Prose Feature: “Still the World: An Interview with Ryan Teitman” by Emilia Phillips

July 3, 2015

Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: In a statement accompanying your poem “Another Country” on the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-a-Day for January 9, 2014, you say that you often return to the work of Larry Levis when you need inspiration and that this poem arrived after reading his poem “The Map” from his second collection, The Afterlife. Talk to me a little bit about how reading others’ poems returns you to yours. Are you ever afraid that your subsequent poems will sound like someone else’s? Could you call these poems “imitations?”

Ryan Teitman: Strangely, I think the opposite has happened—the more I’ve imitated others, the more my own voice has asserted itself. In graduate school, I read a lot of different poets and wrote a lot of imitations. But the more I imitated others formally, the more I began to sound like myself. In writing an imitation, the most interesting moments come from the parts of yourself that you can’t cover up—the parts that break through the constraints you’ve put up in order to sound like someone else.

And, to complicate matters more, I think the question of poems “sounding like someone else’s” is an interesting—and slippery—one. If you look at W.S. Merwin’s poems now and his poems from The Moving Target, don’t they look like they were written by different people? They were, in a way. The Merwin of 50 years ago is not the same person as Merwin now. And as for me, the poems I’m writing now tend to be different from the ones in my first book. I’m happy about that. I think I’m more afraid of imitating myself than sounding like someone else.

EP: I know you’ve been working on your second book manuscript, The Dream Protects the Dreamer. Would you mind telling us how you’ve avoided imitating yourself from the first book, Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012). What new things are you finding in your work?

RT: In my first book, I think I was interested in the spectacle of a poem; now I seem more interested in the gestures a poem can make. My new poems are more stripped down and controlled, and I think that’s a good thing. The poems in Litany were also heavily laden with the language and cadences of Catholicism; the new poems—not so much. That impulse will always be there (and I’ve had to work to check it) but now I think it’s much more in the background.

My formal choices have been the most interesting to me. I’ve always written a lot of prose poems (and there are a fair amount of them in the new manuscript), but my interest in prose poetry has led me to writing a lot of sonnets. I feel like the sonnet and the prose poem are cousins: They both depend on the turn. A sonnet without a turn is just a configuration of rhyme and meter and a prose poem without some sort of turn in it is just a block of prose. I’m sure there’s a smarter poet than me out there who could more intelligently articulate the connection.

EP: I’d never thought about prose poems and sonnets in that way, and now I can see the link. Do you think the prose poem and the sonnets should be standard issue for the poet’s toolbox? Why or why not?

RT: I do, but in a qualified way. The sonnet is probably the most enduring received form in the English language, and some of the most interesting recent poetry is prose poetry. So I think every poet should be able to understand the nuances of those forms.

But on the other hand, I don’t think any poet should be writing a sonnet just because they think they need to write sonnets to be a poet. (The same goes for prose poems.) I’m a strong believer that the poem-in-progress has a form it wants the poet to discover, and if that form doesn’t every happen to be a sonnet (or prose poem, or sestina), then so be it. So I don’t believe that poets need to write in certain “poetic” forms, but I also think it’s crucial to have the knowledge to be open to whatever form a poem wants to take.

(I make my students write sonnets, sestinas, and prose poems in my classes, but beginning poets should be trying out everything. I wrote many bad sestinas as an undergrad.)

EP: Speaking of form, I see a lot of poets making the rules for some of their own forms, particularly when it comes to repetition of a phrase or recurrence of an image. Do you make up your own forms or rules to play by? If so, do you find that you work your way out of the form? Does it hem you in?

RT: I don’t often start a poem thinking about form. I almost always begin with an image or bit of language that’s interesting to me. I also have a tendency to start with a title first and work from there, but that often has limited success. An evocative title without something to back it up is usually a losing proposition.

EP: The title of your first collection is Litany for the City, and inside we find a number of poems that engage Philadelphia, your home town. I’ve been doing a lot of reading of literature about cities in preparation for a literature course I’m teaching next semester. I’m planning on including an excerpt of the poems in your book in our course packet. At any point in the writing process, did you see yourself as trying to reconstruct the city through poems? Are poems particularly suited to represent a place or recreate an experience of that place?

RT: At the time I was writing Litany for the City, I was living in Bloomington, and I’m pretty sure those poems were a way for me to rebuild my own little version of Philadelphia in south central Indiana. But what was most interesting was that my reconstruction wouldn’t just let itself be a reconstruction—it started pushing on those boundaries. The first half of the book is about Philadelphia, but the second half starts to become about cities in general, and what makes a city a city.

One of my favorite poems is Adam Zagajewski’s “To Go to Lvov.” But as great as the detail and language are in that poem, I don’t feel like it really gives me a sense of what Lvov was like. Certainly not in the same way that, say, Joseph Mitchell’s essays on New York City give you such a vivid feeling of life in the city. But that’s not really the point of Zagajewski’s poem.

