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.