I was so moved by this collection (Tornadoesque), I needed a box of tissue beside me just to read it. Whatever you are writing about—whether it is your daughter’s bipolar episode, your father’s Alzheimer’s, or your bisexuality, you transform your subject matter into such lyrical beauty. I know it’s silly to ask, but, how do you do it?
We have a running joke in our family—my wife Dana Roeser, also a poet, takes great pleasure in reminding me, sometimes on a daily basis, that I’m a beauty slut. Oddly, I don’t think of my poems as particularly lyric or beautiful. If they have any strength, I would like to think it lies in seizing a particular situation, image, emotion, thought, or narrative and making it as “super real” as possible. Like many poets, I’m never sure what a poem is really about when I start writing. It usually begins with an urgent phrase or image that with a lot of luck will accumulate other resonant statements or images. For me one of the primary poetic “virtues,” if you will, is precision. I’d like my poems to spring from particular things that can be seen and felt. In “Epilogue,” one of his late poems, Robert Lowell, largely overlooked now, spoke of “the grace of accuracy.” I’m a fan of that phrase.
Sometimes, while reading Tornadoesque, I felt as if I were in the midst of an emotional tornado. I thought of Wordsworth’s line—writing is emotion recollected in tranquility, and I wondered if you were one of those rare poets who can write in the middle of the storm. Or did you compose these poems after the fact?
I’m so glad that you bring up Wordsworth and “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’m constantly bemused by his advice. Often, though not always, I find myself writing poems “in the storm,” as you say. If one is drawn to write about highly emotional subjects, as I am, then I think that one of the best ways is to write in the throes of that emotion. My metaphor would be Odysseus commanding his crew to bind him to the mast and then taking the beeswax (yes, I know I’m changing Homer’s narrative) out of his ears to hear the song of the sirens. Like the mast, poetry is a “mainstay” for me. That said, some of my poems begun in the tornado are finished in relative tranquility.
Every poem in this book is powerful, but the poem about your daughter’s mental breakdown, “Litany on 1st Avenue for My Daughter” is just breath-taking. I wonder if you could post an excerpt here and talk about the process of composing that poem?
“Litany . . .” is also one of my favorite pieces in the book. It’s written in prose because I did not want “to poeticize” mental illness in any way. It was composed on the spot in New York City and shortly after our older daughter’s first (and, so far, only) bipolar episode. I would walk from her small fifth-floor apartment on Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, which she shared with two roommates and where I was staying while she was hospitalized, twenty-five blocks north to the Langone Medical Center on 1st Avenue. So I got to know the intervening neighborhoods and was struck by the contrast between the vibrancy, even flamboyance, of the street life and Eleanor’s situation on a locked psych ward. I wrote the piece longhand (my usual practice) in a few days, didn’t know what to do with it, kept it in rough draft, and didn’t even bother typing it on my computer. I thought that it might be the first section of a much longer poem, but I never went back to it. Finally, after a year, I pulled the rough draft out again, started messing around with it, and realized what was painfully obvious, that it recorded accurately all the emotions of that moment and didn’t need to be “filled out” in any way.
To give you some of the poem’s texture, let me quote a very narrative riff from the middle of “Litany . . .”:
Ambulance sirens screech their way along 1st Avenue through thickening traffic toward
Pedestrians put their forefingers in their ears
I refuse to muffle, O my deafened daughter, your pain or my grief. Let the 120-decibel
sirens puncture my eardrums for all I care
Two nights ago the ambulance carried you, O my beautiful babbling daughter, to Bellevue
where I checked you in “for psychiatric evaluation” and a one-night stay
We waited in the waiting room next to three men handcuffed to their chairs. One was a
250-pound black man, named improbably John Smith, in a green and white Celtics
sweatshirt with satin shamrocks, who would occasionally pull out of his jeans’ pocket
a small green Bible and start reading the Psalms aloud. He needed Zoloft and an
antipsychotic. Juan, a scrawny Puerto Rican, grew increasingly agitated, both legs
bouncing uncontrollably up and down, as he waited for the nurse to give him his
methadone. Red-headed Kevin, in his early twenties, wore a retro black leather
jacket, white T-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers. He had been brought in to pick
up his lithium. Each of the three had just been arrested and was accompanied by his
own police officer. John Smith had a young black cop, equally huge, with a
bulletproof vest. Juan had a Latino cop, and they were constantly talking back and
forth in Spanish like the best of friends. Kevin’s escort was a red-faced, jovial, Irish
cop with blue eyes and hair red as Kevin’s. He was worried about getting all the
paperwork filled out correctly
You had greeted each handcuffed man in turn like a long-lost brother and introduced
yourself, “Hi, I’m Eleanor!” All three perked up
You were wearing your yellow harem pants, a vest of black rabbit skin given to you by a girl-
friend from Paris, and a long purple silk scarf coiled artfully around your thin neck
like a pet python
After fifteen minutes, you looked around the waiting room and announced, “My hands are
so cold. I need a doctor to check them. Dad, feel how cold they are”
I held both your hands in mine, and indeed your fingers were bony icicles
You snatched them away and put your palms on top of the black cop’s close-shaven head as
if to warm them
“Hey, whadja think you’re doing? Get your hands off me!” he exclaimed, then turned to me.
