I spent the early part of today getting all of my documents transferred onto my new computer. I found this--a "self interview" which appears, in a slightly different form, on the University of Arkansas Press website––and thought it might be of interest.
Q.: The title of your new book is Figured Dark. Is the book about darkness? If so, aren’t you worried that this is a topic—a metaphor, if you will––that has been overdone in contemporary American poetry?
A.: Yes, the book is about darkness. At least, that word is in its title, many of the poems are literally set at dusk, at night, in the hours just before dawn. I confess to being something of an insomniac. And yes, the word “dark” is one that has been asked to pull a lot of freight in the poetry world. But no, I don’t think the trope is in any sense dead. At least, in poems like the title poem, “Elegy for Light and Balance,” “Near Gatlinburg,” and “In the Great Field at Mount Holyoke, Under a Dome of Stars” I have tried to make it new.
The book has as its epigraph a line from the Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen: “Only the dispossessed know their land in the dark.” And I suppose the underlying subject of the book is how the dispossessed––read “the poet” if you like––finds a place in the world.
Q.: What do you mean, “dispossessed”?
A.: I mean that in several connotations. Physically disposessed from house and home, isolated from a larger social community, from family, isolated from an artistic community. Also isolated from a spiritual tradition, from God himself, I suppose.
Q.: Are you saying that you are isolated in these ways? That you are “among the dispossessed” to borrow a phrase?
A.: Well, I am at least saying that this is what the book is about. I don’t want to make extravagant claims for myself. But as an Irish Catholic American––I am Irish in everything but my surname, which turns out to be New Amsterdam Dutch––I do find myself isolated from my upbringing. I’ve been divorced and remarried. I have turned away rather dramatically from my original career in the law. I still work as an attorney in local government, but have ceased being ambitious, if that is the right word––for money, for economic status, for recognition as a trial attorney––a career I pursued with some success before the bottom dropped out.
I live in a small town in western Michigan. To tell that community, “I’m not going to pursue the things that you find important anymore, I am going to chuck all that and be a poet,” that was a very isolating step. And it’s not like there was a community of artists here waiting to welcome me with open arms. I lead a very small life. I must seem somewhat furtive to the local folk––a figure moving in the dark. But there we go with the title again.
Q.: Other poets––famous ones at that––have roles in your new book. John Donne appears in “Glaucoma,” Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarell, and Delmore Schwartz, among others, appear in a poem set at New York’s famed Gotham Book Mart, and there is that long, strange poem about John Berryman,“Archie Babcock Explains the Accident to John Berryman’s Biographer.”
A.: That’s a true story. It happened in 1939, just outside of Indian River, a town close to the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, where my family owned and operated a small restaurant. I didn’t know Archie and Gordon Babcock, of course, but some of their relatives worked for my father and I knew the family. I also know the landscape, and I hope that comes across in the poem. There really are places up there––or were, anyway, even in the 1960’s––where one could get intentionally lost. I don’t think John Berryman ever did collect anything for his brother’s injuries.
Q.: What role does landscape have in your work? Are you a “Michigan poet”? Do you consider yourself a Midwestern writer?
A.: Well, yes. I am a poet who happens to live in the Upper Great Lakes, specifically Michigan and being labeled a “Midwestern Poet” does not trouble me. I mean, it is a great tradition. Being in the lineage of poets as diverse as Edgar Lee Masters and Lorraine Niedecker through to Theodore Roethke, Judith Minty and Jim Harrison is certainly an honorable place to be. Many of my poems are set where I live, and you will find a lot of cedar trees, pines, trout streams and blueberry fields in my poems, because that is the country I write from. But I have also made an attempt to set my poems in a number of American landscapes: the Oregon Coast, the Carolina mountains, New York, western Massachusetts, places I sometimes go to write.
Whatever the setting, to the extent that place is important in my work, I hope that it has been sufficiently realized in the poems. That’s largely a matter of detail, I think. Knowing the names of birds, of plant life. Actually knowing your way around in the woods. Not letting the cries of animals throw you off.
I don’t think that the book will appeal only to Midwestern readers. I think it will have a larger appeal. The poems are, I hope, the story of a spiritual journey that is informed by landscape, not limited by it.
Q.: Your second book, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000) won the Brittingham Prize. This new book is coming out seven years later. What took you so long?
A.: You’re right. These days, seven years does seem like a long time between books. A Path Between Houses was actually my thesis manuscript for the low-residency MFA Program at Warren Wilson College. I graduated from there in January, 2000, and before the end of the month, found out that Alicia Ostriker had picked my manuscript for the Brittingham Prize. At no point, however, did I think, “Well, this just proves how easy it will be.” No, I knew I was incredibly fortunate.
I’ve been writing along since then. And publishing individual poems here and there. Almost everything in Figured Dark has appeared in a journal somewhere. I’ve also done a couple of chapbooks.
The manuscript for Figured Dark, under several names, was a finalist in a number of contests, and was even the runner up in several, including the Dorset Prize. But I have continued to rework the text––adding poems, deleting, rewriting and revising.
This is a somewhat different book than my earlier manuscript. I am happy that this is coming out in its current form. This represent the best work I can do right now; or at least, it is my best effort. Everything I have to give is on the page. I am very fortunate to have worked with Enid Shomer and everyone at The University of Arkansas Press through the final stages of this book. I can’t think of a place I would rather be.