Places I Was Dreaming is your third book of poetry, but this is your first autobiographical book?
It’s the kind of question that people often ask, but I’m hesitant to call this work “autobiographical.” Certainly, on the one hand, I drew on my own experiences—my early childhood was spent in the kind of house I describe in the opening poem on the kind of farm I describe later in the book. On the other hand, I was never at any point in the book trying to write a strictly factual account of anything that actually happened there. For example, I can remember having walked across a frozen pond once, as I describe in “The Time I Didn’t Drown,” and I was vaguely aware that I wasn’t supposed to do that, but that’s the end of that poem as a document of any factual retelling of my story—the rest is meditation on that place, not memory. Likewise, I really did sleepwalk when I was a child, though not in such an extreme way as described in the poem “Sleepwalking”; however, most of that poem is the result of a conversation I was having with Walt Whitman about “There Was a Child Went Forth”—I was proposing to him that “There was a child went forth each NIGHT, and many things that child did NOT look upon, those things he STILL became.” Nearly all of the stories I tell in the book are like this—they’re based not on pure memory, but on things I know for sure that I “half created,” as Wordsworth says, things that I can’t remember at all having occurred at any given moment, but that are still a part of my understanding of the place I came from. Does that count as “autobiographical?”
Likewise is it still autobiographical if I reveal that I read numerous books about poverty and also drew on concepts from them for ideas for some of the poems? For example “Fate” is a meditation on the way that when you don’t have money, the lack of resources to respond to small problems leads to chain reactions that make the problems get bigger and bigger, something I read about somewhere. I connected that idea to another idea I read about, that many people who lack resources tend to be fatalistic. It’s not that I didn’t know that these issues existed. Everyone who has very limited means knows about them. But the reading put them into the forefront of my mind. I’m not saying the composition of “Fate” was wholly philosophical and abstract—I really fell into a fire in the immediate circumstances described—but the poem started with those ideas, not with an effort at memoir per se. Beyond the fall into the fire, I don’t know if the rest of that poem is historically accurate or not. Finally, I’m not sure I really care. If the poem speaks to a reader, I’m quite certain it is because of the imagined experience the poem itself conveys to the reader’s mind, not because of where it came from or whether the events in it really happened or not.
Reading these poems, I have the feeling that the book just flowed out of you. Of course, that’s just a sign of great poetry, but I am wondering if they did flow easily?
They were certainly poems that I had a lot of fun writing. They allowed me to make humor an important part of the book and still keep challenging stereotypes and prejudices about the poor—namely, the one that says that people who don’t have much money are lazy and dirty and that they lack internal lives–which are basically the same stereotypes we have about every group we think we understand, but really don’t. That said, I worked on the poems very hard, shared them with friends for feedback, revised them repeatedly, and so on. I’d say they averaged two or three weeks each to write, so they didn’t exactly come to me as completed works in a dream or anything. I worked basically all of them to a certain point at which they somehow transformed themselves into something that was quite different and much better than what I had in mind when I started. I think that’s generally what makes poems seem to flow—that they are the result of an inquiry into something, and that inquiry has generated a mental struggle, and that struggle has generated a nuanced understanding that wasn’t present in the original conception. In my view, that’s why we call it “creative writing”—because the writing process generates ideas, so that what you start with is not very much like what you end up with.
These poems may sound as if they are all conversational free verse, which is the musical sound I wanted them to have, but many of the poems in the book have some kind of accentual and/or syllabic meter or other traditional elements. I did that because the constraints of not having money seemed to me to call for a corresponding restraint in the form. After my previous comments, some readers of the blog may wonder how I can write poems in set forms yet claim that they transformed themselves in process. I can hear some of them now: “Doesn’t he know that set forms are the complete opposite of writing in a generative way?”
To that, I would just say that nearly every free verse writer writes not only in lines, but also in set forms called sentences. But no one says, “Isn’t writing in lines and sentences the opposite of writing in a generative way?” No, of course it isn’t. And writing a fugue or a sonata isn’t some kind of a limitation to a composer—it’s a useful way of thinking about musical ideas. In the same way, writing in iambic pentameter or thirteeners or four-beat accentual lines isn’t a limitation either.
Writing in lines and sentences and writing in traditional forms are both ways of generating new thoughts—the original impulse doesn’t fit into a good sentence or a pleasing line, so we change words or syntax, which is changing meaning or emphasis, which is giving birth to new meanings and emphases. The sonnet form, for example, is just a hill I make the poem climb so it will have to work harder and will thus generate new thought, but the form doesn’t control what it says; it just makes it say something I didn’t expect at first, but that I might like when I hear it. To put it more bluntly, it’s a way of getting myself not to blurt out the first idiotic thing that happens to come into my head. I’d add that it isn’t any more conservative than free verse, at least not in any political sense. Traditional forms are just a different way of approaching the complex interplay of restraint and freedom that all poems—and in fact language itself—have deep within them.
