Wednesday, March 23, 2016

1/2 Dozen for David Blair

David Blair's latest book of poems, FRIENDS WITH DOGS, has recently hit the shelves. Julia Story likens the collection to "a long fast-paced walk with your weirdest, smartest friend." It's a delight to have that weird, smart friend here to answer some questions about his obsessions, the silence of poetry, being a writer of place, and much more. 

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 write one poem at a time rather than book-length projects—which are not really to my taste—so I don't really have a sense of the entire book coming to me all at once, but the themes emerge as I discard and revise poems. When I finished my first book, Ascension Days in 2007, I started thinking about my next book, and I started fooling around with some different sorts of formal approaches, making my poems less dense than they were in the first book, and also experimenting with poems that were partially written in lines and partially written in prose. The title sequence poems of Friends with Dogs are the result of this stylistic development. How did I get to Friends with Dogs? Actually, Friends with Dogs is my third book. I finished another manuscript around 2013, and that book, Arsonville, will be coming out in September of 2016 with New Issues Poetry & Prose.  My first book is mainly poems I wrote when I was first living with my wife Sabrina. Arsonville contains poems that I wrote when my daughter was a toddler and then around the time both my mother and my father-in-law died. They are basically the first and second Obama administrations reversed. Friends with Dogs contains a lot of poems that I wrote about and for my friends. Friends, love, and art are realistic consolations for the pains of life, and I write to show how and to find out how much. The poems that I still liked between 2007 and 2012 ended up as Arsonville. The ones I still liked from between 2012 or so and last summer ended up as Friends with Dogs.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love writing poetry and the feeling of heightened consciousness of music and being near the ocean and traveling around the city and other places either by foot or car, all of which are more or less akin to my experience when I am writing. I recently started writing essays, and prose is just like playing, but playing for too long. It drives me crazy.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

I was kind of fat and hedonistic, loved sports, was clumsy at them, and very injury prone, and then got thin as a rail in high school. Spending a lot of times on crutches probably made me more bookish than I might have been. I got to avoid a lot of gym. I was obsessed with old movies and plays, so that when I discovered poetry later on—the writing that moves most by images—I was hooked. I'm the youngest of five kids, and everybody in my family takes a lot of personal space to themselves, so that mixture of sociability and the sort of humor that creates and weird subjectivity shapes me and made me ripe for poetry as well. Lots of sharp talk with my brother and sisters, cracking up, imitating people, making cartoons of people, and stuff like that. I think I am shaped in my world view by my experience of the various class and religious and racial experiences of growing up in Pittsburgh and things like that, moving into and out of various situations, different vernaculars.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I love to work with people, and I like a job where I don't spend all of my time nailed to a desk. I like being able to work on my own, and I love the material. It's like getting paid to play. For most of my teaching career, I've taught at a school with a lot of fundamentally bright and creative students who have gotten a raw deal from the sort of class system that gets imposed on American students and bores them with pablum, and since I had the experience of being thought of as both a very bad student and as a very gifted student, I know that all students basically need to come into contact with all the strangeness and realness that poetry and fiction have to offer.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I am not precious with myself about poems in progress, and I am mostly thick-skinned about rejection. My first book got only two reviews—and the only really extended treatment of it was by Tony Hoagland, a full two years after it came out. The FBI could offer poetry publication as part of witness protection programs. You have a new name, a new social security, a house in Ohio, and, oh yes, your poems will be in this review.  New editors.
Now if you asked me how I dealt with the silence around poetry, I guess I would say that it is like the silence in the woods. "Oh. That's what there is. Is this a tick?" 

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I do consider myself religious, but I do not invest any of my ideas about religion with authority. I consider myself a sort of Catholic of a not very rigorous sort, though I suspect that a lot of Catholics might not choose to have me on their team because I think that there is some crazy stuff that people think is defensible. Puritans. For me, the big divisions in the world are the ones between the ones who are literal-minded and the ones who are metaphoric in their understanding. I also believe that I am part of whatever is messed up about the world. Some of this is going on in my books.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

I am obsessively a lover of places and their cycles of change, and this is all over my books. "Where can we live but days?" Philip Larkin asks. Place and people and imagery all happen at the same time for me. The great acting teacher Stella Adler says in her lectures on American theater that if an actress is playing a character, she has to know where she is and when she is­. If it's a garden, she has to know that it's a garden. Place and imagery are the best enemies of abstraction. Friends with Dogs and Arsonville are really New England books. I've lived around Boston for twenty years, almost half my life now. There are poems set in New York and Pittsburgh and at the Jersey Shore because those are soul places for me, but these two books are all around Boston, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. When I was a kid, we lived in Ireland for a year, and my father's parents were from Ireland, his father a convert from Ulster and his mother from Mayo. A number of the poems in Friends with Dogs are actually set in Ireland, and Stanley Moss found a beautiful Irish watercolor of a dog in a boat by Jack Butler Yeats for the cover. Poems can be comedies or highly aware projections of looking at place and people, getting some things right, getting some things wrong, social and physical comedies that I hope leave a "a loophole for the soul." The sense of place is a huge presence in all of the writers I love best. It's practically a pre-requisite for me.

David Blair was born in New York City and grew up in Pittsburgh. He is the author of three books of poetry, Ascension Days, which was chosen by Thomas Lux for the Del Sol Poetry Prize, Arsonville, and Friends with Dogs. He has taught at the New England Institute of Art and in the M.FA. Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his wife and daughter, and he has a degree in philosophy from Fordham University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from  the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Find Friends with Dogs here, and Ascension Days here.