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.