Milkweed Editions, $16
I’m always interested in how themes and ideas in one collection of poems transform in another. In your poem, “Now Here, Nowhere,” the final lines:
the sky that holds clouds and light
and clouds and light and nowhere
does it explain.
brought to mind some of your newer poems I’ve read in journals. For instance, in “The Interview” published early this year in Poetry Northwest, The Horizon is interviewing for a job, trying in some way to explain itself. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between nature, people, and explanation?
I’m always intrigued in how, as Emerson put it, “”Tis the good reader that makes the good book.” Though I’ve been writing a long time, I’ve only had a book in the world for a little over a year, and I’m continually struck at how the work is transformed under the gaze of the world – your connection between “Now Here, Nowhere” and “The Interview,” for instance, never would have occurred to me, yet it feels apt. Or to put it another way, I recognize something in it: my continual preoccupation on whether meaning is made or discovered.
Growing up, I spent twelve years in Catholic schools, and though it produced – in general terms – a sort of skeptical half-assed Buddhist, in that environment it was pretty hard to escape the notion that there is another world beyond this one. One we can sense or glimpse maybe, but not fully see. That idea seeped into my bones, the ideology was the marinade, and I think I’m still wondering what is out there beyond our ken, both physically & metaphysically. Stuff to think about when I’m out in the hammock. I think that upbringing also contributed to a sort of irreverence or playfulness when it comes to received knowledge. That’s certainly the energy that produced “The Interview” and it’s probably why my next book from Milkweed is called The Interrogation.
And to follow up with that—more of a process question. Can you touch on how/when you knew your first book of poetry was complete and the next was beginning?
I wish I had a better answer to this question, but I just write poems. They accumulate. They’re often in conversation with one another, and sometimes they arrive in little families, winking and cracking inside jokes, but in general terms, I think the smallest viable unit of poetry is the poem, not the book, and I tend to prefer books that feel like collections as opposed to “projects.” I have a restless aesthetic.
You Must Remember This became a “complete” book only after my kind and astute wife took almost two hundred pages of work and cut it down to sixty. She ordered it. She titled it. She took my preoccupations and created thematic connections, cutting an awful lot of poems that I loved or that had appeared in good magazines because they didn’t fit the vision. And she did it all in three days. It was deadline driven (for the Linquist & Vennum Prize) and at that time, the prize demanded exclusivity, so the initial two hundred pages were knit together simply by the fact that they weren’t included in what I thought was my first book manuscript, which I’d already begun to circulate elsewhere. She included work I never would have put in a contest manuscript, including a handful of poems I’d never submitted anywhere, work I’d deemed too vulnerable or that I’d included mostly to make her laugh. So in some sense I wrote the poems & she composed the book. It was only ever submitted one place and won the prize, so I like to say she’s undefeated as a poetry editor.
I’ve read that your new book, The Popol Vuh (to be published soon by Milkweed Editions), is a verse translation of the Mayan creation epic. I’d love to know more about it. How did you get into the project (do you consider it a project?)? Did it require a lot of research? What can you tell us about it?
I’ve always been fascinated with folklore and myth, and the project grew out of a course I started developing at the high school where I teach, called Myth & Memory. The idea was to read myths in conversation with their modern and post-modern retellings & reiterations, delving into The Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh alongside works by Louise Glück, Ann Carson, John Gardner, Derek Walcott, Zbigniew Herbert and so on.
I had just come back from a year’s sabbatical in central Mexico, where I’d become fascinated with Aztec & Mayan culture, and I really wanted to include The Popol Vuh in the mix. One of the great myths – perhaps the great myth -- of the Americas. The problem, though, was that I planned on teaching it alongside the poetry of Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, and the translations were scholarly, heavy on the footnotes, and they didn’t really sing in a way that I thought would capture the imagination of my students. I wanted something more lucid and transparent.
So, I started playing with translating brief snippets on my own, using a Kiche’ dictionary and an online non-syntactical transliteration created by Alan Christensen. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I delved into the research full-bore and even ended up taking a summer sabbatical to Chiapas & Guatemala to hear different Mayan dialects spoken firsthand and then took a semester’s unpaid leave to finish the project. To be honest, I got a little obsessed. It took about four years.
The thought that it’s going to be out in the world delights me. I feel it’s a necessary work. I still can’t believe it.
And, finally, where do poems like “The Interview,” fit in with the new collection—or do we have to wait for the next book?
I’m not sure yet. I’m still playing around. But one element of “The Interview” that I’ve been enjoying lately is the use of dialog, particularly in a rat-a-tat back-and-forth deadpan mode. As in the heightened artificiality of old movies, for instance. Or a José Saramago novel where you can’t always tell who’s talking. It can bring a nice kinetic energy to a piece to have multiple voices sparring inside. Plus, it’s fun.