“To Go to Lvov” is such a perfect evocation of how it feels to lose a place that it breaks my heart every time I read it. I don’t know that poems are necessarily the best way of representing a place, but they’re amazing vehicles for recreating the experience of a place.

Consider Bashō’s oft-quoted haiku (translated by the wonderful Jane Hirshfield):

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Such a complex feeling in so few words! And I know that feeling very well.

Though I must admit I feel slightly differently about Bashō’s poem when I’m walking in my neighborhood in Philadelphia and a piece of garbage blows into my face.

EP: Bear with me for a minute while I wander down the path toward Metaphor. . . .

Sometimes when I think about how a poem works I picture them as gyroscope. Now, I’m no expert, so I take from this what you will, but I see poems affecting the movement of gimbals turning in different directions inside a frame. You could say one is for sound, another details, and the frame is the form and the rotor is the emotional or circumstantial motivation for writing. A gyroscope measures orientation, especially in the rotation of the earth.

Do poems help you orient yourself in the world? In your life?

RT: I like your metaphor, especially if you’re considering William Carlos Williams idea that a poem is a “machine made of words.” But if you’ll allow me, I’m going to turn it completely co-opt it.

From a craft aspect, I see the poem as gyroscope, with all of its elements keeping the whole in balance. But when thinking about your question—how poems help me orient myself in the world—it’s hard for me to think of the poem as this perfectly stable thing (even with the furious racing going on inside it).

If anything, my life is the gyroscope—trying desperately to stay in balance. So every morning I sit down and read Poetry Daily, first thing. To read and appreciate the poem, I have to really focus on it and still the other concerns (my job, the bills, the weird noise my car is making) that are spinning around in my head.

Poetry helps me still the world. Everything else slows down, and for the length of the poem, I get to have an experience with language as art.

EP: I hope it’s okay to ask about your work, because I’m always interested in the balance you speak about when poets leave academia. Would you mind talking a little bit about your job and how you balance life, a living, and poetry?

RT: It’s difficult sometimes. One of the great advantages of academia is that you (for the most part) get to set your own schedule. So I was very used to making a schedule that allowed me time to write.

It’s different now. I have an office, and—between nine and five—I have to be there. So I find other times for poetry: in the mornings on weekends, on the train ride to work. I’ve been trying to go to some of the poetry readings in Philadelphia.

Honestly, I haven’t written many poems in the last few months, but I don’t think that has anything to do with my job. I finished my second book of poems, and I’ve been sending it out to publishers. I really don’t know what to write next.

That caused me a lot of anxiety for a while. I felt like I needed a new “project.” When I mentioned that to a friend (a poet who’s much smarter than I am), he said: “Let yourself be lost.” I’ve been trying to listen to that.

EP: I suppose there’s that push-and-pull between I have time to write and I can write poetry because I have money and I’m not worrying about paying rent or buying food. Of course, these are questions all artists have, I suppose!

I was recently at a book signing event, and I found myself wedged between a popular historical nonfiction author and a novelist. Because I was in a corner, their lines blocked out anyone who was trying to have my book signed. With lower readership, poets have unique concerns when it comes to what means success for their books. What’s your idea of poetry success?

RT: It’s hard enough to get people interested in poetry without obstacles in the way! I feel like every writer I’ve talked to (not just poets) has a bunch of those stories. Doing a reading to an audience of two people. Flying to a reading with 20 copies of your book, only to fly home with those same 20 copies weighing down your suitcase. Having an elderly person tell you after a reading: “I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it eventually.”

But I think poetry success comes from finding real joy in the writing of the poems. That’s the key. And, every once in a while, someone will tell you that your poems meant something to them, or that they just enjoy your work, and that will mean everything. You’ll hold on to that.

Especially later when you get a “poison sandwich” rejection letter.

EP: After following your link to Graywolf Press editor Jeff Shotts’s article on the art of rejection, I’m thinking now of how writers, healthy writers that is, might reframe rejection as an essential element to craft, the drafting process. Do you see value to rejection? (It’s okay if you say “no!”) Perhaps I’ll tell you my thoughts after you share with us yours.

RT: No, I don’t see much value to rejection as an element of craft. I’ll explain.

Most of the time, the rejections we get don’t have any actual content to them. They’re form, or perhaps “form plus”—those rejections where an editor added a nice half sentence saying they enjoyed reading your work. (If I remember right from my editing days, that’s called “Rejection #2” in the submission manager.)

But I don’t begrudge magazines and presses for this; they’re deluged with submissions. They can’t send feedback, or else they’d never have time to actually publish anything.

I honestly think that looking at a rejection as a part of the revision process can be a little dangerous. A poem can be perfect and get rejected many times. And a poem can be awful and get published somewhere. So you just have to trust yourself, get feedback from people whose opinions your trust, and develop a critical eye for your own work.

I try to use common sense. If my manuscript gets rejected five times, that doesn’t mean it needs to be revised. But if my manuscript gets rejected 25 times, I should probably take a more critical look at it.