How long did this book take you to compose?
About five years. I wrote the first couple of poems with this book specifically in mind in late 2005 and finished the book near the end of 2010. However, there were some poems I had written earlier that somewhere along the way I realized belonged in this book, and I revised and updated those. The second poem in the published book, “The First Thing I Remember,” is the most extreme version of this. I first wrote on it in 1982 or 83, and that poem—which was a sonnet in its first form—was something I kept coming back to over the years and wrote on at least a dozen times between the early 80’s and 2010, when I finally got it into the shape it’s in now. It’s not a sonnet any more, obviously, but that poem went through such extreme revisions that in fact there isn’t a single phrase left in it from the original version: it’s the same idea of a young child being attacked by rats, but there’s basically nothing else left from the first draft, not really even a noun or verb.
Where exactly did you grow up? Your parents worked on a dairy farm?
I was born in a tiny hospital in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in Tulsa County, but I grew up to age ten in rural Wagoner County. My parents actually lived on a ranch when I came along; my dad was working as a cowboy then. However, they left the ranch soon after I was born, and we moved to several different places within the same part of the county when I was little.
When I was five, we moved to a place that had formerly been a dairy farm. By the time we arrived, it wasn’t a functioning dairy farm any more, but just a place where the landlords pastured young heifers that were going to become dairy cows when they were older. Dad hayed them and made sure they could get water, fixed fences, and so on in return for rent, and he did auto mechanic work in one of the outbuildings to make money. So they didn’t work on a dairy farm, but on a place that had been a dairy farm.
Are your parents and/or other family members and relatives still living there?
Not on that farm and not in the financial circumstances we lived in then. We moved away from there to Broken Arrow when I was ten because my father and mother both managed to gain skills that led to better jobs that made them a better living. However, my parents have since moved back to Wagoner County, and most of the rest of my family are in neighboring Tulsa County, though of course all of the great aunts and uncles and grandparents are no longer living.
In your poem, “First B,” you talk about your parents’ expectations for you. I wonder if you could post that poem here? How did they feel about your becoming a poet?
Dad and Mom heard simultaneously
Look at that paper, Buddy, Son, this arithmetic,
them takeaways and plusses. it’s your only paper so far
This is the first B not a perfect score.
you’ve ever brought home. You need to see something:
B’s ain’t good enough, you’re smarter than we are.
not for you, Buddy. Your job is to show us
You can do better: what we all coulda been
you can do what I shoulda. if we’d a-knowed what to do.
See, I made A’s too They got a great tall school
exactly like you, that they call a college.
but I quit at fifteen You can go there when you get big.
to work, to make money It costs a lot of money,
Don’t do what I done. and none of us have been,
You can show me up, Buddy, but we hear they let you
have a job not so hard, go up there for free
not hay somebody’s cattle, if they see how smart you are,
haul slop for old hogs, if you make all A’s.
fix fence, and work on No one we know
old cars every night has gotten that far,
for a few extra dollars. so you’ll have to show us.
You’ll have to know them books, We want you to go, son,
them takeaways and plusses. though it’s a long ways off.
You got to get it right You’re the one who can,
all the time, Buddy. so you’re the one who has to.
I suspect that the thought of children moving away is nearly always a source of powerfully conflicted feelings for the poor. I was thinking about that when I started the poem—I don’t remember any real conversation as represented here, but the mixed-up emotions were there as long as I can remember. I did very well in my schoolwork from the first day of first grade. My parents seemed to see early on that there were going to be opportunities for me that they wholeheartedly wanted me to take advantage of, yet those very opportunities were also likely to take me physically away from them. This, of course, was not just our circumstance, but is in fact the circumstance of many parents and first-generation college students. The child feels in some way disloyal for leaving and the parents are sad about it, yet everyone knows that leaving is a part of changing the child’s fortunes. It also affects those who stay. The child who leaves that life of poverty has shown that it is possible to leave it, and some of those who remain in it feel that they have been shown to be inadequate because they didn’t get out of it too, but others feel vindicated in some sense, because if it wasn’t their fate to get out of that life, neither was it their fault.
My parents seemed very proud when I graduated from college and went on to become a poet. I live in a world that is not familiar to them, I would say, but I think they are happy with what I’ve done. And I have a lot of respect for them; they are not highly educated people, but they are very smart people and they are also the salt of the earth.
And you also compose music?
