still remember some of the lines. It wasn’t that they were brilliant poems or anything…it was just that I’d never thought of trying to take my pain and confusion and put it into a kind of music, give it a voice, as she had done. I went home and started my own notebook the next day. Those early poems were more than a kind of therapeutic venting, though they did serve that purpose. But I think my urge to write poetry was more of a need to search, a need to find the right words for emotions that had been too complicated for me to begin to express before. And whether we’re talking about depression or love or anger or hope, etc., I think that’s probably, to this day, what inspires me to try to write a poem. For me, it always starts with some great feeling and a reach to—not necessarily name or define it—but to give it some sort of shape and voice. And music. To give it music. To give into music. I think the same thing that drove me toward musicals in my teenage years drove me—drives me—to write poetry.

BT: In the First paragraph of a New York Times article by Sara London (November 7, 2008), London writes, "When I was 8 or 9 I copied a poem from a library book in loopy cursive and taped it to the wall over my bed." I tell you this, to ask you, today, if you haven't got one taped to your bedroom wall already, what poem would you copy from a book and tape to the wall over your bed?

RHETT: This question makes me happy. I like the thought of poems hanging up in people’s houses, and it’s interesting to think about which poem should hang in which room. I’ve got lots of poems taped to the closet door in my office, for instance, and we have a few broadsides up in our family room. But in the bedroom, right now, we have only one poem up. It’s called “Two Charms for Charm” by Fred Chappell. I was lucky to have Fred as one of my teachers in UNCG’s MFA program about 8 years ago, and at the time he was writing a book of cat poems. Half-jokingly, I asked if he would write a poem about my cat Charm. Well, he did it! He had me bring him a picture of her and write down some facts about her (i.e. “Charm Kitty’s favorite food is ham. She cries when I sneeze. She prefers her water in a mug. She was born in LA and traveled 3,000 miles in the car back to NC with me when she was just 4 months old.”). My mom copied Fred’s resulting poem in calligraphy and framed it for me. It’s one of my favorite poems and it’s a great one for the bedroom because it’s a kind of prayer, not just for Charm, but for all beings in our house. Part one pleads, “Frightful spirit, fly away” and part two asks, “Guardian genius, linger close.”

I’m inspired by your question to add another poem to the bedroom wall—right over the bed, sure. On Valentine’s Day this year, walking through the bookfair at AWP in Chicago, I stumbled upon what has to be one of the greatest love poems ever written: “Charismatic Ambulance Driver” by Mark Leidner. It was a broadside taped to a table with beautiful handmade poetry items. I sat down on the floor and read it over and over. I forgot where I was. I was struck by the beauty and the power of this poem. I bought it immediately for my husband, Jeff, who loves poetry as much as I do. As soon as I get a good frame for it, it’s going over the bed.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

RHETT: After that last question about taping a poem to the wall, I think you’ve got to talk to Stephen Frech. He’s a wonderful poet, whose new chapbook, The Dark Villages of Childhood is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. But he also runs Oneiros press, which publishes gorgeous poetry broadsides. I’ll bet he’s got a poem up on his bedroom wall.

Rhett Iseman Trull won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry for her first book, The Real Warnings (Anhinga Press, fall 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2008, Iron Horse Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and other publications. Her awards include prizes from the Academy of American Poets and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her MFA from UNC Greensboro, where she was a Randall Jarrell Fellow. She and her husband publish Cave Wall in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 7 w/ Dan Albergotti)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Dan Albergotti

BT: When poet Doug Van Gundy suggested I interview you next, he told me that you love poetry as much or more than anyone he knows and that you are a huge fan of poet Jack Gilbert. Well in a Jack Gilbert interview I read, he, Jack Gilbert, said, "I like thinking of poetry as a love affair. A great deal of my poetry has never been printed . . . I don’t write poetry to be celebrated . . . I write poetry whether I publish it or not, because I’m in love." Would you say your love for poetry is similar?

