Friday, August 28, 2009

What Is Orphan in Me: An interview with Kevin Goodan

I hear the river, and your hand
Brushes against what is orphan in me (“Winter wheat is shorn”).

Kevin Goodan was raised in Montana, and fought forest fires for many years. He attended the University of Montana and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His first book, In The Ghost-House Acquainted, was published by Alice James Books in 2004, and received the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for 2005. Alice James Books recently published his second collection, Winter Tenor, in the spring of 2009. He currently lives in Idaho...where he does battle with ruffians.

GL: Your first book, In the Ghost-House Acquainted, exhibits both pastoral eloquence and psychological intensity. Reading and rereading those wonderful poems, I often think that you—because your poems feature so many breathtaking moments of solitude—have equal parts Frost and Rilke in your poetic blood. Both of these poets are obsessed with solitude but in radically different ways: Frost sometimes uses his woodland excursions as a temporary deliverance from society and its confusions, while Rilke seems to approach solitude as the necessary and fundamental condition of the poet—the state of existence that gives rise to epiphanic vision and angelic concourse. So, if these simplifications hold (any) water, which poetic strategy has been of greater use to or influence on your work? That is, do you view solitude as the poet’s necessary state of being that gives rise to privileged artistic experience? Or do you find that pastoral solitude offers an imaginative haven from social or urban living?

KG: I can only speak about what kind of solitude is vital to my life, and my work. I cannot really say what is necessary for all writers. I know some writers who need to write in the presence of people… malls, and the like. I, myself have a long-standing relationship with solitude. Solitude allows me the conduit by which to engage the world, to see it and know it, on my own terms. It allows me the stillness with which to hear what is living beneath the din of the modern world. Here is an example… I lived for a time in a smallish cabin out in the woods of Massachusetts, and one day, in this cabin, I heard a loud scratching sound that seemed to be coming from inside the wall in the furthest corner of the cabin. I followed the sound, prepared to deal with a mouse, but what I discovered stunned my friend cooking dinner in the small kitchen. That sound was actually a carpenter ant crawling on a brown paper bag. Would have I heard that sound with that much intensity if I lived in New York, or Boston? I’m just not made to live in close proximity to large groupings of people. I’ve tried a few times, and each time was a failure. So, to answer your question, I feel I reside more strongly with Rilke, though, after I interact with people, I need Frost’s deliverance.

GL: The poems of In the Ghost-House Acquainted are, as the title suggests, beautifully obsessed with the phenomena of absence and disappearance: “Does vanish mean / to arrive elsewhere? A place perhaps / to flourish, to withstand?” (“If I’m Not a Garden) Your speakers spend a lot of time cataloguing natural and agrarian images but often fail, Romantically, to find an abiding link between self and landscape—except for the final and troubling link between the body and the earth, as illustrated here: “Plant me in your soil she said / and I will become your earth.” (“Losing Something Important”). Thus, the observed world seems to continually remind the speaker(s) of your poems both that he is not what he sees and also that he won’t be seeing forever—so that his visionary presence is ultimately ghostly. I’d like you to talk a little bit about the emotional or existential precursors to these poetic sentiments. Do you often feel ghostly in your life and work outside of poetry? If so, does poetry help you to corral or objectify these feelings? Does poetry, for example, offer you a sense of permanence (by creating something that will outlive you) or does it give you a new and different experience of absence and loss?

KG: When I wrote most of In the Ghost-House Acquainted, two things were happening: 1) I was trying to cope with the loss of people close to me, and 2) I was living on a farm in Massachusetts in very destitute circumstances. I have a lung condition, and at that time I not could afford health insurance, so I ‘d been living sans medication for roughly 5 years, and it was taking its toll. I couldn’t breathe really, and what I could breathe was getting less and less. I remember one night in the middle of a poem, I stopped, panting, and asked God to give me just two more years (which seemed extravagant at the time) so I could at least see the manuscript become a book. Then, I said, you can have me, as you must, but just let me see this through, so I can say that I’ve been in this world. So not only is/are the speaker(s) of the poems haunted by the missing, but also by the impending mortality of the selfsame. Luckily, I’ve been granted more time than what I pleaded for. More time, a second chance at love, a first chance at marriage. I’m not sure if this answers your question.

