Can you tell us a bit about the Iowa Poetry Prize?
The Iowa Poetry Prize is administered by the University of Iowa Press—it has a long and venerable history—and it doesn’t hurt that the university is also home to the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. The prize is awarded yearly to two poets in an open competition, blind submission process.
Could you disclose a summary of the labor required in writing/revising/submitting the manuscript for CLOUD OF INK?
My first book, Interloper, took six years to develop and find a publisher—during that time it was a finalist for several prizes, including the National Poetry Series, but it was always a bridesmaid, never a bride—that is, until it at long last broke through and won the Juniper Prize in 2008. Cloud of Ink has had the opposite trajectory—I wrote most of the poems within a two-year period and sent off a bare bones manuscript (50 pages) to three contests last April—I was not expecting success—just hoping for maybe a scribble from someone saying to keep at it—it was a test run—I was shocked—and pleased--that the manuscript was chosen by the University of Iowa. Then I really had to scramble to beef up the book (adding another twelve poems, switching out some others) and revising it for publication. I had about six weeks from the date of its selection to deliver the final version.
What do you say to those eager to publish, to share their work with an audience?
The desire for an audience is essential because it propels you to make your poetry as engaging as it can be—it also pushes you to reflect on your aesthetic, what you value in poetry—and it moves you away from self-indulgent writing to work that demands respect and attention. Having said this, it’s very easy, almost too easy, to self-publish and self-promote in the internet age. We are part of a generation of writers that may be more interested in self-expression than in the rich and complex tradition of poetry. So there’s a lot of clutter online and in the bookstores and at the universities. This is the unfortunate by-product of the democratization of poetry. Anyone can claim to be a poet—it’s a simple matter of egotism and marketing. The upside is that poetry is not reserved for a select elite.
How is it you discern between premature poems & poems that have fermented?
For me, it’s all a matter of feel. Some poems feel amazing right out of the gate and only require a few drafts to get them to where they need to be. Others have a longer gestation—up to thirty or thirty-five versions. I’ve learned not to be overly smitten by the euphoria of the first draft. The best test is to let them sit, and then slowly, methodically question every word, line, punctuation mark. When I’ve done that and feel satisfied, then I know they’re at least close to finished, though I always reserve the right to tinker.
Pseudo-frontispiece =Wallace Stevens. What does this quote represent to you? In what context do you read it? What, to you, is the purpose of a frontispiece?
The epigraph is from the poem “Of the Surface of Things.” Wallace Stevens is, well, to my mind, everything a poet should be, so by invoking Stevens I’m saying something about my aesthetic. That particular poem is one of many of his that describe poetry as the back-and-forth relationship between reality and the imagination. The poem ends with the singer (likely, the poet) putting a cloak over his head and there encountering the moon—of course, it can’t be the real moon—only a figment conjured out of his experience with the night sky and then reinterpreted in the imagination. I like that the quote says that “the world is beyond my understanding”—I think this is always the position of the poet. The poem becomes a way of making a different kind of sense—dreamy, fabulous—than the poet might typically resort to in the ordinary world.
Epigraphs are portals, a window into who the poet is influenced by—look closely, you see the world behind the fictive world of the poet.
Is it your intent for each poem to have the “Pelican” effect? By “Pelican” I mean (in reference to the poem “The Lily Always Hangs Its Head”) the altering element of personal perception/individual interpretation. Is this to be accounted for— different versions & differing impressions of the same? Or is it a subconscious result of the creative mind? Is this a mark of all art?
The universe inspires leaps of the imagination. In this particular poem, the bud of the lily, its long and elliptical form, invites comparisons to similarly-shaped things—zeppelins, pelican heads! All art is extrapolation, interpretation—certainly artistic vision is personal and idiosyncratic to the artist (mine is admittedly peculiar)—but it should also push audiences to consider the world in the same wild way. My mind is very logocentric but it’s also very visual; and that’s why my poetry relies so heavily on image and metaphor. So yes, it’s a “subconscious revolt of the creative mind” but it’s also something intentional and cultivated. I’m training my mind on that bud and letting my imagination go where it will. Emerson, in his essays, was particularly adept at this kind of meditative, analogous, sideways thinking.
That, in your lack of forthrightness for what’s defined/definite, you compensate by permitting an ample amount of energy attentive towards the beauty of breadth, as though you’ve acknowledged language as somewhat limiting to what Is, and that when we use language we limit ourselves with such utterances. Do you think the way to overcome the discrepancies of language is by exposing its flaws?