“You got to control your daughter”
I gave him a long angry stare
“Don’t give me no honky look”
I said nothing, kept staring
“Don’t mess with me, white man”
The Latino cop and the Irish cop stepped quietly between us
Kevin, disappointed that a fight wasn’t about to break out, said, “I got picked up for four
separate misdemeanors at four different bars last night. That’s got to be some kind
The Irish cop smiled back at him amiably, “It sure is, son”
John Smith muttered from his good book, “O remember not against us former iniquities: let
thy tender mercies speedily prevent us: for we are brought very low”
I also love the title poem, “Tornadoesque.” Did you know, the minute your daughter came up with that word, that that would be the title of this book?
Nope. I did think immediately, though, that our younger daughter Lucy’s coined word should be the start of a poem. It often takes quite a while (years, I’m afraid) for me to discover the right title for a book. Just to return to “process” for a moment, the poem “Tornadoesque” was composed nine months after our older daughter’s bipolor episode. However, I worked from notes that I had jotted down at the time, and I acknowledge within the poem my distance from the traumatic events.
And the poem, “Snow’s Signature,” was a perfect poem about Emily Dickinson. Like so many of the poems, I wanted to savor it and read it again and again. I imagine each poem was rewritten many times?
I tend to do quite a bit of revision on most of my poems. Occasionally, however, as with “Snow’s Signature,” a poem will come out almost whole. All I’ll have to do is jiggle it here and there, polish it: lapidary work. Usually the longer I take to write a poem, the better it turns out. It will accumulate depth and resonance over time. So I quite happily work on just a few lines every day.
There is such openness in your poetry, such candor, as you discuss your bisexuality and longing for a male lover, your relationships to your wife and daughters, and your daughter’s mental illness. Do you ever hesitate before writing about deeply personal subjects?
Yes, there is much hesitation. But perhaps misguidedly, I use urgency as a litmus test to decide whether I should write about something. For instance, I felt that I had no choice but to write the poems about my bisexuality, even though it remains a painful subject for my wife, whom I love deeply. However, I think that not to write the poems or to write about my bisexuality in a more coded way would have been dishonest. I was compelled. As the poems indicate, I remain torn, divided by my sexuality. But the writing was a process of discovering a deep truth about my sexuality and has certainly led me to an acceptance of it. Bisexuality is not in any way sanctioned by society, as heterosexuality and, increasingly, homosexuality are. In 2005, The New York Times reported that male bisexuality did not exist. In 2014, it recanted its stand and opined that it did exist. Such attitudes are potentially very damaging for bisexuals because they deny the validity of their experience. It’s important to me, in my own odd way, to speak out and give witness to my experience of bisexuality.
Tell me about the evolution of this book. How and when it began? And how did it take shape?