I don’t really compose any more. I earned an undergraduate degree in music composition, and for a while I both wrote poetry and composed music. However, finally I found that there just wasn’t enough time in my life to concentrate on both, and poetry was the one that mattered more. In my view, of course, that was just a choice about the kind of music I wanted to write.
Even though the poems speak of a very poor childhood, they also portray an enviable childhood—with lots of love, storytelling, and gratitude. I love the poem, “No Other Meal,” that ends “And all the cousins, when they finished eating,/ said how damn lucky we had gotten, said/ there never was no other meal, not ever.” Did you feel lucky then? Or do you feel any nostalgia, looking back?
One of the things that started this whole book was the awareness that even a very difficult life has some sweetness in it and that the poor are often particularly good at finding what is comical or communal or redeeming in the midst of difficulty. There were things I loved within that life—the extended family, the rural landscape—but I don’t really feel much nostalgia about it in general. It was often rather grim and there was very little that could be done about it. The sense of luck in the poem is really just the obverse side of the sense of fate that people in those circumstances have. “What’s going to happen is going to happen,” they say, and that might turn out well for us, in which case it’s lucky, or it might not turn out well for us, in which case it’s fate, but either way, it is something well beyond the reach of our extremely limited means to change anything. It’s not that we can’t sometimes see an opportunity and take advantage of it, but it does admit the truth, which is that we can’t control everything that affects us.
In “Mirrow” you write about having an accent and a rural style of speaking when you were a boy. Do you still have an accent? Do you think the rhythms and speech patterns of your childhood have influenced your poetry?
I do still have an accent, which has changed somewhat over time, but is still identifiably rural and working class, what would be referred to as a “hick” accent where I come from. My colleagues in Helena, or at least some of them, tell me my accent is charming, so I think I’m lucky to be living where I live now. Certainly the rhythms and patterns of speech in the place I come from have affected the poetry, and in particular the speech habits of my grandmother, whose manner of speaking was unusual even to the rest of my family. I became aware when I was writing my first book, Mose, that the way my grandmother spoke was a portal I could use to take readers into this other world I used to live in, and I realized along with that that my own “hick” dialect was a musical gift the poetry gods had bestowed on me and that I should never be ashamed of it or shy about using it in my writing.
I love how you capture the logic of your childhood self in many of your poems, especially in “Don’t Three Halves Make One-and-a Half, Ma’am?” That poem had me laughing out loud. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about it and post it below.
I got started on that poem because I was thinking about what a truly difficult time I had with fractions in the third grade. As with most of the poems, that small element from my life led me to thinking about something else, the idea of equality. When you’re a poor kid with a hick accent who has a decidedly middle-class teacher, you’re more or less aware all of the time that you’re not going to be treated as an equal, that there are always middle-class assumptions operating that you don’t exactly understand, but are still expected to abide by. When the kid says “Guess I just don’t see what equals equals,” he’s thinking about the kind of interactions he has with that teacher, not just about math.
When I was in elementary school in Oklahoma, corporal punishment in the form of paddling was still very much a part of the system, so in those days you were also very aware of the physical consequences of not fitting in. It all had a way of making you wonder whether or not you might “count” for anything. So all those math terms end up being how the poem speaks about something larger. The “kid-logic” in it is the comic layer on which we can ride the gap between the teacher’s lesson and the kid’s life as he lives it. The boy in the poem is a bit of a smart-aleck, of course, because he knows perfectly well that there’s a disconnect, but the teacher doesn’t know that until he repeatedly surprises her with it, and then she responds with a threat, which of course undermines any hope of his learning the lesson she wanted him to get from her example and makes him say he doesn’t know how to “count.” And then he says, he doesn’t know how to count, and then “No, I don’t,” by which he means “I don’t count,” though he knows the teacher will take him to mean that he doesn’t need to go get a paddling from the principal.
Don’t Three Halves Make One-and-a-Half, Ma’am?
a kind of argument in third-grade math
Say your mom baked three pies for Thanksgiving,
Three pies? We never have that many, ma’am,
and your family ate half the pecan, half the rhubarb,
and my grandma and my aunts make the pies at our house,
and half the pumpkin. Now, what would you have left?
and with all my cousins there wouldn’t be any left.
Three halves. Do you see?
Yes, ma’am, so you’re saying
it’s three halves of anything, half a roll of rusted wire,
Now tell me, do you really not understand this,
half the tin roof that was blown off our chicken house,
or don’t you just want to argue and waste
and the other half of the fence post we chopped up for kindling,
half of our class time, half of our math time?
but it’s still three halves?
No, that’s not three halves!
It’s not three halves unless they’re all the same,
Three pies aren’t the same. Rhubarb? Yuck!
unless they’re all equal, because they’re all pies,
But the things I named are all equal,
equal like leftover half pies at Thanksgiving,
three halves of pieces of junk in our barnyard,
the same shape and size. Don’t you understand equal?
so I guess I don’t see what equals equals,
Or do you just need to visit the principal?
guess I don’t see how to count, ma’am. No, I don’t.