What do you think?

EP: I think that rejection reminds us to be humble and to not expect any success. Every time I get rejected, I return to my work with the notion that I’m going to writer an even better poem, regardless of whether or not that rejected poem is ultimately a good poem or not. I worry when writers get too comfortable in their own “voices,” whatever that means, and with their status. I often find these writers wind up being boring on the page.

But perhaps your answer has an element of self-care in it. We should have faith in our own work, and we shore ourselves up against criticism by becoming good editors for our own work.

The business of writing and the act of writing shouldn’t, I think, be intertwined. Do you feel like there’s a tendency within the community to value the business of writing more than the act of writing? Why or why not?

RT: I agree with you that the business of writing and the act of writing shouldn’t be intertwined. But your second question—about whether the business of writing is valued more than the act of writing—makes me think about every movie about writers I’ve ever seen.

Most of the time there’s a montage of someone pounding furiously at a keyboard (or typewriter, depending on the era), usually after some real life event has provoked an epiphany about the work. It makes me laugh every time. I’ve never had any epiphanies that drive me to sit down and write an entire book. I have, however, had epiphanies about whether or not I really want to use a semicolon in a particular line.

But I understand that this is how movies have to be made. They’re movies—they can’t show the writer staring for hours in silence at the screen. Or agonizingly deleting a day’s worth (or week’s worth or month’s worth) of writing. Or spending an entire afternoon trying to figure out the syntax of a single sentence.

Only with my closest friends, with whom I exchange drafts of poems, do I get a sense of their process. But with the rest of my friends, and with acquaintances in the writing community, I only see the end result—the book picked up by a press, or the poem picked up by a journal. I don’t see the quotidian victories in which they figure out just where the line break truly goes.

But is the real question you’re asking about Facebook?

EP: From a journal’s point of view, we of course use Facebook as a tool to promote the authors we feature. We want their work, their voices to have as much of an audience as possible. I’ve heard some complain about individuals using Facebook for self promotion. My thought is, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing—spending as much time as I can with poetry, as much as my brain can handle—that Facebook has become a way for me, as both a writer and an editor, to gather as much as I can about poetry and my other obsessions. I feel like a bird gathering debris for a nest or a packrat taking back shiny things to my hole.

But what are your thoughts on Facebook and writing?

RT: I can understand your viewpoint, and I have some similar feelings. I love encountering poems that my friends have shared online. Often that’s one of the few ways I have a shared experience with poets on any given day—most of the time I’m at my day job, doing day-job things with people who aren’t necessarily writers (but who do have other secret talents like musical theater and stand-up comedy).

Yet there’s a degree of candor that’s implied, but doesn’t quite exist on Facebook. It’s public (or semi-public) so people modulate themselves in different ways—and sometimes not that well—as Rebecca Makkai notes in her very astute piece. I’ve even noticed that unspoken genre conventions are starting to crop up for how you announce something good that’s happened for you, like a publication or a new job.

But I don’t begrudge people promoting their work or themselves, especially poets. Getting a book published is hard enough, let alone getting people to actually buy it and read it.

I’m terrible at Facebook. I’m a naturally timid person, and online I feel like a politician trying not to offend anyone, no matter how mundane my comments. I over-analyze; I second guess. As a poet, I need a dark corner to be weird in, and that’s what I love about poetry. I get to be playful and odd and explore language in strange ways. Social media doesn’t give me that.

Though with that in mind, I recently joined Twitter, in an effort to diversify my portfolio of social media platforms I’m bad at.

EP: Changing gears a little bit, I wonder if you’ve ever thought about poems as a kind of second brain for their writers. It might give us the opportunity to explore ideas that we might not necessarily—or, at the very least, formally—explore otherwise. Has the act of writing a poem become a part of your process of understanding and even reckoning with your own life?

RT: I love your idea of poems being a kind of second brain because, to be honest, I’ve noticed that my poems are usually much smarter than I am. When I keep my focus on simply writing the best poem that I can, and am attentive to where it wants to go, I find that the poem often makes the connections that I wouldn’t have been able to make on my own.

And that does help me reckon with my own life. By writing poems, I’ve thought in new, more productive ways about my family, about the nature of place, and about how I view the world. I’m grateful to have another way of thinking.

Brittany Cavallaro*: What is your most recent obsession? Has it found its way into your work?

RT: My current obsession is a podcast called the Slate Culture Gabfest. I listen to it religiously every Wednesday morning. The hosts are smart and funny, and their discussions are completely absorbing. I love the range—they’ll go from talking about Taylor Swift to the New York Review of Books. I’m a sucker for people who can have wide-reaching conversations about arts and culture. Since I write book reviews, I’m always trying to figure out how to be sharper and smarter with my own criticism.

EP: Now, Ryan, please provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

RT: Is there a contemporary poet out there who you wish was more widely known?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com

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