DAN: You’ve got to love poetry for its own sake—you’ve got to love the act of writing it and find sustainable reward in that alone. In an essay that appeared in The Cincinnati Review in 2005, Alan Shapiro cited a letter by Elizabeth Bishop in which she claimed that what we want from art is the same thing necessary for its production, a "self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration." Shapiro claims that this is the essential urge toward writing. The writer yearns to achieve an almost supernatural state of intense concentration in which the self (with all its worries, fears, mundane concerns) is "forgotten," shed away. I think Shapiro’s right about that, and I do have a sort of "love affair" with that moment in the midst of creating the poem. Like Gilbert, I don’t write poetry in an attempt to be celebrated, and I would continue to write it if I were never again published.

At the same time, I don’t believe writing poetry is, or should be, a purely self-interested, solipsistic endeavor. The urge toward utterance, toward the recording of one’s words in writing, is the urge to be heard, to be read by others (and not just for the sake of applause). To write a poem is to make an empathetic gesture to the rest of the world, an attempt to connect at a deeper level than our daily interactions and superficial conversations will allow. So I guess to have a love affair with poetry is also to have a love affair with humanity. Or at least to try to.

BT: As an undergraduate, I didn’t care too much for the poet Sylvia Plath; now, I can’t get enough of her work. Is there a poet that you didn’t like too much before, but enjoy now?

DAN: There are many poets whose work I’ve come to appreciate more deeply as the years have passed. One that immediately comes to mind is Thomas Hardy. As an undergrad, I thought he was a genius novelist and a mediocre poet. Now I feel almost the opposite is true. Such changes of opinion aren’t uncommon, of course. The most striking in my case is probably the way my perception of John Keats has changed. When I was an undergrad studying the Romantics, I probably would have ranked him as my least favorite of the "canonical guys," coming in sixth after Byron, Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Today, I consider him not only the most important of the Romantics, but the second-greatest poet in the history of the language.

BT: Is there a poem you’ve written that even you can’t believe you wrote?

DAN: I love the ambiguity of your question. The word "even" suggests you mean a poem I’m impressed with, but my mind immediately goes to the many, many ones that I can’t believe I wrote because they now seem so unforgivably terrible! That’s a good sign, though. In the same essay that I cite above, Alan Shapiro says that despising our early work is "the price we pay for getting better."

In a more straightforward response to your question, I will say that I did have a strange experience about ten years ago when I drafted a poem called "Methuselah Dead." At that time, I had already published over twenty poems in literary journals, but still had an uneasy feeling about myself as a writer. I wasn’t completely happy with anything I’d written, and I felt like I hadn’t earned the right even to call myself a poet. When I finished "Methuselah Dead," I almost instantly felt as if something had changed. I thought to myself that I would never be embarrassed for having written that poem. And for ten years, that’s been true. So I guess you could say that’s a poem that, at least at one time, I couldn’t believe I had written.

BT: Novels get turned into movies; some short stories do, too. Is there a poem out there that you could see as a movie or inspiration for a movie?

DAN: First, I think all long narrative poems—like The Iliad, Beowulf, The Ring and the Book, etc.—should be out of bounds in a response to that question because those are really novels in the mode of poetry. Having taken those off the table, I’d have to say no. I guess I could imagine an experimental film being made from Eliot’s The Waste Land, but I can also imagine 99 directors out of 100 making something abysmally bad out of it.

Please note that I’m interpreting your question as an inquiry about feature-length film. There are some interesting things happening these days with poems being presented in/as short films, and I think that’s got a lot of potential.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

DAN: I’d recommend that you get in touch with Rhett Iseman Trull, a terrific poet and editor of the poetry journal Cave Wall. Her first collection of poems is coming out soon from Anhinga Press. She’s someone who loves poetry as much as I do, and I know you and your readers would be interested in her answers.

Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008). His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, Albergotti currently teaches creative writing and literature courses and edits the online journal Waccamaw ( at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.

Read Dan Albergotti's poem "Sunday Morning Argument" here: