A 1/2 Dozen with poet
whose first collection of poems
The Luckless Age
has just debuted.
talks pop culture, a John Hughes
and jagged edges.
I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
I'm never aware of inspiration, at least not until it becomes apparent in retrospect. At the moment of work I am only aware of a need to get something written down. When I'm done with something, I can usually find its antecedents in what I was reading, what films I'd watched, what sort of cultural content I felt like responding to. But in my experience, the people who most often talk about inspiration are the people who are looking for the easier, softer way around doing the hard work. They are the same people who ask you questions about process. They idealize those bolt-from-the-blue moments and repeat them until they are part of the collective mythology of writing. I'm thinking of the creation tale that surrounds Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"; she allegedly wrote the story in one evening after dinner, then re-typed it and sent it out the next day; while that may be true, what people early in their apprenticeship never realize is that everything you've ever done is preparation for that moment when "inspiration" strikes. The typing might have taken an evening, but the inspiration was the life's work that preceded it. I'm much more interested in writing that is the sustained exploration of larger trends. I read a huge amount of cultural criticism and generally my most frequent inspiration begins as a response to something else, typically one that's engendered when I feel that a writer or a critic has gotten something almost entirely wrong.
What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?
Find your own obsessions. The writers I know who have successful long-term partnerships all fall into a category where each partner has their own hard-won identity. I don't often steal from myself in my writing, but I did lift one cautionary tale. I published a story called "The World Treasury of Love Stories" a few years back in the Mississippi Review; in it, a female character who wants desperately to be anything other than the therapist she is tells a story about the love of her life. They wanted to be artisans together, have their own pottery studio, and that dream lasted right up until the day that she caught her partner on his way to the post office to mail out applications for medical school. In the story, he tells her, "You can always be a surgeon who dabbles in pottery, but it can't be the other way around." My advice is this: everyone needs to get their hands dirty, throw a few pots.
Another person who creates--no matter what they create--probably will have a greater tolerance for the writer's desire to get out of bed at odd hours to write something down. And if there is some part of that experience that can be shared, a mutual effort, there's something tremendously attractive about that. I'm in love with the Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon kind of love story. Their entire life was saturated in writing. They had breakfast, then went to opposite ends of their farmhouse to write poems, then came back together for lunch and to share what they'd written. They spent the afternoons reading and walking the dogs. I'm in love with that kind of story the way people fall in love with old movies.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
I often joke to my students that my high school life was like a John Hughes movie; my school had 3,000 students and was 98% white, 98% upper middle class. Every weekend, someone's parents were in the islands somewhere and there was a party with a keg of beer in the kitchen sink or the garage. I learned very early in that scene that it was more fun to be the person circling around the drama rather than the person involved in it. And I guess that's kind of the classic writer's position--the discrete observer like Nick Carraway in Gatsby.
My childhood often feels like it belonged to someone else. My mother likes to say that one day I simply announced to her that I didn't need her help to read anymore, and that I took The Three Little Pigs out of her hands and read to her. I was three. My first bedroom had a nook next to the closet where I could climb and sit and read, but I was just as likely to be found outside making mud dams at the curb after a thunderstorm. Every summer we went to the beach for a week, or on a car trip somewhere, complete with a AAA TripTik map and stops at Stuckey's for coffee for mom and dad. I saw most of the Eastern seaboard from the back seat of an Oldsmobile Delta 88. So if my adolescence was John Hughes, my early childhood was much more Wonder Years. But the theme is that I spent a lot of time learning to watch, learning to observe.
What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?
The bedside table is saturated with books that I am in the middle of; I'm one of those people that reads 6 or 7 books at a time when I am reading for pleasure. Right now I'm writing some essays on aesthetics and contemporary art that are a direct response to Air Guitar and The Invisible Dragon by Dave Hickey. As part of that project, I went out and dug up all sorts of collaborative books--typically books where poets write poems inspired by visual artists, or where artists create images in response to poems.
