Monday, June 22, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 10 w/ Chuck Rybak)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Chuck Rybak.

BT: When poet Stephen Frech suggested I interview you next, he told me that you are one of the readers for his publishing company Oneiros Press (which publishes poetry broadsides). When you read poetry, do you find yourself thinking now: “This would make a good poetry broadside?”

CHUCK: Absolutely. I found this happening as soon as I got my hands on the first completed Oneiros broadside, which was Albert Goldbarth’s poem "In the X-Ray of the Sarcophagus of Ta-Pero." This broadside is still one of my favorites. Visually, there is a profile view of a head, reminiscent of one of those cool phrenology models, with smaller heads floating inside of it. To the right of the main image is the poem, which includes the lines “I’ve felt the weight of another head / inside of my head, leaning its skull / against my skull as if to rest.” I’ve literally stared at this broadside for hours, and I sensed right away that Shawn Sheehy, the graphic designer for Oneiros, could do absolutely anything. I knew, of course, that the poems were good, but I had no idea that the broadsides would be that stunningly beautiful, that they would add so much to the text. What started as Stephen Frech’s project to publish a few poems on letterpress suddenly became this artistic enterprise without limitation. To your question, I soon found myself reading poems and analyzing how well they would translate into an Oneiros broadside. Some poems were great by themselves, but I had no visual narrative or context that added to, rather than merely represented, what was on the page. Other poems just cry out to be broadsides. Dan Albergotti, who you interviewed previously, is a perfect example. He submitted his poem “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” twice to Oneiros’ contest. Both times I read it and thought, “this would make an amazing broadside.” Luckily, Dan won the contest the second time through. For the record, I was right— it is an amazing broadside (and a fantastic poem).

BT: I love your poem “Tongue and Groove.” I’m always interested in knowing did the title come first or the poem?

CHUCK: In this instance, the poem came first. There have been times that a title has stuck with me right from the start – I have a poem called “Purple Heart” which fits that bill – but this time I had the poem entirely finished before settling on “Tongue and Groove.” To be honest, I was guilty of not heeding the lessons of Richard Hugo’s “The Triggering Town,” specifically his basic call for swearing off the truth. I was writing about a real floor that, technically, is not a tongue-and-groove floor. I’m embarrassed to write that. I was also foolishly searching for titles that I felt would be more reverent and profound, and since I was writing about reclaimed barn wood, I kept running through the images and sounds of a barn, the animals and people who would have lived with that wood— for the sake of exercise, let’s make up an alternate, terrible title right now: “The Stalls of Memories that were Never Mine.” That’s the kind of junk I was struggling with. When the floor finally dried after being stained, I even pressed my face to the wood, trying to see if there was some feeling I would get from it, some texture. Utter failure. I had the word “plank” in my head as well, which feels like it never would have worked. Finally, “Tongue and Groove” just felt right thematically, as well as having interesting connections to music, the human body, and so on. At first, I told myself that the title was a place holder, just in case I found something better. Instead, it became the title of my book.

BT: Did you read a poem today? If so which one? If not, what was the last poem you read?

CHUCK: I’ve been reading a lot of poems lately, and I have literary journals, chapbooks, and new books of poetry strewn all over my study at home. William Stafford’s poem “You Reading This, Be Ready” is stuck on my refrigerator, and I find myself reading lines from it quite a bit as I go back and forth from the kitchen. That being said, yesterday I sat down and read some poems by Craig Arnold. Unfortunately, I had never heard of Craig or encountered his work until his recent disappearance and death. I was moved by the public response to Craig’s disappearance, and I immediately started searching online to see if I could find some of his poems. I read “The Bird-Understander” and loved it, and then read it to my wife during dinner and the emotional impact was even stronger. His first book, Shells, finally came in the mail and yesterday I read the poem “Why I skip my high school reunions.” It’s pretty incredible. The title immediately caught my eye because I have skipped both reunions that my class has had so far. There’s this magical moment in the poem when the speaker, thinking back to high school, recalls being backstage with a girl on the opening night of a play and “she conjured out of the vast yards of her dress / an avocado and a razorblade, / slit the one open with the other, flayed / the pebbled skin, and offered me a slice.” Nothing this interesting ever happened to me in high school. To be honest, I don’t think I knew what an avocado was until I was thirty.

