From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Steve Scafidi is the author of Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), For Love of Common Words (LSU 2006), The Cabinetmaker’s Window (LSU 2014), To the Bramble and the Briar (University of Arkansas Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Songs for the Carry-On (Q Avenue Press, 2013). He has won the Larry Levis Reading Prize, the James Boatwright Prize and the Miller Williams Prize. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He works as a cabinetmaker and lives with his family in Summit Point, West Virginia.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: It seems I could begin with anything—skinny-dipping or arson-revenge, a rocking chair bookcase or prize pumpkin, pot of pasta or Lincoln’s penchant for octopus foreskin—and segue into a Steve Scafidi poem. Your pieces navigate the public, particular, and imaginative so seamlessly; it’s hard to fathom the disparate threads on their own. So at the risk of simplicity, I’ll start by asking—where does a poem come from, for you?

Steve Scafidi: My poems come from the mundane places all poems come from: observation and the sensual experience of the world around me, dream, anxiety, the overheard miscellany of wandering through the day. Wishes, despairs, moods, inklings. A lust for something or someone, new loss, being shattered, being mended. There is the visible and invisible wave of experience that washes over and it wants to kill you unless you learn to swim in it or ride it. Poets ride those waves. So much of living is graceless and murderous and unrelenting. We are in the grip of things. The poem offers us as readers and writers some clarity and quiet and power. To say what we mean, to say the truth of our own experience–that has always been the privilege and duty of the lyric poet.

CL: These days I feel especially susceptible to those waves—both personal and societal—that can take one under. And I like the image of riding them—I think of the surfers near me, who swim at the waves’ mercy but through paying attention to tide and instinct, maybe, manage to stand up and catch one where I can rarely even envision it. Picturing, or imagining what one wants to do seems key, and one of the powers of poetry, too. All the time I say (or think I believe) writers can create the worlds we want, but I don’t know that we can. What sort of worlds do you create in your poems?

SS: My poems, like most, are tangents and variations and riffs on what I see. I don’t consider my poems otherworldly, but rooted in experience. But I like Wallace Stevens’ demand that the imagination rise up to meet reality and to push back. In that tension and stress we survive the real and also shape it however slightly. Reality needs the imagination to be at all—that is my understanding. My poems do enjoy strangeness and the improbable, and every day I see baffling things that amaze. For example the other day, I saw a hawk grab a snake from the top of the Shenandoah and fly off with it twisting in its talons. I had never seen that before though it must happen a lot. I keep seeing it in my mind—so beautiful and freaky. My favorite poems are beautiful and freaky, an act of wonder that somehow illuminates the real.

CL: How do you let imagination take over, or when does it? Do poets have an obligation to imagine, even when it might not be ‘true’?

SS: I think to write poems it is useful to know how to run full speed in the dark. Knowing how to do that will send you over cliffs and into traffic and get you killed and that is what you want. To write poems we need our pencils, our hands and our heads but if we are going to write with our whole lives then we need to let the language play out with abandon. Learning to fail at your point entirely or to arrive somewhere else circuitously, is helpful. It allows for music and play in the language—those vital forces that make poetry recognizable. At the end of a poem where we arrive is never what we planned—ever. We might get at the truth of things that way or we may simply confront it on the street and fight with it. Whatever the case, the running of the imagination, the play of the language need the gravity and circumstance of our lives to transform experience into poems. Then if we let the limiting forces of circumstance and sorrow and boundary enter the play, we get poems. All of the poems I love involve brokenness and death and loss or desire and also an enormous amount of that ethereal force that is our play, our dream. It is the birdsong at the funeral.

