Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A 1/2 Dozen with Kerry James Evans

Enjoy a glimpse into the fiery mind of Kerry James Evans. He talks here today about his debut collection, BANGALORE, and gives some wise advice on writing, patience, jealousy, and marrying a novelist. 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

When I’m not thinking about my father’s safety in Afghanistan, I’m interested in some strange and disparate ideas like Holographic universe theory, survivalist training, the syntax of W. H. Auden, the IMF, kayak fishing, and a whole host of other things, including what it means to have Bangalore in the world. I’ve never understood the luxury RV, but I wouldn’t mind owning one. I’m obsessed with work. I should have children by now, but I don’t, and that’s been weighing on me. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I think about is the poem I looked at the night before. I try not to allow things I can’t control to bring me down, but I’m awful at this. When I play basketball I drive the lane, and I will go behind the back and make a layup you never saw coming. Last year I ate a pescatarian diet, except for my graduation, when I smoked ribs. I’m no longer pescatarian. When I see people running on the sidewalk I instantly become jealous of the life I make up for them in my mind. There is kale in my fridge, but I’m not eating it. The person running on the sidewalk might, with his perfect wife, his 2.3 kids, and his bandana-wearing dog. Of course I want a six-pack and strong bone-structure. Am I obsessed with ridiculous possibilities? Only if they help me go to bed with a good line.

 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?

The poems in Bangalore arrived in various ways. As a book, it formed over a number of years, poem by poem. Versions of the manuscript were finalists at many competitions, but ultimately it took many drafts and the help of mentors and friends to arrive in its current form.

As far as inspiration goes, I try not to get too invested in my initial intentions, whether in the beginning stages of a draft, or later, in revision. I like to keep the drafting process wide open. What happens in a moment can change my entire outlook on how I approach a poem. The universe is anything but static, and when I’m writing, I allow for any and everything to be on the table.

For example, the poem “What Makes the Green Grass Grow” had been published and revised again, and for all intents and purposes, I was finished with it. I showed the manuscript to Erin Belieu, and she brought up a stagnant line in the poem, and we sat there making up ridiculous images to take the place of the weak image, and we came up with sewer grate, which is in the poem now, but it wasn’t for the first few years of that short poem’s life. 

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

My wife is a fiction writer, and when she’s working on her novel, I leave her alone. I’ve learned not to ask her questions about the book, especially when she has spent half her day with a character who has poisoned her husband with bleach. There’s no way I’m going to leave it at that. First, I’ll want to know how you can poison someone with bleach without the victim realizing it. Why not arsenic, rat poison, or hemlock? Are those overused? What is it about fiction that I don’t understand? What exactly did her husband even do to justify this? This can go on for an afternoon.

But seriously, I’m sure he deserved it.

Truthfully, I’ve never known a writer who is happy when he or she isn’t writing. Encourage your writer to write, and know when to stay out of the way. Know that when he or she gets to that moment of satisfaction or sheer frustration, the two of you will speak again, usually about the writing.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I’ve had many jobs, and while my military service is an important component of Bangalore, working at a law firm through undergrad (when I wasn’t guarding a gate at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri) had a great impact on shaping a good model for how I schedule my writing time. When counting up time sheets at the law firm, I noticed how lawyers balanced their cases, gathering evidence for one case while preparing questions for a deposition in another case, and so on. This is when I was starting to really take poetry seriously. I found that so long as I filled my poetry “timesheet,” whether reading, writing, revising, or sending out, I’d eventually see results. These days I don’t have a timesheet, per se, but I do to try to keep a consistent regimen, and though the writing isn’t always where I’d like for it to be, that doesn’t mean I’m not trying. The best lines never come from hard work alone; they come from patience.

What's your worst writerly habit?

It used to be working through the night, though I’m better about it now. Also, writing out loud, which—let’s be honest—is not a bad thing, but my wife hates it, because I can get loud, and I’ll argue with my corkboard for far too long about the smallest things. When I was working on “Monopoly,” the first poem of the second section in Bangalore, I made an argument for why each token suited the character. Now they’ve replaced the iron with the cat, which I understand, seeing that a player needs tweezers to carry that iron around the board; who knows how the poem would have turned out with the cat token, but maybe that’s another question for another interview.

For now, I like writing first thing in the morning for as long as I can go, which is usually about three to five hours. Most of the time I can get in a couple of hours before bed as well—maybe not on what I was working on that morning, but another draft that I may have had a few thoughts about earlier in the day, or some thoughts on revision for another poem.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a great impact on your writing life?

All of my teachers have been incredible. I’ve worked with David Kirby, Judy Jordan, Allison Joseph, and Marcus Cafagña, who all encouraged me in their own particular ways to keep writing, and while I don’t remember receiving a great deal of praise in any class, I do remember their encouragement to keep writing, which is the best advice any writer can receive.

I have worked very closely with Rodney Jones, Erin Belieu, and James Kimbrell—all of whom were influential in the shape of Bangalore. Rodney saw many early drafts of the manuscript and was willing to push me to keep writing and re-writing the poems, which I continued to do. I remember him finding out that an earlier version of the book was a finalist at a competition, and he hadn’t seen the manuscript, so he asked for a copy. When he read it he had a great to deal to say about how it could be improved, and I’m glad I took his advice and revised and revised and revised.

When I arrived in the Ph.D. program at Florida State University, I worked with Erin Belieu and James Kimbrell, showing up to their homes uninvited, emailing poems, leaving drafts in mailboxes, and basically being obnoxiously persistent, asking for advice on drafts whenever they could spare the time. They were and continue to be my very best readers.

Kerry James Evans earned a PhD in English from Florida State University and an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published in Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, Narrative, New England Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals. He is the author of Bangalore(Copper Canyon Press, 2013).