BT: Sometimes poems are bigger than the page. What poem or line from a poem would you consider having tattooed on your body?

CHUCK: Wow. This is a tough one. I’ll start by saying that I don’t have any tattoos, so this would be a big leap for me. The main reason I don’t have a tattoo is the standard line, “I can’t think of anything I’d want on my body forever” (other than my appendages). I was also turned off to tattoos early in my life when a friend of mine said he wanted Yosemite Sam tattooed on the back of each calf— that’s a lot to recover from. But, if I were there in the chair… I’d be tempted to take some lines from Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” maybe the rather unremarkable lines “And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” I’ve simply been maddened by the persistent misreading of this poem, yet each instance further cements for me what a mad genius Frost is. But, if it came time to actually pay for the work, I would take the last line from Robert Bly’s poem “Snowfall in the Afternoon” which reads “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” First, I love Silence in the Snowy Fields, the book this poem appears in. There’s always been something about this line that holds me, simply on a personal level and my relationship with poetry. This book, and specifically this poem, helped me to see poetry in an entirely different way than I had previously. This poem feels playful and profoundly imaginative— who looks at a desolate field, blowing snow, a barn, and then converts that material into a giant, ice-encrusted ship sailing through the corn? Robert Bly does, I guess. I didn’t have a definition for “deep image” as a movement or style when I read this poem, but I certainly felt it. When I did finally learn about the “Deep Image School” I felt this poem had already made me an expert. That line is everything I hope for in my own writing: a chance to refashion the seemingly mundane as magical. Oh, and where on my body would I get this tattoo? Full extension across the shoulders sounds good.

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?

CHUCK: Juliana Gray immediately comes to mind. She’s easily one of the best poets writing today. I’m not sure if Juliana has any tattoos, but she sure could give a great answer if asked about them. Juliana is an incredible writer and I carry a deep admiration for her work. Her book The Man Under My Skin is out of this world, or to quote one of my favorite movies, “It will really blow your hair back.” Reading the title poem alone will be enough to keep you in your seat and read the entire book. There’s also a great poem about a museum of military history that concludes with this beautiful, yet truly frightening image of Adolph Hitler’s tea set. I can remember reading that poem and not being able to shake that image for days.

Juliana and I went to grad school together, but never got to hang out as much as I would have liked. But, in the time I did spend with Juliana, there was always that sense of being in the presence of a genuine artist. When her book came out I bought it right away – I hadn’t actually seen much of her work at that point – and I felt I was reading everything I knew to be true. If you’ve ever read a poem and said “I wish I had written that,” then you’ll know how I felt when I read Juliana’s book— I said “I wish I has written that” fifty-two times over.

Chuck Rybak is the author of Tongue and Groove (Main Street Rag, 2007). He is also the author of two chapbooks, Nickel and Diming My Way Through and Liketown, and his poems have appeared in War, Literature & the Arts; The Ledge; Pebble Lake Review; and Southern Poetry Review. He lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he spends no time thinking about Brett Favre and works as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin— Fox Valley.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 9 w/ poet Stephen Frech)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Stephen Frech.

BT: It’s 9 p.m., are you…
a.) just putting the finishing touches on a poem?
b.) just beginning a poem?
c.) reading a poem?
d.) not even thinking about poetry?

STEPHEN: I rarely work on poems in the evening any more. For one, I become so lost and animated by working on poems, by reading others’ poems I love, that were I regularly to touch up, begin, or read poetry at 9 p.m., I wouldn’t be able to sleep and I’d probably render myself unemployable for any daytime job.

Second, like a lot of people, I used to write at night, when the house was dark, when my imagination seemed liberated. The places my mind could wander felt magical and everything I wrote sounded like previously untapped, raw wellings of great material. I woke every morning and found that what I’d written was, instead, tired, boring mumblings, sometimes illegible scribbles as I had nodded off to sleep. I met writers in St. Louis, in graduate school, who maintained a more work-a-day schedule, rising early and writing undisturbed for hours. The transition for me, from working poorly at night to working productively in the morning was long and uncomfortable. I conditioned myself to wake at 5 a.m., then let myself sleep until 7 when I could work with attention.

So, I write in the mornings when my mind is fresh and alert and still feels attuned to the world the way I’d hoped it was when I worked at night, when I was simply over-tired and my head was spinning.