I think all writers are at risk of going under the waves of circumstance and losing control of our lives and disappearing. Right now I am so busy trying to make money to pay bills that I am drowning as a writer. Poetry has always been a life of passionate obsession and that is now unsustainable. I may return to life or die off—I don’t know. Every poet does the private math of such a life and comes out equal or above zero in order to persist. If writing poems subtracts and one lives below zero, you stop. As far as writer’s block and being paralyzed as a writer, I find that much of that is fear. Fear of being candid, fear of what is true and fear of failure will all stop a writer. There are so many ways a writer or painter or film-maker or any artist dies. It is almost unremarkable how many artists disappear from themselves every day. It is common. It is uncommon to find a way to persist, to keep at the joyful parts and cultivate delight enough to survive whatever difficulty arises from within you. It seems the first thing a stuck-writer forgets is the importance of delight, of what absolute secret joy there was once to writing and reading. When that goes it all falls apart. I’d tell a writer who is stuck or lost to focus on the pleasure of the art and let everything else go. The pleasure leads us to what we need; it protects us, too, as we deal with difficult things. I am talking about the pleasure of words. Something simple. Also, thought and worry kill writing. Let your writing think for you and then you will begin to get somewhere. Though I am trying not to write poems right now I am secretly writing when I can, for the pleasure—that interior feeling of lava moving and setting the forests and the fields on fire that is so lovely.

CL: All so good to hear and remember; I know too often I let fear get in my way. A fearless poem of yours, and one of your first pieces that struck me, is “The Boy Inside the Pumpkin,” where a town finds a boy inside a prize pumpkin laying “quietly in the world like a fact of the unlikely” moving quickly to the another unlikely boy found dead on a baseball diamond. I’ve included its entirety below:

At five hundred and thirty pounds it won the blue ribbon
at the Fredrick County Fair and because all such vegetables
are too bitter to eat something had to be done—

and it was decided to haul the pumpkin to the river and the boy
inside the pumpkin meanwhile lay curled in the dark mash
while they rolled it to the edge of the tailgate and heaved it

to the ground and he must have been in there all spring and all
summer and through the long hot hours must have grown
restless in the goop although he looked almost peaceful lying

naked by the river among the broken loaves and the seeds where
the ambulance drivers stood on their knees amazed
beside the boy opening his eyes as the slow Potomac moved

to the Chesapeake bay and the ocean where the waves make
their way to every coast in the world and the boy inside
the pumpkin lies quietly in this world like a fact of the unlikely

and the most unlikely things happen everyday in this world
and we go on unchanged and a body was found
on a baseball diamond in Frederick Maryland last spring

wearing only a t-shirt face down with both arms underneath
the body and the details are listed in the Metro Section
of the Washington Post and so when you read about the child

you learn he was only nine years old and had a faint birthmark
the exact shape of Kentucky on the small of his back
and could talk like a duck when he wanted to and you learn

the most unspeakable things in the slender Metro Section
of the Washington Post and it corrupts your sense
of the world to know how often the impossible happens upon us

without mercy and it is not the fit subject of poetry and it is
offensive to redeem the horror of that boy’s last hours
but I can’t stop trying to salvage something from the murderous

and the poisonous and last spring some small ordinary blossoms
grew suddenly more gigantic everyday and the boy inside
the vine became the boy inside the pumpkin who became

a turning in the darkness no one noticed although for a week
hundreds of people at the fair stroked the fat sides of
the pumpkin and were amazed and a boy leans up on his elbows

now in the moss beside the river and looks around bewildered
and asks for his mother and his father and they are delivered
amazed and these things never happen. They happen everyday.

The otherworldly blurs with quotidian brutality, and I wonder about that blur as a strategy, to face what you might not otherwise be able to write? In a time where news seems ever more necessary to respond to, and also more paralyzing, how do you begin? From what vantage point do you approach the unspeakable?

SS: That is kind of you. When I feel hateful and want to burn all my poems down, this is the only poem that I would keep. Writing this took me a long time and I tried over a hundred different discrete poems or drafts until I found this way. My wife was pregnant with our second child when I heard of the rape and murder of the boy in the poem. It paralyzed me—those two contradictory facts: a new life coming to the world—to my house—and the savage torture and murder of another young life nearby. This poem is trying to make me sane: to understand a new life can be a blessing and not a curse.

Writing poems is useful to the writer and the reader sometimes and this poem was the most useful poem I ever wrote. It returned me to the destroying world with a sense of calm and renewed joy. Such a return seems (and is) impossible sometimes but every poem we write enacts such a return. That is the sacred part of making—the new bowl in the potter’s hand and the milk she pours into it this morning. I don’t have advice or insight into dealing with the unspeakable except this. The unspeakable is sometimes the brick wall everyone warns you from ramming your body into. My advice about brick walls is to ram your body against it constantly and harder every time. Let the brute force be pure pleasure you take in the writing. For example if you are stuck with the feeling that everyone writes poems about a dead dog and so you have unconsciously forbidden it, and now are stuck, then write 30 poems in a day about a dead dog. That is what I mean about brute force and the defiant use of wit against what stops you. An artist can overcome anything through such force or wit. By outwitting what comes at you and by repeatedly going forward everything difficult will fall at your feet. That is my faith—in the imagination.