GL: Your second book, Winter Tenor, features many of the same prosodical attributes as your first book: anaphora, catalogues, short lines, punctuation play. But, unlike your first book, the poems in Winter Tenor have no titles—or, like Dickinson’s poems, their titles are taken from the first lines. This structure suggests thatWinter Tenor should perhaps be read as a book-length poem. So, to what extent do you or did you conceive of this volume as a book-length poem? And if so, how was the composition process different for Winter Tenor than it was for In The Ghost-House Acquainted?

KG: Winter Tenor came quickly upon the heels of the poems that became the first book. And they came very rapidly, within the span of a few months, often a few poems a day. They came so rapidly that I almost could not keep up… initially I thought that I would go back at some point and give them titles, but as I went on, I began to see the poems as being of a whole. And, I wanted the reader to be thrown into each poem without a buffer, as I was while writing them. Some of the poems in the first book were ten years old by the time the book was put together. So, I view Winter Tenor as a strange gift. It feels to me that when I wrote it I was writing beyond my capacities. Or maybe I was simply taking dictation from “the source,” as Jack Spicer alludes to in his lectures. Though I think he mentions Martians as being the source of poetry, which, well…. Spicer should’ve known that they gave up on poetry eons ago, and turned their attentions to perfecting the crop-circle.

GL: The poems of Winter Tenor are quietly haunted by violence—by the violence inherent in the slaughter and subjugation of animals, for example, though there is an almost cosmic violence that your poems call attention to as well. The speaker of the final poem in this volume asks: “Will you go as gently to the knives?” which made me look over my shoulder. The poem “Sudden shock of field-surge after rain” describes the “the blade [slicing] across the neck” of a Cheviot lamb. And the first and perhaps most mysterious poem in Winter Tenor ends with a mare bleeding onto the snow after a “punch” from her human keeper. Are you using the master/bondsman relationship between people and animals to think and speak about the nature of power and violence in human beings? Or are your depictions of and meditations on violence more locally confined to the way humans interact with animals and the natural world?

KG: The universe was created (so the theorists tell us) by one massive act of violence. Therefore, violence is an essential ingredient to existence. We cannot get away from it no matter how much we want to “give peace a chance.” I think the authors of the Old Testament understood this. Their God is not a warm and fuzzy god. Violence is as much the cosmic condition as it is the human condition. I believe that any relationship has undertones of violence, be it human/human, or the relationships of animal husbandry. Because I tend to believe that the interactions between a farmer and his animals are often more true and raw, more integral than relating to humans, the violence tends to be more visible, uncloaked, and yet, sometimes no less heartbreaking.

GL: Given the realities of melting glaciers and ice caps, species extinction, and the violent transformation of climate and landscape, I wonder what you make of the role of the pastoral in our current historical moment. How is the very notion of ‘the rustic’ changing right now, and how do those changes affect the way you write about rustic settings? Also: Is every pastoral poem now an elegy for the disappearance or transformation of the natural world, including the Massachusetts farmlands and Montana wilderness about which you so often write?

KG: Right now, in this country, there are more people living in urban areas than in rural areas… this is something new in the history of our nation, however, with the current and ongoing financial downturn we are in, I would not be surprised to see that new trend change as people return to self-sustaining methods of living—gardens, and so forth.

In the places where I’ve lived mostly, the idea of the pastoral and the rustic are simply the ways in which people have to live their lives. When I mention to people in Boston that I do not and have not lived with a television or radio in my house, surely they think I’m odd. But in Montana, or in rural western Massachusetts I’m living pretty much just like everyone else. Which is to say impoverished. Where I grew up, only rich people have cable. Anyhow, I think we will see people living simpler lives out of necessity, because it is being realized that the current mode of existence is unsustainable, for humans and for the environment. As for poetry, I tend to believe, and always have, that every poem written is an elegy. Even if the poem is written in present tense, the thing that triggered the poem is no longer there, at least not in the condition that it was when it sparked a poem, whether it be a piece of conversation, a wheel-barrow, or a face in the crowd at the metro. Certainly, the only constant is change, pastoral or otherwise. Did you know that in Icelandic there are 300 words for weather? And Iceland has a population of 300,000. There are places where the mode of the pastoral is still vital and thriving.

GL: What’s wrong with contemporary poetry? What’s right with it?

KG: I don’t know if I could say that there’s anything “wrong” with contemporary poetry. There are aspects of the current literary world that I don’t engage in, simply because they don’t interest me, but I don’t think that should be the case for everyone. I do read very widely, and I admire the diversity of voices that are present at this point in time in American poetry. I hope it continues.

