Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Interview with Kevin Prufer, author of National Anthem

Jeremy Spohr, an MFA candidate at Arizona State University, recently interviewed Kevin Prufer, whose 4th collection of poems, National Anthem has just been named as one of Publishers' Weekly's Best Books of 2008.

JS: What gets you started when you sit down to write? Do you generally begin with a line, an image, an idea? When working on a book, to what extent do you purposely hinge poems together, letting a previous poem inform the next through image or theme, or does this happen naturally, almost unconsciously, through the immersion of your process?

KP: I’m terrible at starting poems. I’d rather do almost anything else. I pace around the room, type a line, delete it, type another, delete it. Usually, that’s all I’ll do in an evening, start and delete ten or twelve poems, never getting more than a line or two into any. Once I find something I’m happy with—often beginning with a line borrowed from elsewhere, then, later, revised off the page—the writing becomes easier. At a certain point, perhaps eight or ten lines in, I generally stop and ask myself, “who exactly is speaking here?” and “why is he speaking?” and “what’s the back story here?” Those are important questions for me. They keep me focused on what the poem is trying to do. They keep me imagining an actual audience for my poetry, which is important.

I understand that this also ties the poems down to certain narrative lines and moments, which is perhaps not the most fashionable way to be writing right now. But I continue to believe that most every good poem has buried in it somewhere the seed of narrative. Sometimes the narrative isn’t directly stated in the poem, but is implied by the speaker’s urgent need to say the poem. What caused that? Isn’t that a narrative?

Putting together a book is an entirely different sort of process, made easy for me only because I’m an obsessive sort of writer. I’ll become fascinated by an image—the moon burning, a parachute falling through the sky—and it just keeps sneaking into my poems, over and over again. And, in a broader sense, I can’t seem to help writing about empire and about death. These are endlessly interesting to me and even when I try to write away from them, I end up returning. So, ultimately, I’m never thinking about a complete book when I’m writing poems, but they do tend to fit together nicely once I start compiling them. And the links you notice are certainly there; it’s just that they don’t rise to the surface until I start assembling a pile of finished poems into a collection. Before that, they’re just obsessions.

JS: Let’s talk about “The Enormous Parachute.” It covers the suburbs like a synthetic, post-apocalyptic snow. It homogenizes the light and is responsible for the deaths of migrating birds. There is an attention to burial in National Anthem —the snow that covers the planes on the airstrip, the piled leaves that bury children, the rotting apples that bury the boys in their trucks—and I read the expanse of parachute as another covering, a sort of burial. There is, after all, a dead man hung at its center. The poem, a series of letters written by one of the covered, enriches and informs readings of other poems in the book, such as “Caravaggio’s Bent Narcissus” and “The Excavation of the Children of the Czar.” I also note that the cover of National Anthem is Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, partially wrapped. Can you discuss this sense of burial, or covering, in terms of National Anthem’s specific themes?

KP: Well, these are certainly things that I’m very conscious of writing about and, in retrospect, I think they function in two ways in National Anthem (and perhaps in my next book, too).

On the one hand, the book is largely about empire, our expanding empire, in particular and the force we exert on the world. Images of “covering” certainly function to reinforce that theme, the way we manage to cover up the world as we expand over it, the way we cover it with our gaze.

But that sounds didactic. I’m just as interested in what I’ve always taken to be one of Whitman’s great questions, that is: where is there room for the individual American in the vastness of America, in the sweeping political and social forces that surround us. “The Enormous Parachute” is, for me, a sort of love poem, in which the yearning of the speaker manifests itself in the giant parachute that appears to have covered his entire world, at the center of which a dead paratrooper hangs. But the parachute (as it does in several other poems in the book) also suggests airplanes and a war, hinting at that struggle that I often worry about when I write: how important are we? Are the speaker’s loneliness and love really meaningful to anyone but himself? Can we really distinguish ourselves by our acts, feelings, selves, against the overwhelming forces of the world? This yearning is very large for the speaker, but it’s meaningless for the rest of the world with whom he cannot share it, even in the letters that, ultimately, he never sends.

I suppose that’s also a question behind so many of the so-called elegies in the collection and behind the other poems you cite: we cannot help but obliterate ourselves against the enormity of our world. But, finally, I hope the book suggests that this isn’t an excuse from political thought or action. And I hope, too, that it doesn’t mean we’re meaningless in the world.