As they say, that’s a long story. The oldest poems in the book go back twelve years to 2004, when I started writing the bisexual poems. As I see it, four distinct thematic strands intertwine throughout Tornadoesque. They are 1) bisexuality, 2) my daughter’s bipolar condition, 3) wars (World War I and the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts), and 4) a growing awareness of mortality. In early drafts of the book, I had divided these materials into their own sections, a strategy which was completely wrong-headed and led to a very static effect. Finally, after several years, I realized that it would be much more dynamic to braid these strands together and let images from one thematic grouping speak to, and echo, those in another. I think this approach works well and that the title sums up the swirling, unpredictable “order” of the book. I’m particularly proud that the last poem, “Inland in Eden on the Indiana Dunes with Nuclear Reactor,” manages to weave all the themes of the book together. I didn’t intend it that way; it just happened. The book was first called Chartres in the Dark, after the second poem in the collection. Then its title became Tomorrow Leaf, after a later poem. Finally, I settled on Tornadoesque.
In most of your poems, you alternate long and short lines, and I read that this is your trademark style. Can you talk about this style? How it developed? Why do you like it?
These long and short lines have always seemed to me to enable both narrative expansion and lyric contraction within one stanza. I can both tell an anecdote and isolate an image easily. Partly, of course, I like the “look” of the stanza on the page, so there’s an aspect that appeals to a visual, even painterly, aesthetic. The stanza has “shapeliness,” if you will. But, even though it’s a free verse structure, I’m counting beats, six to eight stresses usually in the longer lines, one to three in the shorter lines. I should say that some readers find the line breaks completely arbitrary and “private.”
The first poem that I wrote in this “shape” was called “Untitled.” It appears in my first book, Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns, and describes, among other things, the motion of surf against a shoreline. The ocean’s repetitive “in and out” rhythms seemed to suggest this form. However, more importantly, I was reading closely C.K. Williams’s poems in Tar at the time and liked the way that his long lines had to be printed with short, indented run-overs because they wouldn’t fit the usual trim size of poetry books. Those short “lines,” which weren’t technically lines, had for me great energy juxtaposed with the longer lines. I thought I’d try writing lines with run-overs “on purpose.” I looked at the result, one large paragraph with zigzagging margins, liked it, but also found it too “heavy” and “blocky.” Then I thought I should try dividing the “block” into shorter stanzas, to “aerate” it. Couplets seemed dull. I still remember the thrill when I marked off tercets with a ruler and saw how that reversing form took over: long, short, long; then short, long, short. In The Anxiety of Influence (a much maligned book at present, I think), Bloom speaks of “creative misprision,” a generative misreading of an older poet by a younger one. I hadn’t yet read Bloom, but it seems in retrospect that my form came directly out of such a “creative misprision.”
This is your fifth book. How has your experience of being a poet changed over the years?
Perhaps you know Carl Jung’s mapping of personality traits onto the compass rose? He says that (in addition to being either introverts or extroverts) we all begin our lives in different quadrants: north is intellect, east intuition, south emotion, and west the factual world. Jung thinks that we must travel in our “life journey” from our given quadrant toward its opposite. The intellectual person must become comfortable with emotion; the intuitive type should connect with the factual world, and vice versa. Metaphorically, I like to apply these personality categories to poetry: north is concerned with poetic structure, east with metaphor, south with sonics, and west with image. As a poet, I started in the south, in emotion, in my overwhelming infatuation with the sounds of words. I then moved west, through fact and image, towards intellect and the discovery of poetic structure as the great enabler of the poem’s voice. I’d love it if I could, within my poems, keep going round the compass rose all the way to the east, to intuition, to better grasp and express the irrational connections that make dynamic metaphor. As one gets older, one’s poetry can expand to include all the characteristics of the different quadrants. This may all sound rather abstract, eccentric, and conceptual, but I think it indicates my trajectory as a writer.
On a more practical level, I find as I get older that I care less about the reception of my poems and am willing to take greater risks with what I write. Tornadoesque is a good example of this willingness. I also am paradoxically committed to writing shorter, more compressed poems and, simultaneously, longer hybrid poems (up to forty pages), which are hard to place, apart from in a book-length manuscript.
Who are your gods and goddesses? Your mentors and influences?
My mother, who died two years ago at the age of ninety-six, was an amateur watercolor painter with a committed painting practice. More and more, I think I take artistic cues from her. She was always experimenting and pushing herself so that her style, recognizably her own, kept changing and developing.
