1) Tell us about when you first became interested in poetry. Who were your first poetic influences? When did you begin writing poetry? What do you think poetry does or can do for us today and does this differ from your earliest conceptions of what poetry is/does? etc.
I don’t recall liking much poetry in high school beyond Walt Whitman and some poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson that sat alongside his essays (which also made a significant impact on me) in our textbook. I think I had a passing interest in the Romantics, but it was more the idea of them than their actual poems. I discovered, as many have before and since, Jack Kerouac through his novel On The Road, which led me to poets like Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure by the time I left for college. When I discovered Charles Bukowski in the middle of college, I took a detour for a few years that led to writing really narrative, cynical poems that I loved at the time – but I look back on them now and think, So what? Is that all there is? In a sense, I was being rigorous, learning to pare down my lines, but in retrospect I was relying on lazy storytelling more than anything else at that time.
As the years have gone on, I’ve stayed interested in shorter lyrics, for the most part, coming late to Emily Dickinson but making up for lost time and even preferring her to Whitman these days. Poets like George Oppen, Rae Armantrout, Norma Cole, Michael Palmer, and Robert Creeley have convinced me that every word counts. They’re almost all off-kilter & odd.
As far as what poetry can do... for me, it’s an exercise in mental exploration, both in terms of the pliability of words and sounds and in terms of what gets dredged up, psychologically, during even the most oblique approaches to writing. Grand proclamations about the role of poetry in the world have never interested me very much, but I will say that the poetry community, particularly Philly’s, has been a cornerstone of my sense of self for almost 20 years. Many of my favorite “younger” poets - and as I approach 40, I use that term increasingly loosely – live here in Philly: Frank Sherlock, Kirsten Kaschock, Jenn McCreary, too many others to list here. I’ve been reading Frank and Jenn’s work since college, and to’ve seen their work evolve over a decade and a half is extraordinary.
2) Give us some background on the creation, development, and gestation of Undone. How does this collection differ from your previous collections or current projects? etc.
Undone came about over a period of four years or so. At that point, I’d written two previous collections (The Effacements and Dismembers). My newer poems felt tighter, as they came together, and fairly early on I started to lift material from the two previous books to incorporate into new poems in an effort to “get it right” this time around, which primarily meant editing down overly wordy passages in an effort to distill them and weave them into newer work. Also, I decided on a couple of frames to block out major sections, “The Diamond Sutra” and “Fiend Folio.” Originally, the piece known as “Black Star” was much longer – maybe 20 pages – and incorporated much of what became “The Diamond Sutra.” I was stuck with it, though, feeling like the poem drifted too much and never had much at all to say. Once I conceived of the “Sutra” approach, though, much of the material fell into place. For kicks, I was knocking Neil Diamond song titles (and, at times, lyrics) up against other pop culture sources and some truly bastardized tenets of Buddhism to see what I’d come up with, and through that the Sutras as a sequence came into being. “Fiend Folio,” once I decided on the alphabetic sequence, began to take care of itself, with some of the last pieces (“Martyrs Need Onamism,” for instance) being plotted out specifically to fit the gaps in between earlier pieces such as “Albatross” and “Rue.”
3) What is your favorite or most memorable poem from the collection we're reading? What about the poem, its process, or its inspiration makes it particularly remarkable for you?
“The Black Book” was probably the most satisfying to write, so in that sense it’s my favorite. That one in particular incorporates lots of old material in a way that finally felt right. Beyond that, though, I was pleased with how I managed to sustain (I hope) the poem over so many pages, and I liked the creepy, vaguely cartoonish tone that it strikes. I particularly enjoy the disconnect between the sing-song sound of some of the passages and what’s actually being described within them, which is often quite dark. It’s a blast to read aloud, too – sometimes people laugh, and sometimes I think they’re not sure if bits of it are supposed to be funny or not...
4) What was the most difficult poem for you to write? Why? How did you overcome or think through these challenges?
“Pretty Monsters” was probably the most difficult to write. It’s the piece in the book most explicitly about my own children and the closest I think I come to sentimentality in the book. I kept coming back to the piece over the course of months, reworking and tweaking it, trying to make the narrative more disorienting and therefore, with any luck, intriguing instead of it just being a narrative about my family.
I recognize that what I’m saying has no bearing on a workshop situation at all, where writing has to be produced quite quickly, but the most important thing for me has become giving pieces time – weeks or months to sit – before I come back to finish them. I can bang up against problems in a poem repeatedly as I obsess over it, but then if I let it rest for a while, the solution is almost always obvious as soon as I sit back down to it after an extended breather.
5) What, to your mind, is the overriding concern of Undone? How do specific craft or poetic elements contribute to, intensify, or complicate to this concern?
These are really the first poems that I wrote after becoming a parent and also shifting from teaching college to teaching high school, and the presence of younger people (and generational conflict) is probably evident. “The Great American Songbook” can seem to some people like a toss-off, but it’s the most direct statement in the book, really, about aging, desire, and language itself, and they provide something of an echo chamber for much of what goes on elsewhere in the collection.