A bit, but I talk to myself quite a bit already.
Yes, but I try to normalize it by telling people I’m just talking to my dog. Sometimes I read poetry to her, too.
Does your dog like poetry?
God, I hope so. Otherwise I should be expecting a visit from PETA. No matter how bad the poetry is, though, peanut butter always seems to cheer her up afterwards. I should make a note of that for my next reading: Bring large jar peanut butter.
Have you read any good books lately?
I’ve read quite a few, actually. I’d highly recommend Hoa Nguyen’s As Long as Trees Last, Stacy Szymaszek’s austerity measures, Elizabeth Robinson’s Counterpart, As if It Fell from the Sun (the new Etherdome anthology), Sarah Suzor’s The Principle Agent, and Dan Beachy-Quick’s Circle’s Apprentice. There are really more good books of poetry out there than there is time to read them. Great things are happening right now. Maybe they always are?
Tell us about your own recent book release…
My new book is called Ithaca: A Life in Four Fragments, but you can just call it Ithaca, if you like. Geoffrey Gatza at BlazeVOX Books did a great job with the layout and design for the book. He’s a wonderful editor, publisher, and friend. His help with the book has been invaluable.
I understand you helped design the cover, too?
I did. I’ve been doing a bit of graphic design work lately, trying to round myself out a bit. The cover image is a photographic abstraction of the John Lennon memorial wall in Prague, actually. And I got to use a typeface for the cover text that I’ll never use again as long as I live, which is nice. I can check that one off the list.
Which typeface is that?
It’s called Birth of a Hero. There’s no real reason why anyone who isn’t a font geek would have heard of it.
Would you describe yourself as a “font geek?”
I’m trying to become one. I really am. But it takes time, and no small amount of work to really understand the nuance and importance of typefaces—where serif meets up with seraphim, if you will. If you look at the work that truly dedicated book designers do, it’s obvious I have a long way to go.
Who would you point to as a dedicated book designer?
H.R. Hegnauer, for example, is special. Her books are amazing, and I’m sure she’s forgotten a lot more about typefaces than I’ll ever know. She does freelance work for a bunch of different presses that produce books of experimental/avant garde poetry. You should check her work out.
Avant Garde—is that how you would describe Ithaca?
I suppose that would be one perspective on it. Ithaca’s certainly a direct response to a couple pieces of literature that were very revolutionary in their day. One of things I want to do in the book is move a modernist, rebellious energy forward into the 21st Century, to keep the edge on the English language honed. So, yes, if I’m paying due respect to the significant shoulders I’m standing on, I’d say this book is also experimental, in its own way.
What were the two works you used as reference points?
James Joyce’s Ulysses is first and foremost, and provided fertile ground to grow the language I used for Ithaca. The conceptual framework was inspired by, and spread out from, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called The Circular Ruins.
That sounds like it might be bordering on the presumptuous. Did you really feel these pieces were in particular need of an infusion of new energy?
Not at all. In fact, I find them both conspicuously vibrant and contemporary. I think that’s part of what drew me to the texts, and engaged me with them enough to want to write in conversation with them. In Borges’ story I saw opportunities to apply its themes as metaphors not just for parenting and the creative process, which I believe were Borges’ original intentions, but also for history, politics, and organized religion. Ulysses, on the other hand, was something I imagined breathing. Joyce did the inhalation part—he managed to fill an epic novel (a form that traditionally covers a span of months, years, decades, etc.) with the events of a single day. Part of the beauty of that book is that some of the events are mundane or profane, but they are all very much a part of life. I (somewhat conceitedly, I admit) wanted to keep the life going, to chip in with a possible exhalation. In short, I wanted to expand the language back out to encompass a lifetime; more than that, a book that might even encompass the lifetime of a religion or a country.
Which aspect of The Circular Ruins inspired you most?
The story is, at least in part, about a magician who finds his way to some ancient ruins in a jungle, where he tries to dream a son into existence one detail at a time. After many nights he succeeds, sort of, but an ancient cycle plays itself out, as well, which I won’t give away. I feel a strong resonance between this story and how I feel about the act of writing. I think of poems, stories, essays, and other works of art as children. I think artists have a lot of the same joys and responsibilities as parents. In Ithaca, that process played out as a daughter in the narrative, but there are other human constructs evident, as well.
And what about Ulysses?
With Ulysses it was really the whole book that got me excited. The more I read the book, the more I see it as an extension of the whole history of the English language. Joyce was a genius, and he poured his life into understanding literature in the English language. It’s all in Ulysses
at one point or another, every archetypal form we have. And the more I see that, the more see that the language is riddled with poetry. Poetry just drips from that book. But, even beyond that, I’d say that Molly’s soliloquy at the end of the book was the reason for Ithaca turning out a daughter rather than a son. that chapter kills me every time. The few times I’ve had the guts to teach Ulysses in a class there has always been at least one woman who points objects to Joyce assumptions about what’s going on in a woman’s head, about that stream of consciousness—and the objections are not necessarily the substance of Joyce’s assumptions, but the fact that he makes them at all. I can’t say that I really blame them. However, I usually defend the chapter with a somewhat feeble, “at least he cared enough to try.” Which, as far as I know, was a first for a male author. It may be not much, but I feel it is important to remember. I guess I’m guilty of some of the same sins here. But in this case it is my metaphorical baby, and I do care.
How did the book come about?
Like most books, I guess, this one took years to arrive. I started writing the book back when I was doing graduate studies in Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School, in 2008. I put the book aside to work on my thesis manuscript, but kept it in mind over the next few years. Slowly but surely I got the sequencing worked out and made final decisions about which of the individual poems to keep and which to take. One of the hardest parts was unifying the verb tenses throughout the book. I think the whole thing transitioned from past to present tense and back again three times… It was a long process, but eventually I sent it out into the world to sink or swim on its own. Like a child, I think sooner or later you have to let a book grow up and stop meddling with it. BlazeVOX took it in and gave it a home, and I’m grateful for that. Maybe now Ithaca will find some new friends and I can stop worrying about her all the time.
On that note, are there any other “children” coming along?
I always have several projects in one state or another of non-completion. I’m very excited about a collaborative book that’s coming out next year that I did with my friend Sarah Suzor called After the Fox. I’m also working on a new manuscript that I’m tentatively titling, Hierophant.
What’s a hierophant?
You’re supposed to be a writer. Look it up.