In my early twenties, I started professional life as a cook. My mentor, Hiroshi Hayashi, who ran The Seventh Inn (a well-known, natural foods/macrobiotic restaurant in Boston’s now gentrified “combat zone,” whose clientele included strippers and the Celtics players who wanted to become better acquainted with the strippers), showed me artistic practice in another medium. I remember him cutting thin, almost transparent slices of tuna sashimi and arranging them into a huge peony on a white platter. Once, for a catering event, he baked a six-foot cod twisting as if swimming, the curves of its body held in place by heat-resistant twine. When it emerged from the pizza-style oven, he displayed it on a long metal dish garnished with all sorts of pickled vegetables. It looked as if it were weaving through colorful seaweed.
As for poets . . . Emily Dickinson (the star of “Snow’s Signature”), Elizabeth Bishop, George Oppen, Jimmy Schuyler, and W.H. Auden are some of the poets to whom I keep returning. I was lucky enough to study with poets Madeline DeFrees, Jim Tate, Greg Orr, Charles Wright, Larry Levis, and Mark Strand. I remain indebted, in different ways, to all six.
I’d love to hear you talk about your writing and editing process. What do you love/hate most about writing?
I love it when writing becomes a deep form of meditation in which one can lose one’s usual worried self and gain a deeper, calmer self (sorry to go all “new age” on you). I hate it when I realize that what I’ve been writing on a given day or over a certain week, month, or even year is utter bullshit and is best thrown away. Once I spent a whole summer writing about (of all things) the “home improvement” projects on which my wife and I had embarked. Stuff like laying stones for a patio, planting trees and perennials. All of this writing was unalleviatedly terrible and had to be trashed. Writing and revision never cease to be hard. My favorite quote on the subject is from Frank O’Connor: “You can’t revise nothing.”
I would love to close with another poem or an excerpt of your choice.
How about the first poem of Tornadoesque? Here it is:
YOUNG MAN AT THE BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO STORE, SATURDAY NIGHT
Nine o’clock rush, and I’m standing in the long checkout line with a DVD
entitled The Perfect Man,
which my nearly twelve-year-old daughter wants us to watch,
when through the electronic sensor
there walks a man so handsome that this whole shop of dreams has to readjust.
The women all take a deeper
breath as if on cue, throw their shoulders back, and turn ever
so slightly to keep him
in their peripheral vision. Nothing has happened, everything has.
genuinely, charmingly unaware of the stir he’s caused.
He has wide blue eyes,
brown hair, sideburns. His face is flushed from the cold outside. He wears
a loose gray T-shirt
that cannot hide, as the bodybuilders like to say, how “ripped”
his torso is, biceps
that bulge like a boa constrictor after swallowing a white rat.
On his veined, tanned forearm
a blue, tattooed Celtic knot uncurls. I want to run my dry tongue
over that maze of lines
cut into his flesh, then stained with indigo inks. But he’s obviously
wholesomely Midwestern, and high-fives some friends standing in line.
They have other plans
for the night. I taste my own loneliness, a wedge of lemon squeezed
into a tall shining wineglass
of ice water. Drink it all down, I tell myself. Crack
the ice cubes between
your teeth. I’ve never slept with a man. My wife says that she’ll leave me if
I do. I understand
her point of view. I do, I do. I look around this store
that rents out stories.
Which one is mine? Where is the bisexual who has decided
to stay in his marriage?
In Little Miss Sunshine, the faggot slits his wrists offscreen in the first scene,
then has to live, wear gauze bandages
like a tennis player’s elastic wristbands for the rest of the film.
We laugh. In Broke-
back Mountain, the two young cowboys make love in the open in full view
of the desolate, panoramic
Rockies. They go back to town, get married, have kids, and cannot leave
their wives or girlfriends
though they live for their “fishing trips” in the mountains together. They writhe
on baited hooks.
One lover gets his head bashed in with a tire iron
by a homophobe
on a west Texas roadside. We cry. Drama. Comedy. Thalia and Melpomene’s
two masks. There must
be other scripts. How do I write this life? All I have is
pencil, crossing one word out, tracing another onto an empty
page. This is Indiana,
America’s “heartland,” a family video store. No man holds hands
here with another
man on the street. Someone has written in pink spray paint
FAGS LIVE HERE
on the sidewalk in front of my gay friends’ house. They scrubbed
it off with turpentine.
Ghosts of those pink letters still remain. My tongue cannot unknot
the knot on the young man’s forearm.