Weekly Prose Feature: “Tame Form + Wild Content: An Interview with Tomás Q. Morín” by Emilia Phillips

March 28, 2013

Tomás Q. MorínTomás Q. Morín is the winner of the 2012 APR/Honickman First Book Prize for his collection A Larger Country. He is co-editor with Mari L’Esperance of the anthology, Coming Close: 40 Essays on Philip Levine. His poems have appeared in Slate, Threepenny Review, Boulevard, New England Review, and Narrative.

Emilia Phillips: “O keep me perpetual Muse, ears roaring with many things,” writes Roethke, an invocation that’s apt for the voices that surge in and out of A Larger Country. Miłosz’s in (perhaps buried in) the poet’s garden, “held close by last season’s tomatoes”; Miklós Radnóti receives a poem in dedication; and, in a cento, we encounter lines borrowed from Donne, Lorca, Mandelstam, Pessoa, Ritsos, and others. Will you speak on how your poems engage with other poets’ work and your motives in doing so? How soon after reading a poet you love do you find yourself responding to elements of their work?

Tomás Q. Morín: I adore that Roethke quote. In all honesty, I can’t help but have the voices of other writers come in and out of my poems. They’re my extended literary family; Donne, Babel, Hemingway, Dickinson… They’re my literary aunts and uncles. Ignoring them would be bad manners, especially when I feel like their work has spoken to me first. It’s best not to ignore your literary elders because let’s face it, they don’t have to talk to us, especially to young writers like me who are still learning their chops. It’s a privilege, really, to be reading something like “Big Two-Hearted River” and suddenly feel like a melody is being suggested to you, a rhythm that you can alter and make your own and take into a poem. I pray moments like that never stop happening to me.

EP: While much of A Larger Country is set in the first person, I never feel bombarded by the Ego. Rather, the first person acts as a kind of mask that I, as a reader, wear to encounter the environs of the poems. This morning, I read an article about a brain-to-brain Internet interface that allows test rats, miles apart from one another, to collaborate cognitively on simple tests for reward. In some ways, I see poetry as a kind of brain-to-brain interface between the speaker/poet and the reader. There may be no cheese at the end of the maze, but if we’ve encountered a good poem, we feel as if we’ve been rewarded. Do you feel as if your poems are a kind of cognitive collaboration between yourself and the reader? How so?

TQM: Those poor rats! While I’m sure the knowledge gained from that experiment is useful to us, it’s such a waste of a rat’s time when no doubt they’d rather be burrowing or cleaning their cheeks in a field we haven’t spoiled yet. Sorry, I digress. You asked whether I see my poems as a cognitive collaboration between the reader and myself: the answer is No. I do, however, hope there is a cognitive collaboration between the poem and the reader. By the time the poem has left me and made its way into the pages of a magazine or a book, it has its own life and while yes, it’s true that I made that poem, I tried to make it so that if I fell off the face of the planet tomorrow, my little poems would survive my passing and keep shaking hands and making friends, or enemies as it were, in spite of my absence. I think my poems are far more interesting than me. They can carry a tune and I can’t. They’re funnier and smarter, as well. Heck, I’d even say the best ones are better looking than me, what with all their handsome symmetry and chiseled lines. I kid, but in all seriousness, the poems are constructed so that they can engage the reader’s mind and ear and inner eye. If I do my job well enough, then I can disappear.

EP: Bachelard wrote that “To read poetry is essentially to daydream.” I’d stretch this further and say that the initial drafting a poem, in its exuberance and mental consumptive quality, is also like daydreaming. Charles Wright speaks of how, when a poet reads his own poem, the poet “becomes / That poem himself / For a little while.” But then comes revision, when we’re told to step out the poem. A Larger Country gives a faint impression of unworldliness—associative and sometimes fantastical—and yet they’re technically adept, with slant rhymes and duplicitous line breaks. The third section is made up of “North Farm,” a series of sonnets. How do you retain the wildness of the first draft, its sense of spontaneity, through rounds of revision? Do you have a sense of form at the beginning?

TQM: When I was drafting the poems in this book, 4-8 years ago, my process was much different than it is now. Today, I would revise a new poem as each new line was written, not moving on to the next line until the prior line was done. This was not the case when I wrote the poems of A Larger Country, with the exception of “Our Prophets.” All the other poems were drafted quickly and then I went through countless drafts until I arrived at a final version. My goal was always to keep the strangeness of the poems in focus by using as a backdrop tried-and-true forms (sonnet, sestina, rhymes) that would hopefully anchor the reader. The way I figured it, tame form + wild content = a poem I hope a lot of readers can handle.