What is your writing process? Do you write every day? How do you edit your poems?
I do try to write at least a little every day. Life interferes sometimes, as I’m sure it does for every writer, but I think the discipline of sitting down to work every day, whether I feel like it or not, is terribly important. It keeps the imagination percolating. It generates inspiration. Why do I think of a new poem line in the shower, or driving down the highway, or in a meeting at work? Because I’ve been percolating: my mind has been working on that poem even when I was asleep or was thinking about something else, and now it’s popping out of me. But when you don’t write every day, that process slows down or stops. You get unhappy and your life gets difficult because you no longer think you’re able to do what you believe you are on this planet to do. It’s no good then.
I have different processes during different stages of a book, usually. I rarely write individual poems outside a larger framework; I’m generally thinking in terms of writing a book, not just a single poem—a symphony, not just a tune. I think that makes starting a new book the most difficult stage. I often do a lot more reading and thinking than actually putting pen to paper when I’m getting started on a new book, because I’m trying hard to see some faint outline of what I’m going to do, even though I know it’s going to change as I do it. Somehow—I’m not sure I understand it exactly myself—I eventually get a purchase on what it is I want to work on, and then that gets carried forward and constantly redefined by the individual poems. Then things get easier. My favorite part is the middle, when I’m pretty sure I know generally what the book is going to be like. That knowledge helps me see what poems to write next, but the poems are also helping me get a better vision of what the whole book is going to be. When I’m in that mode, I can write all morning for a couple hundred days in a row, get a great deal of work done, and still can’t wait to go at it again even harder the next morning.
I edit by trying somewhat obsessively to make every word and phrase do more than it did when I first thought of it. On the surface, I’m trying to make the images more vivid, the diction more precise, the voice and syntax more expressive, the tropes sharper, the rhythms and music more clearly suited to the subject matter. But what I’m really hoping for is that while I busy myself with doing those things, get myself out of the way if you will, the poem will take flight and start to mean things I didn’t intend for it to mean. I want my poems to be little machines that will generate content I didn’t plan and say things I didn’t expect them to say. My feeling is that the new meanings come from my subconscious, finally, but that part of me can’t be accessed in the usual way of deciding what to say and then saying it. That’s part of the reason I don’t say the poems are autobiographical. You can’t figure them out. You have to write them out. And you pray that in the end they don’t say merely what you thought they would.
What poets and writers have influenced you the most?
I’m going to sound like the English professor I am on this, but most of the poets that have influenced and inspired me most are from the past. I truly adore Chaucer, someone who knew how to make poems that used storytelling and humor in surprising and delightful ways and who had in spades one quality that all the poets I care about have—he projected a voice that was utterly himself and could never have been mistaken for someone else. Emily Dickinson, not only a genius at writing in hymnal measures and using dashes to make them sound like free verse, but an unflinching examiner and cataloguer of painful attitudes and difficult human experiences as well. Wallace Stevens, who could make more out of just repeating a phrase or a pattern of phrases than anyone before or since. John Berryman, whose funny, formal, deliberately transgressive, and syntactically out-of-control Dream Songs somehow always make me want to write more, for reasons I don’t completely fathom. W. S. Merwin. James Wright. Charles Wright, Gregory Orr, and William V. Davis, former professors of mine. Richard Dillard, H. L. Hix, and William Wenthe, friends from long back. Natasha Trethewey. Andrew Hudgins. I could go on and on, but I’ve already just started listing them because there are so many. I wish I were as good a writer as any of those. At least I’m still getting better.
What do you think are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of being a poet?
The most challenging thing is the feeling of isolation that sometimes comes with writing constantly. It’s something one does alone. I’m okay with that—I actually like being alone and in fact have a hard time functioning if I’m not alone for at least a few hours every day. However, when the writing you are trying to do is for one reason or another not really generating something you’re excited about, it is possible to feel isolated and stranded, and that’s never good. I can sometimes work pretty hard for quite a long time without feeling I’m getting anywhere, especially when I’m starting a new book. It sometimes gives me a sensation like I’m swimming in slowly setting concrete.
Fortunately, sooner or later it always turns around. I hit my stride, and then I can’t be alone in my studio enough. And that’s the best part—when poetic ideas and poetic music are coming out of your very pores every time you so much as twitch an eyelid, and you can’t really even stop them. And then the process transforms them into things that are better than you first imagined. It’s wonderful.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Places I Was Dreaming?
Thanks to CavanKerry for giving the book a thoughtful reading and believing in it.