GL: So what’s new with Kevin Goodan these days? Working on a new book? An epic autobiographical poem about fighting fires, for example? I hope so. What’s the scoop? What’s cooking?

KG: Well, I just moved from the corner of 1st and Crackwhore in Lewiston to a five acre farm a few miles outside of Moscow, Idaho. So, I get to have my barns, my little house, my woodstove. And, it is grain season, so I am watching machinery tread the fields between storms. I love the way the air smells here this time of year, and the qualities of light that exist on the Palouse. And I love the fact that I don’t have any neighbors slashing my tires or trying to run me over because I had the balls to call the cops on them. But, those days are done. Things are quiet. I am enjoying the newly married life, and recently returned from the good old-fashioned honeymoon in Iceland. I do have a manuscript I am slowly, leisurely putting together. In high school, I worked in a slaughterhouse, so this seems to be the underpinning (thus far) of a majority of the work. But, that is always subject to change. And who knows, maybe the work will turn its eye directly toward fire fighting. We will have to see.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Very Me: An Interview with Nate Pritts

          … this tremendousness,
this unutterable and inexplicable tremendousness

that fairly quivers both inside & outside my very me.

(“This Tremendousness I Can’t Talk About”)

Nate Pritts is the author of two books of poetry – Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX, 2007) and Honorary Astronaut (Ghost Road Press, 2008) – with a third, The Wonderfull Yeare, due out in early 2010. The editor and founder of H_NGM_N, Nate teaches poetry at the Downtown Writers Center/YMCA in Syracuse, NY. Find him online at

GL: The poems in your second book, Honorary Astronaut, are passionately cosmological. Plus, they’re clever, companionable, and funny at the same time. You (and by ‘you,’ I mean the speaker(s) of your poems) often present yourself as a kind of butterfingered metaphysician: “Again & again I fumble / with the cosmic thread,” who, despite his best efforts, continually falls short of his philosophical quest. Yet…this failure seems to keep the poems energized and thrusting forward. For example, you write, “I am / the thing lost and the thing looking for it.” Could you tell me a little bit about what it is like to be the “the thing lost and the thing looking for it”? And why does this state of inevitable loss, of self-missing-ness, give rise to poems that attempt to “rocket toward discovery” of self and cosmos alike?

NP: Well, I think you’re left with two choices – you can sit around lamenting things, sort of griping & complaining – or you can put this big goofy grin on your face because the whole wide world is pretty damn amazing. And if you’re a normal human being, you probably never hit one or the other pole & instead spend your days kind of sliding between them. I’ve resolved, in my poems at least to give reign more to the latter, even when I don’t totally feel it or when the ostensible subject of the poem would seem to be counter to that emotional range – fake it ‘til you make it. Which is itself a rhetorical stance in a lot of my poems – the speaker sort of hoping for the best, amping himself up & everyone within earshot because then maybe the whole group of them will be ecstatic enough to be worthy of the spectacular things this world is offering us.

A lot of my poems have, at their center, an implicit sense of constructing the self out of words & out of sensations, thoughts, riffs, feelings built out of an essential distrust of experience, or events, as an indicator of anything. So the poem itself is the rocket & the ride begins when the poem starts.

GL: Your poems are full of sudden and unequivocal disclosures, “I live my whole life inside, walking / as carefully as possible to lessen my chances of a fall,” which make your speakers seem lonely and eager for company, as though they have just moments to tell someone, some stranger, their life story. I could imagine these poems—so conversational and urgent—being spoken to someone on a bus ride, on a first date, or in an elevator. They seem, in short, to take advantage of the fact that someone is, momentarily, within earshot and ready to listen. Could you tell me why so many of your poems take the shape of such candid emergencies?

NP: I really like that characterization. My poems often develop out of an intense desire to blurt something out, something that is valuable & necessary. To me, the moment of the poem implies a couple of things – things I take for granted & so don’t even really think about: 1) that there is something really important that needs to be said & 2) that someone is listening but could potentially stop listening if the substance of what is being said is not delivered in a compelling enough manner. This ties into my feeling about subject matter, which is that basically the poem itself is the subject. My role as speaker isn’t to get you to care about the ostensible subject of my poem (holidays at grandmother’s house, or the sound of a certain kind of music); that stuff is & should just be fodder for the poem itself, hurtling forward, trying to get the reader to open up their eyes to the moments of the poem’s happening. To me, I think there’s no bigger emergency than the fact that birds are flying overhead & we’re all still walking around grumbling, or that the big yellow sun is shining down on us & we persist in dopey moodiness. One of my poems says something about how we’re all having epiphanies every day – the big crisis is that not every one is truly experiencing themselves, or allowing themselves to be changed. Or sharing.