JS: Read together, “Ars Poetica” and “There Is No Audience For Poetry” suggest an innate force in poetry to speak against power despite doing very little to change the nature, or structure, of that power. Is this an adequate reading? What does poetry make happen? Can you discuss your take on the poet’s political responsibilities? Would you say that the celebrant, the “light-in-the-eye” speaker in “Ars Poetica” who drops “love notes” is engaged in a political act?

KP: That’s a very adequate, if sad, reading. And, yes, I’d imagined the guy in the trunk to be the poet and the people driving the car to be, I don’t know, the American voter, our elected officials, the mob. I think you’re right to say those poems speak against power while acknowledging that we’re mostly really too tiny to make much happen, those of us sitting in our studies writing our useless little poems, locked in the trunks of cars banging that tire iron against the walls trying to get someone’s, anyone’s, attention. Depressing, and for the record, I don’t always feel that way, even if the poem does.

Ultimately, though, I think that expecting poetry to change the world in any immediate, political way is a mistake. It misunderstands where the art is most powerful. I’ve always felt that great poetry—the kind of poetry we all want to write—doesn’t really rally the troops, get out the vote, or provide answers. At least not now, in this country. Instead, poetry seems to me to be an art form uniquely suited to expressing or examining complexity, to asking difficult questions rather than answering them. I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson, whose great poems seem at once to believe in an all-powerful God, to doubt His existence, to worry about his absence and fear his presence. She never takes a side there; instead, she displays for us the complexity of the question, suggesting how and why we might know God and the afterlife in simultaneously conflicting ways. Understanding Dickinson—or Bradstreet or Eliot or Bishop, etc.—often means holding conflicting positions in mind simultaneously as we try to understand or know things that are, finally, not completely knowable.

But, of course, while these poets don’t “make things happen” in the way I think most people would understand the phrase, they do help us understand the world around us a little better, they help us see the big questions in ways we might now otherwise have seen them. They have helped us understand who we are as a very complicated culture, what our ideals and fears and beliefs are. In this way, they are tremendously important. They do make things happen.

As regards my own poems and politics: Yes, my subjects are often very political, but hopefully not simplistically so. I loathe our current administration, would love to see our rather jingoistic sense of what is means to be American revised — but I’m not delusional. I hold the poets I mention above as models because I’m interested in expressing the complexity of what it means to be an American alive at this time, in an increasingly deceptive, shaky, maybe malevolent empire. When I write, my feelings are primarily ambivalent; I find myself writing about outrage and beauty with equal fervor. I hope, one day, to have a fraction of the influence on the way we think about ourselves as any of the poets I mentioned above.

JS: There is that wonderful last image in “Mechanical Bird” of the “neatly feathered” mechanical sparrow that has replaced the heart, “the bird in the chest/that sings these words to it/that beats its wings against the ribs’ restraints.” For me, this image inverts the boy pounding inside the car’s trunk and serves as an example of an interesting ambiguity in your work. I find myself wanting some clear demarcation between the organic, natural body and that of the mechanical, or the synthetic product. But there is no easy distinction in National Anthem. Airplanes are the mirrored image of a dying bird. Cars are compared to the human body where hearts whir like motors. Raindrops are hypodermics, and ice leaves a circuitry on windows. I think also of those lines in the title poem: “What was the body but a vessel, and what was the store but another, larger vessel?” These lines extend this lack of clear distinction to the structure of institutions, so that even a shopping center seems to be an animate, natural phenomenon with which we are in relationship. There are blurred limits, then, between the individual organism and the machineries of culture. Will you discuss the central ideas behind this ambiguity?

KP: That’s a difficult question mostly because my sense of the answer varies from poem to poem. In a very general way, I’m interested in the idea that our culture is an extension of ourselves, both good and bad. That we can’t really talk about who we are (as a collection of individuals) without talking about what we’ve created. Machinery often seems like a useful way of communicating this—that we are like these complicated, God-created machines that create other synthetic products and machines. That’s our function; it’s absolutely who we are and how we define ourselves as we move across the landscape.

Conversely, even as we look at the natural world, we come to own it, transforming those raindrops into hypodermics, that ice into circuitry. So the metaphor of “synthetic things” or “machinery” works both ways.

In the title poem, the shopping mall is just such an ambivalent sort of object—a thing simultaneously beautiful and soulless that we have created. We are both, the mall and the speaker, these mirroring vessels filled with goods, both created things, the speaker in the poem unable (and not really wanting) to be extricated from the objects of his culture.

That’s one way machinery and created objects work in the poems, though not the only way. After all, I wrote these poems one by one over a period of several years. They’re inconsistent. And I certainly don’t mind if readers see them differently.