All of us see the world as it is, that is, as we’ve been taught to see it. Art explodes our prepackaged ways of looking. “Energy” is the right word—I want to transfer the energy from the detonations in my own brain to the brains of the audience. Really, I’m not trying to be coy or evasive in my poems—I’m giving the reader very clear language—it’s just they’re not expecting the strangeness of my associations. It all comes down to what people expect from poetry—a poem is not a tweet or a text message—a poem reminds us that language is a complex network of signification—straightforward, logical, semantic sense is only one way words communicate—there are also other dimensions to words—image sense, sonic sense, graphic sense—these come across in powerful but nonlinear ways. Poetry is much more like painting than it is a story or an essay or a piece of journalism—because it is multi-sensory, it creates an atmosphere or mood as much as it attempts to make an argument—I think we have to come to it with different
expectations. The most important thing a poem can do is make us FEEL. Meaning arrives in
retrospect and after many readings.
Scope of your imagination is spacious—it asks/invites reader to witness ones peripheral with a dilated eye. Though, the poems in Cloud of Ink lack strict cohesion. (Fortunately, a poem can defy physics!). The narrator seems enveloped by incoherence. When it comes to clarity, what do you ask of yourself as an artist? Would you argue for an art-form that impedes momentum?
Incoherence is certainly not the goal of the book—nor its arrangement. I think a collection of poetry is more like a symphony than a narrative—there are motifs that run through the composition—variations on a theme. I think the book is preoccupied with mortality and what we leave behind—especially writers with their “clouds of ink.” These clouds shift in shape depending on how they’re interpreted and who is glossing them. Clouds also change colors. And clouds are ephemeral—they appear for a while then disappear—that sudden changeability was really attractive to me as a subject to explore in this book. I would also say that language is never as transparent as it seems. Take a Robert Frost poem like “The Road Not Taken.” On the surface, the interpretation of this poem appears to be very clear (take the road less traveled; go your own way), but the more you press into it, the more you realize that Frost is saying many things at once—the details of the poem reveal that the two roads are actually “worn… about the same” and “both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black”—so which one was less-traveled? Did the speaker just guess? Did he guess wrong or right?—and what exactly is the “difference” that his choice made? Positive? Negative? Is the speaker simply rationalizing his decision because quite frankly he couldn’t travel both roads and he has some regret?—these questions complicate what had on first read seemed like the plain sense of the poem—the meaning turns out to be much more ambiguous—and I would say the poem is richer for the different possibilities.
There’s a strange combination of eloquent diction and a rapid delivery of images/ideas. The quick shifts can become confusing. How do you choose whether or not to employ an image? Sometimes it seems that there’s little harnessing of them. Do you want the reach of each poem to surpass its original idea or image? What do you think a reader’s responsibility is?
The mind is creative and generative—always revising—always reformulating—I want my poetry to emulate these sudden transformations. William Carlos Williams said, “a poet’s greatest gift is motion, a rapid, energetic, changing onwardness of mind.” That’s not a bad goal for poetry.
What would you say to someone who considers surrealism to be escapist?
Escape to what? I would contend that, rough paraphrase of Shelley, poets make strange the familiar and familiar the strange. That’s their job—to shock us back into recognition. I think a poem like “Liquefaction” tries to do this. The speaker encounters an octopus, and not knowing what it was or why it was there, he guts it. This suggests something about the human (perhaps male) tendency to kill and dissect in order to consume, but it also suggests that the wilderness is a wild place—you never know what marvelous thing will steal upon you and transform you. The strangeness of surrealism is really a way to leave the world in order to return to it with a renewed understanding and a renewed sense of wonder. It also invites into a kind of playfulness that has been lost on most “realists.”
Wallace Stevens, in his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” claims that the pressures of reality influence the state of one’s imagination. Would you agree? How does contemporary-America’s reality affect the imagination of its people? Could you identify a couple “colophons” of modern (or is it post-modern?) mans’ art?
We live in a violent, commercialized, sexualized, materialistic age—an America overwhelmed by messages. Art, if it’s going to be heard, has to shout—that was Flannery O’Connor’s viewpoint and I think it’s still true today. At the same time, literature has to be more than sensational—it has to express what the writer believes to be true or possible—it has to re-imagine the beautiful—it has to give voice to the groanings too deep for words—groanings that come with living in the wreck of the world—in other words, it has to be personal and it has to matter.
Inform us if you would, on what poetry has been/is/can be.
T. S. Eliot said that “poets are occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail and yet meanings still exist.” The poet is a frontiersman, always pushing himself to the edge of articulation, saying out loud the things that cannot be said—whether that be because they come from the unconscious/ the spiritual or because they are meanings that can only be pointed to, suggested, never completely defined by language. How can one encapsulate, for example, the significance of a father’s death? The experience is so raw, so profound, the emotions so complex,
you have to subsume them in metaphor, and you have to approximate (i.e., get as close as you can), and you have to give audiences the feelings even if you stumble with the thoughts. That’s what poetry is for.
Zachary Tomaszewski Interviews L.S. Klatt
Can you tell us a bit about the Iowa Poetry Prize?