GL: There seems to be a lot of New York School in your poems, in that you use what seems to be the speakers’ immediate surroundings and experiences as a source of poetic kinesis and inspiration: “My first name is Nate. / My last name is Pritts. I’m having a wonderful time.” Thus, the reader often feels as though she is witnessing the creative genesis of the poem—feels, that is, as though the poem is being written right before her eyes. At the same time, there is an emotional force in these poems that’s more personal than Personim: “I am not afraid to die. I am afraid to die / before I tell you what I’m thinking & what I’m thinking/ is that everything decays and crumbles…” But the fear of death often shuts us up. How and why, then, do you use these deep fears and anxieties to build a poetry of such velocity, volubility and animated engagement with the present moment?

NP: I call this “processual poetics” – a poetics of process. You’re right that I’m heavily influenced by New York School poetics, which I would define as inherently social & public & demonstrative. Berrigan talking out loud to himself & whoever would listen, Schuyler talking just to you in an intimate way, Koch clowning in front of the room. But the other part of the surface mix, for me, are the styles often lumped together as Black Mountain poetics – though for me it’s much more centered on Olson, Duncan & Eigner – poetry that I think of as inherently remonstrative in nature. And I guess my deeper sense of “where I’m coming from” is channeled through Coleridge.

But, to me, the end of your question answers itself: when faced with deep fears & anxieties, how else can you face it but with something so wound up & charged with life?

GL: As an editor for a successful on-line literary journal, you must be achingly aware of the trends and/or shifting currents in contemporary American poetry. Of those trends/currents/etc, which do you find the most fascinating and appealing? The most aggravating? And how do such editorial observations affect your work as a poet?

NP: I receive as submissions & read in other journals lots of poems that mimic other poems – taking all the surface & none of the substance. But what I love about poetry is its ability to package up the sensibility of another person & deliver it to me – as an intellectual or emotional or linguistic or poetical knock out blow. I found that I was reading a lot of poems that were competent – the kind of poems you couldn’t find much wrong with but where certainly nothing was really crucially right either. This is when I talk about lamenting the professionalization of poetry. But the thing is reading so much poetry keeps me honest – I guess I’m able to see the bluff & bluster of others very clearly so when I go to write my own poems (& let’s say I get to a moment where I want to reach for a zany image) I make sure that what’s in there is earned & necessary.

GL: If I told you that ten years from now you could either become the Poet Laureate of the U.S., or that H_NGM_N would become the most widely read literary journal in America, which outcome would you choose? And, for five points extra credit, why?

NP: To me, this question comes down to a consideration of influence. And I would much rather imagine a poetic landscape that is open to the kinds of diversity I hope H_NGM_N fosters, than a poetic landscape dominated by me. Actually, I think I’m going to write a fake Nate Pritts poem – the way an MFA student in the future might.

GL: How is Nate Pritts becoming something or someone different than the man who wrote Honorary Astronaut? Will the Nate Pritts of the future ever be a real astronaut, for example? Or in other words, what new and exciting things are you reading, writing and/or thinking about these days?

NP: I’ve been working outside of academia for most of the past three years – in advertising as a writer & web developer, & as a tech editor. I think my view of things – which you characterized as that of a “butterfingered metaphysician” falling short – is being tempered by one of extreme order, mechanization & awe. I think the earlier Nate Pritts didn’t trust emotions because they were inexplicable. I think now Nate Pritts feels like even the inexplicable is explicable but is still worth gasping about. My new favorite quote is “Everything is a file” – something that old assembly language programmers thrown back & forth.

My new book, The Wonderfull Yeare, grew out of an experiment, really. I had written all these overwrought emotionally symbolic poems under the influence of Bly, Wright & Stafford in the mid 90s. I found that, when I returned to them, I could see the emotion but not totally feel it – I didn’t even know what I was writing about in some cases. So the poems in The Wonderfull Yeare are collage cut & paste versions of these earlier poems – my present day reconstructions – hoping to invest them with new happinesses & sadnesses.

I’m also diving back into Coleridge & Clare, lots of contemporary poetry, & spending lots of time reading about, & looking at pictures of, what people in the 1950s, 1960s & 1970s thought the future was going to look like.