JS: There is a cinematic quality in much of your work, a framing of visual images that flicker and drive the narrative forward. I’m thinking of “Apocalypse,” “We Wanted To Find America,” and “A History of the American West,” among others. Have the visual arts—film and painting in particular—influenced your work?

KP: They definitely have, especially film. When I think about poetry—my own and others’—I like to imagine the accretion of images the way a film director might. Why, I ask, did the camera tilt here? Why did it come to rest there? What kind of story is being told by the progression of images one atop the other, and how are we, the audience, being manipulated by these directorial choices? I came to writing poetry through fiction writing and almost always see my writing—even my most condensed, lyrical poems—as narratives unfolding.

Curiously, though, I almost never find myself thinking about particular films or works of art when I write, with the exception of the poem “Caravaggio’s Bent Narcissus,” which I wrote particularly for a friend who was editing a feature on ekphrastic poetry at Prairie Schooner. If she hadn’t asked, I probably wouldn’t have written that poem—and even as it is, I sometimes think it’s connection to Caravaggio’s painting of Narcissus is almost arbitrary, except that the painting inspired it and is alluded to in the end.

JS:I’d like to ask a question about form. In the forward to The New Young American Poets, an anthology you edited, Richard Howard writes:

Ours, then, is a generation of poets that knows not the Law, and though the results of such ignorance are often brilliant, and certainly worth our delighted attention, we shall discover that the poetry of the moment…is a literature of desperate measures, dreadful freedoms that only the strongest and most resolute talents can endure.

As a poet who spends a great deal of time reading contemporary poetry, can you speak about our “dreadful freedoms” that Howard alludes to, the potential hazards and/or benefits to being a “generation […] that knows not the Law?” What is your background with forms? Do you feel it is important for younger poets to learn and experiment with forms?

KP: I remember first reading Richard Howard’s statement, thinking it delightfully ambivalent and smart about these freedoms we’re all supposedly enduring. And it makes me think about a panel I was recently on at Indiana University. Someone in the audience asked about rules and forms and Jean Valentine, who sat next to me, said something to the effect that one of the things that drew her to poetry was that there were really no rules.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I decided that there are, in fact, lots and lots of rules and we devise them and break them at our peril. Every good poem, free verse or not, is also a formal poem, in that it takes a formal position, a stance, as it articulates itself to the reader. And every good poem is also formal in that it has a shape, often invented by the poet, that, ideally, works hand-in-hand with what the poem is trying to do. Here it begins, here it turns, here the line speeds up or the rhythm falters, here the poet has inserted a little slant rhyme or unsettling sonic dissonance. These are all formal decisions and if the poet’s not aware that he’s making them, well, he’s probably not writing very well.

This doesn’t actually contradict Richard Howard (or, for that matter, Jean Valentine, who is very smart about poetry), but it does add another perspective to what I think they’re after. I suppose the terrible freedom Howard refers to is the freedom to devise our forms, though once we have we end up working within their rules.

Inherited forms first brought me to poetry. I loved the bravura of the villanelle, sestina, ballad, double dactyl. I still enjoy writing sonnets, several of which will be included in my next book. One thing that drew me to these when I started writing—and still draws me to them today—is the feeling of inevitability they create in the reader. We know the sonnet must end on something like the 140th syllable and we can feel it coming, though the poet (hopefully) moves us or surprises us within the confines of that inevitability. We know whether the next syllable will be weak or strong, we know that here there will be a rhyme and over there will come a corresponding rhyme. Much of the musical terrain is familiar to the reader, and this creates a different kind of freedom in the writing. Because many (though not all, certainly) of the formal choices have been made already, I feel freer to concentrate on the manipulation of the form rather than it’s invention; it focuses the mind and sharpens the ear.

So, yes, I also think student writers should write in inherited forms. Absolutely. And it’s best if they don’t think of it as a sort of exercise, but approach those forms with the same ambition that they have for their other poetry. A poet who cannot compose a sonnet is perhaps not a very dexterous writer. Either that, or she hasn’t quite familiarized herself with the tradition in which she writes.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh—but somewhere inside me, I half believe it.

Jeremy Spohr is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University.

Kevin Prufer is the author of Fallen from a Chariot, The Finger Bone, and Strange Wood. He is the editor of PLEIADES: A Journal of New Writing. He is the recipient of an individual fellowship from the NEA, three Pushcart Prizes, and two George Bogin Awards from the Poetry Society of America. He is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC). He lives in rural Missouri.