I’m often reading at 9 p.m., though, some fiction, mostly non-fiction. For a few years, for example, I consumed every book on arctic and Antarctic exploration I could find, accounts that gave voice to an inwardness, an interior life brought on by severe physical hardship. I can see that interest in interiority echoed in other ways in my own poems, so while I rarely work on poems at night, I am doing the kind of reading that fills me up with images and language that enter my poetry.

BT: When poet Rhett Iseman Trull suggested I interview you next, she said: “I’ll bet he’s got a poem up on his bedroom wall." Well, do you have a poem taped to your bedroom wall? If so, which one? If not, which poem would you consider taping to your bedroom wall?

STEPHEN: Rhett is right to bet I have poems up in the house. Virtually every room has poems on the walls, though strangely enough, my bedroom remains one of the few without a poem. My wife and I moved, so perhaps we simply haven’t settled on one yet.

I love poetry broadsides, I have for a long time, so I’ve acquired quite a few. Among the favorites currently on my walls is “Waiting by the Sea” by William Stafford. A friend found it in San Francisco years ago and bought it for me, knowing the broadside and I would be good for each other. Another favorite, a broadside I bought at Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul before they transformed into Ruminator Books before they succumbed to the book market and closed for good, is “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty” by Jane Mead.

I love the poem not because it champions courage and curiosity, but because the speaker recognizes a wish for her own courage in identifying with one of the livestock one sees so frequently on the highways here in the Midwest. One chicken, craning to see outside the cage, has its neck bent in the draft of the truck, or simply the force of traveling through the world, as it’s carted off (as we know) to slaughter.

BT: You run Oneiros Press which publishes poetry broadsides; can you tell me what makes a poem broadside-worthy?

STEPHEN: Your sense of “worthiness” reminds me of another bit of writing I have taped up, not a poem, but good advice for writers:

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

I suspect Annie Dillard’s idea of a poem’s worthiness is one that acknowledges the struggle and the urgency of living.

Broadsides have always interested me, in part, because of their communal act of reading. Books, magazines, newspapers, though they can be read by many and discussed, don’t lend themselves to a shared, simultaneous reading. Broadsides, printed large and posted publicly, ask for that shared, communal consumption.

Because they’re posted as opposed to cradled in the reader’s lap, poems that succeed best on broadsides are those that make themselves available to readers on a first reading and invite and reward further readings. While you could say that all good writing rewards multiple readings, not all good writing gives itself so readily to the reader. Think of writers for whom the challenge is part of the reward: Dostoevsky and Hart Crane come to mind. They’re great writers, though hard to represent on broadsides.

BT: I consider myself a logophile (which is a lover of words). Is there a word you're terribly fond of at the moment?

STEPHEN: I was recently generating material for what I hope will become a poem and wrote the word “emberous” by which I’d meant ember-like, smoldering, fire-potential. In looking it up to see if such a word exists, I found the word “emblements” meaning crops legally belonging to the tenant. I love the short ee sounds, the two em’s. Purely associatively, it brought to mind the word “tribute” and its many uses and valences.

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?

: I immediately thought of Chuck Rybak for a number of reasons I trust will be evident in an interview with him. He’s a marvelous poet who enjoyed a stretch of publishing in a short period of time: two chapbooks and a full-length volume of poems. I’d enjoyed a number of poems in draft and early manifestations in journals. When the full-length book came out, I was surprised and delighted to see how much of it was new work I hadn’t seen, poems full of the quiet sureness that had been building in those others. The book felt a revelation, which I think is part of their charm for all readers: felt and surprising meditations on common, lived experience.

Chuck comes to mind, too, because he is one of the readers for Oneiros Press, and the one in fact who prompted me to start the press instead of fantasizing about it. Would I quit talking about a broadside press, he challenged one night over beers, and simply start one? So I did. We need friends sometimes to hear enough of our wishing to know, often before we do, that we have the energy to make it happen.

Stephen Frech has earned degrees from Northwestern University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Cincinnati. He has published three volumes of poetry: Toward Evening and the Day Far Spent (1996), If Not For These Wrinkles of Darkness (2001), and The Dark Villages of Childhood (2009). He is founder and editor of Oneiros Press, publisher of award-winning letterpress poetry broadsides.