September 22, 2015
Can you talk a little about the cover of Splendor, your first book of poems?
Growing up, I was always excited to read a new Christopher Pike book. I remember where they were kept at our local book store, with the other kids’ books on shelves that covered the whole back wall. Christopher Pike books, for the uninitiated, are teen genre thrillers that straddle science fiction, mystery, horror, suspense, and fantasy. Embedded within these stories were questions, or hints of questions, about mortality, time, desire, the limits of human experience, and story-telling itself. I loved the books, even down to their repetitive, marketing qualities—the dreamy, California, quasi-suburban setting of many of the books, the formulaic and familiar narrative devices, and the pulpy covers which always depicted an illustrated scene from the book in bright or neon colors. The covers were a tantalizing snapshot of the world contained within the book.
I wanted the cover of Splendor to have that same feeling of promise and thrill. When I was working with Bri Hermanson, who illustrated the cover, I asked her to conjure a scene of an alien astronaut explorer overlooking an alien landscape, with a nod to the Pike book covers. Bri’s arid, volcanic landscape, done in pink and turquoise colors, feels at the same time desolate and invigorating, which fits the tone of the book. She’s an incredible artist and was really fun to work with.
Can you talk about some of the books you were reading as you wrote Splendor?
One book I carried around was a chapbook of the Spanish poet Francisca Aguirre, The Other Music: Selected Poems from the 1970s, translated by Montana Ray and published by Argos Books. Aguirre’s poems in that book deal directly with abstract emotion in a way similar to Catullus, in his poem Odi et amo (I hate and I love). Her poems in that book are odd and fraught. (One begins: “Sunday falls on me, / falls / with that slowness of final things, / also with that falling apart / of things without cause, / of living without intention, / of what begins in something closed…”) I also often had with me Rachel B. Glaser’s book of poems MOODS, from Factory Hollow Press, which I like for its intelligence and playfulness.
In addition, I was reading George Herbert and Robert Herrick, two 17th century poets. One of George Herbert’s lines—“My thoughts are all a case of knives”—was repeating itself in my head. Clean, spare, specific, and strange.
How has the Internet influenced your writing?
Via the Internet I’ve brushed up against viewpoints, voices, and creative endeavors that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Some of this is in the form of poetry, fiction and essays from small presses and journals, as well as long-established writing institutions and magazines. But I also am inspired by other glimpses into people’s perceptions—videos on youtube, discussion forums, twitter, or blogs.
What are some things you’ve recently read or seen online that stayed with you and that you’d like to share?
– Dara Wier’s long poem “The Usual Ratio of Banality to Wonder,” published in The Divine Magnet.
– Amy Boesky’s personal essay “The Ghost Writes Back,” chronicling her experience ghost-writing Sweet Valley High books, published in The Kenyon Review.
– Daniel Mendelsohn’s personal essay “The American Boy,” which explores coming of age, corresponding with an author, being gay in the 1970s in the United States, becoming a writer, and the writing and personal life of Mary Renault, published in The New Yorker.
– David OReilly’s The External World, an unsettling animated short film that documents a little of what it is like to live now, and to be an artist, available to watch here.
Do you think this is an exciting time for poetry?
Yes. The means of production are in the hands of the people more than ever. Publishers and editors continue to do important work of selecting, nurturing, promoting, publishing, and distributing work, curating from the vast ocean of writing, but the relative ease of production and dissemination means that more tastes and experiences are finding readers. You don’t need permission from huge institutions or a few select publishing houses (although they continue to publish excellent writers and contribute in valuable ways). You don’t have to write in a “prevailing style” in the hopes of pleasing an imagined arbiter of taste. The books I’ve carried around with me in the past year have all been put out by small presses, so I’m grateful for the environment that allowed these writers to publish their work, and that I was able to find it.
What arts are you drawn to, besides poetry and writing?
I’m drawn to houses, buildings, landscapes, gardens, and other large, architectural spaces. I dream about interior spaces with rooms that open onto more and more rooms. When I watch TV or movies, I love to see the phony spaces that set designers created to indicate a life, to varying degrees of verisimilitude—the bold or demure paint colors of the walls, the precisely hung art, the brand new or battered sofas, the lack or inclusion of clutter. I like settings and interior spaces in books. (Manderley, its grounds and rooms.) I like malls and how each store is like a diorama or museum display of an imagined lifestyle or life. I’m interested in how information is coded into landscapes and spaces—information, for example, about values, class, or money. (Like how, in a movie, a woman’s messy apartment is maybe supposed to clue us in to the fact that her life has run off the rails, or how, in a different movie, green, red, and gold wallpaper is supposed to make us perceive a warm holiday glow.)
I like how the architecture of a city documents its history.
I like mansions and the feeling of mansions while also feeling sharply the unfairness of wealth being concentrated in that way (that’s the nice thing about pretty museums, fancy libraries, and other ornate public spaces that allow the general population to experience opulence on that scale).
I like how different an architectural space is from other kinds of art—you actually exist inside of it. It’s physical and large. Unlike poetry, which is entirely words, architecture doesn’t need to be filtered through language in order to be experienced.
I think it’s interesting that an architect cannot really work alone and unfettered. He must take into account the tastes and needs of his client, as well as the budget and the available property. So many external constraints. Unlike poetry, which can be produced by a single person with a library card, a pen, and a notebook, architecture is so tied to money and need—so it’s really amazing when a special building, park, or other space is created.
Is there any useful advice you’ve received?
Once someone told me that not everyone is going to like you. I think that’s helpful to remember as a person and a writer.
Another person told me (in my capacity as a teacher, but I think it also applies to writing) that it’s not necessary to change yourself to fit someone else’s expectations, style, or needs. If you’re a good fit, they’ll stay; if not, they’ll find a better fit with someone else.
What advice would you give to a younger person who is interested in being a writer (or other kind of artist)?
No one is going to create anything for you, or make anything happen for you. You won’t receive an invitation to begin. If you want to make something, you will have to do it yourself.