EP: A couple poems in the collection are ekphrastic poems—“Presidential Portrait” and “Winter.” One could even argue that a poem like “Twenty-First Century Exhibit” is an speculative ekphrasis, almost magical realism. How do you start an ekphrastic poem? At what point in the writing process does the ekphrastic subject become more than a simple description and become a poem?

TQM: I can’t speak for others, but for myself if I’m just simply describing the artwork I’m writing about I’ll chunk the draft and start over. I have to enter the art and engage with it mentally before writing anything otherwise it’ll just be false start after false start. So, that’s how I start. If I can start in this way and already have an idea about the art or maybe the art has provoked a question I can’t quite answer yet, then there’s a chance that during the drafting the poem will come to life. You can never really tell though until the end when you step back to see what you’ve made.

EP: I’d like to argue that ekphrasis can also apply to political poems as politics often have an air of production. Many of the poems of A Larger Country seem to have a political undercurrent, some like “Presidential Portrait” and “The Home Front” more blatant than others. What do you believe is poetry’s role in addressing the political? Must political poems, like ekphrastic poems, go beyond reportage and simple description?

TQM: Let me quote a poet far smarter than I am about this. When asked during an interview for Partisan Review about the relationship between poetry and politics, Zbigniew Herbert responded: “It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry. It is not the barometer that changes the weather.” I love this. Barometers are incredibly important tools that can tell you a storm is coming and its time to take shelter. Even so, no one ever chides the barometer for creating the tornado or for not making it dissipate. Yet, some people expect artists to change history. While a poem can’t change the world, it sure has the potential to touch and transform a person who one day might. Now that power can’t be underestimated.

EP: You teach writing and literature at Texas State University. How does your work in the classroom influence your writing? Do students ever trigger new ideas for you?

TQM: Sure, all the time. Since I teach every class using a discussion-based format, the questions that arise about whatever we’re reading sometimes lead to poems. What I find is that sometimes the imaginative side of my brain is better at answering a question in the form of a poem as opposed to in a conversation or in an essay. And of course sometimes the result is simply more questions, which is fine by me. I also love the enthusiasm of my students. Ditto for their sense of wonder. For them someone like Miroslav Holub or Nelly Sachs are still unknown writers, which is a treat for me because I get to watch my students engage the works of poets new to them in ways I might not have considered.

EP: Do you remember your first attempts at writing, on the page or otherwise? Do you think that those moments influence your writing today?

TQM: The first poems I wrote were for high school assignments. Back then before I knew anything about publications, awards, or grants, I just wrote for me and it was fun. I went away from that for a while in graduate school when I tried to write the poems I thought others wanted to read. It took some time before I found my voice and began writing instead the poems I wanted to read every time I opened a journal or a book.

EP: What are you working on right now? Are there any dream projects you’d like to take on one day?

TQM: This summer I hope to look at the order of my second collection of poems and try to figure all that out. I’m fairly certain which poems will be in the book, I just don’t know yet what story I want them to tell. Other than that, I’m just looking forward to the next poem. And the one after that.

EP: What (or who) are you most excited about in contemporary poetry?

TQM: What I’m most excited about with regards to contemporary poetry is the diversity of voices and styles. This is great news for the reader because she has so many options to choose from, to find the poetry or poetries that speak most to her taste and interests. Contemporary American poetry is a 24 hour buffet serving everyone all day any time.

As for who I’m excited about right now, there are so many new voices that are doing good work. Traci Brimhall, for one. Her imagination is terrific. It’s wild and crazy-funky. I trust it completely and would follow it anywhere on the page. Dave Lucas and Melissa Stein both have a texture to their music that I love. The sound of their poems is rough, and blue, yet always delivered with elegance. I want to hear more of it because I can’t get enough.

Sebastian Matthews*: I’m curious when and how much you think about the point of view of the poem you’re working on. Do you say, “I’m going to try a second person address for this poem,” or do you find yourself switching from “I” to “you” halfway through the composition process?

TQM: I think about point of view a lot. Usually, though, if a first draft is flowing smoothly, I won’t notice that the point of view is all wrong until that draft is done and I have a chance to step back and look at it objectively. At that point, I can usually tell that the point of view is wrong quickly. It’s like listening to a band one of whose players is in the wrong key. It jumps out at you immediately.

EP: Now, Tomás, provide us with a question to ask the next interviewee.

TQM: Since poetry long ago first appeared on the scene as the one and only written genre, it has given up ground to fiction, plays, history, etc. Are there any poets who you feel are taking back some of that ceded ground and reclaiming it for poetry?

Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. On February 22nd, we published an “An Interview with Sebastian Matthews” by Justin Bigos.

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