My family’s actual last name is “Ripatransone,” like the town in the Marche region of Italy. The “z” was mistakenly substituted for the “ns” when they reached America. Our lives are filled with those mistakes and misunderstandings. Sometimes it’s best to simply roll with them.
You must like End Zone by Don DeLillo, right? For obvious linguistic and ethnic reasons.
If DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Andre Dubus, Flannery O’Connor, and Ron Hansen are your favorite fiction writers, who are your favorite poets?
My favorite poets? That’s a more difficult list. I tend to fall in love with individual books, or often single poems. Poetry is like a pinch, a twist of the skin. There’s a mark left, but it often disappears. Right now I’m still feeling the pull of two books–The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka, which gives boxing its poetic due, and should be paired with Leonard Gardner’s novel, Fat City–and Fables by Sarah Goldstein, which feels like I’ve discovered a new wooded world. I still feel the sting of a poem, “Goodbye” by Devon Branca, which reads as so final and yet so fulfilling at the same time.
Do you read and write more poetry or fiction?
I tend to be a seasonal reader and writer. I read a lot of poetry in the winter. I begin with Robert Frost, because why not? I like to return to writers like him and Ernest Hemingway, who people have written off because of their supposed ubiquity, but who really retain many gifts (look at Frost’s “Home Burial”). Summer is for reading and writing fiction. I can write poetry year-round, but I’ve got to be in the mood.
You mean inspired?
I’m always inspired because I’m alive. It’s a gift to be able to do this. I don’t need outside inspiration. I need time. And if, and when, I get it, I use it. It would scare me to have all day long to write. I need pockets of time, spaces where it is tempting to write before the clock strikes the end. That’s where poems are born for me, when time is so compressed that the idea sparks out.
Do you require structure?
If you mean fixed poetic forms, no. I like rhythm, because I think rhythm equals reason and control. I sometimes try to stress the free in free verse and end up with sloppy lines. I print out those poems and when I see the black against the white page I take a newly sharpened pencil and attack, and the structure reveals itself. I like desks in rows, I like people staying in their lanes–both on the road, and on the track. I like backs against pews and choral responses.
You are Catholic?
Let me guess. You love the writing of Gerard Manley…
Hopkins. Yes. The 19th century Jesuit priest, whose prosody strikes the new eye as postmodern. He had one of the sharpest poetic minds ever. I was first introduced to his work by a professor who did not believe in God. Belief that bursts through perfect verse doesn’t need to convert; it simply converses. It makes us listen.
Your most recent book is actually a novella, This Darksome Burn.
And its title comes from the first three lines of Hopkins’s poem, “Inversnaid.”
So are you a poet, or a fiction writer?
I’m not sure why I have to choose.
I arrange and select words. If those words seem to value a columnar feel, a cadence, a pointed finish, then I’ll choose poetry. If those words call for profluent development, scene by scene observation, asides and assumptions, I’ll write it as fiction.
You are being evasive here.
Some of my favorite prose has been written by poets. I like W. B. Yeats’s fiction. His Red Hanrahan stories are raw, spinning, obscene. We’re all poets, really, when it comes down to phrases.
What is your single favorite poem?
“Sow” by Sylvia Plath. Pastoral + pigs + psychedelic + Plath = perfection.
Do you think poets should read both contemporary and older poetry?
Yes. I think the different generations and time periods can be used as balances against each other. If I could offer a reading regimen for poets, it would be to keep three stacks: the old, the recent, and the current. The old would contain the work of the metaphysics, how poets like John Donne could place love next to lust, rigor next to freedom. It would also contain the Psalms, and the work of Hopkins. The recent would be Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, WB Yeats, Plath and others (I know that’s an incredibly wide definition of “recent”). The current would begin with the work that appears in literary magazines. Spread out a few: Colorado Review, Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, and The Missouri Review, while you have tabs open to The Collagist and Guernica. Find poets in those pages and get their books. The synthesis of those three sources—the old, the recent, and the current—will keep you clever, honest, and open. It will also surprise you, because if you can’t be surprised, you can’t provide that experience for others. Because that’s the goal of the poetry you write and revise to publish. The poetry you craft in private is for you. The poems you offer to others are gifts. Make them good gifts.