I'm really interested too in this idea that there are cultural mavens, people who connect us to ideas of taste and who, by their tacit acceptance of a trend, become advocates for it. Said another way, we all have that annoying friend who is always pressing a CD into our hands at parties, or taking out his iPod to show you a playlist. I'm almost certainly that person when it comes to books that have great ambition. It stuns me that Albert Goldbarth hasn't won wider recognition (though I suspect that is likely a response to his interest in spirituality). But each book is wildly ambitious and attempts greater feats. Frank Bidart's earlier work, particularly the stuff that is informed by his dissection of California, still thrills me and I press that on everyone at any chance I get. The novels of Richard Powers are as diverse a body of work as anyone has produced outside of Stephen King, and they come from a tremendous intellectual curiosity. Aleksandar Hemon and Joshua Ferris write fiction with tremendous ambitions. As a poet, I'm jealous of so many other poets, all of whom are currently in residence on that bedside table: Matthew Zapruder, Erika Meitner, Zach Savich, Joshua Harmon, David Dodd Lee, Mary Ruefle. The fact that I get to call some of those people friends means I'm probably biased, but those works stun me.
People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.
I have an extremely contentious relationship with writers who return to the same themes again and again. I'm much more interested in the range of Cheever's stories than I am in either of the Wapshot books. I've learned to accept the project that is/was language poetry, but I remain resistant to poems that can best be described as a world tour of a private logic that only exists between the poet and his or her coterie of like-thinking friends. In my experience, a lot of very obtuse poets use a sort of realpolitik to defend work that is, at its core, unreadable and devoid of emotion. To paraphrase Barthes, if one "destroys the functional aspect of language," I don't consider what's left over as poetry; it exists as something beneath language itself. More colloquially, I feel the limits of language every day when I go to write; when I go to read, I want to be thrilled by its possibilities, by its universal nature.
Probably the one writer I identified as a chief antagonist in my early years was John Updike. There was a period late in Updike's career when every third issue of the New Yorker seemed to have a new story of his, and they all had the same basic plot: a married man goes somewhere on business and has or almost has have an affair, and those stories all bored me to tears. And then one day I was writing out some notes for an essay and I was just sort of riffing on this idea that I have that the best Western writers do not reflect culture or report on it, but rather they anticipate it. I was thinking of a book like Don DeLillo's MAO II, which essentially anticipates the nation-states of the world having this antagonistic symbiosis with terror organizations; it's a hugely of-the-moment book now and it's twenty years old. And for some reason, that way of thinking forced me to return to Updike's stories. The first one I went back to was A&P, and it's filled with a foresight that is just remarkable. It anticipates nearly every one of the big tectonic shifts of the sixties in this tiny little diorama of a story. I'm still not wrong about those later stories, which are truly awful, but I have as my penance re-read in the last few years every writer I've ever claimed to hate.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
My writing life is essentially all I am. If I am interested in something, I want to devour it. It becomes an all-consuming thing. If I read one book that I like, I read everything that I can find by that author, not just the books but the speeches, documentaries, journal articles, news coverage, reviews. My house is filled with outsider art because fifteen years ago, I read some books about Dubuffet's view of art brut, and one about the Gugging Institute, where mental patients use art as a therapeutic outlet; it's absolutely pure because they create without regard to marketplace or audience, so the work tends to reflect their own particular idiomatic way of obsessing.
I have other more transient obsessions. They last a year or two or so, and then I move on to the next one. I have quotes from other writers all over my office at home and one from Harry Crews speaks to this better than I ever could. Harry wrote, "I never wanted to be well-rounded, and I do not admire well-rounded people nor their work. So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design."
Steve Kistulentz’s first book of poems THE LUCKLESS AGE was selected by Nick Flynn as the winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award and was published by Red Hen Press this February. His poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The Antioch Review, Barn Owl Review, Black Warrior Review, Caesura, New England Review, New Letters, Quarterly West and many others. Individual poems have also won recognition from such noted poets as former Poet Laureate of the United States Mark Strand, who selected “The David Lee Roth Fuck Poem…” for the 2008 edition of the Best New Poets anthology, and by Mark Doty, who included the John Mackay Shaw award-winning poem “Bargain” in the ninth volume of its Helen Burns Anthology: New Voices from the Academy of American Poets. He currently is an assistant professor of English at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he teaches courses in creative writing, literature, and popular culture.