CL: Oh! I love that injunction—to ram against the brick wall constantly and harder—for the moments of being so alive that we feel annihilated, no? I’m also intrigued by your idea of speed—so many of your poems use a single sentence, or hardly any punctuation, and so seem to barrel down the page. Does this happen consciously, and how do you reenter that flood to revise or shape the thinking the poem has done? Also, I notice often you’ll end on a perfect rhyme, or on a rhymed pattern. How do you think about resolutions in poems, or poem to poem, through collections that feel like an open dialogue with the universe?

SS: Everything you say about my poems—their speed and their rhyming loudly and truly, especially at the end of things—is mannerism now and probably should be stopped. I have good friends who are great poets who have warned me that what I do so often, too often, risks boredom and distrust in the reader. They are right. As writers we are often shifting between image and rhetoric and music in our poems and because I find poems a rhythmic musical art primarily, I end up singing or stomping my foot especially near the end. But I listen for that rhythm, that pleasing wonderful burn from the very first line. To revise I usually stop the rhythm and start it up again many times and let the trance of it build and lead me through what I am saying hopefully to some essential surprise or inevitable moment I have not suspected. All of my revision usually leads to a surprise—some sudden un-guessed-at sense of getting closer to what I need. Or it is the surprise that this is really going no further. The propulsion of music feels graceful and is partly how I recognize my poems, so I really won’t change. Every day, mostly, feels too fast. I like my poems that way too. So I will write a poem as it pleases me and I will live in my oblivion if that is the price. And it is. The feeling of being forgotten as a person and as a writer is physical and real like a deep shadow—of the sun behind a cloud. Do you feel it also? That shadow-feeling is in all of my poems and so I’m usually busy striking matches with rhymes, to make that pleasure-burn of music in words. The English sonnet’s rhymed couplet traumatized me with pleasure when I was a teenager and now I like to exit poems always through a fiery door.

CL: I feel it. I have the same strike-spark impulse to warm my hands on an ordinary Wednesday. So many of your pieces navigate the brutality and wonder of the world, implicitly through their curatorial eye, or explicitly or through addressing mortality. Here I think of the ends of “Thank you Lord for the Dark Ablaze” which ends with “green is the mind of the spring returning/ and dying a song the body is learning/which I will not sing or step to although/every day—oh—that is exactly what I do.” You enact a defiant waltz with both death and god, and so I’m curious the way your poems act as prayers, or attempt to negotiate faith.

SS: Wow, what a beautiful thing to say. I grew up in a Catholic family who chanted a whole string of prayers every night—as a group—just before bed and every one of those prayers spoke explicitly of our deaths. The chant was like song and it may be why I am a poet at all, for singing of death was to sing of my salvation from death. I’m not religious like that anymore, but I wonder if that equation is still working in me: to sing of death is to free oneself from it. Well, no god or poem will ever save me from destruction and that is fine. But I love the human imagination from which came our gods and our grand ideas and our holy books and our erotic poems and I have faith in it. It is my beloved—the imagination. I read the Song of Songs sometimes as an allegory of what goes on between the writer and the imagination. We are beloved to one another and we prosper in that way of companionship—we help each other live. Or else things fall apart—and they often do—and we die. Aren’t all poets, all writers of any kind, expressing a deep faith in some invisible other? Someone who might listen to our lines and be moved? Isn’t all writing faithfulness? Poetry, “it survives,” as Auden said, “as a way of happening, a mouth.” Lyric poets have always spoken to the invisible dead, to gods, to creatures of the land and the air, to our lovely shattered selves, to someone lost or found, to beauty itself. Whatever we cannot understand we sing to—and sometimes it sings back.

CL: Thank you so much, Steve, for your singing, too!

SS: Before we close, I also want to share one of the oldest lyric poems we have. The singing- est poem we have for being so enduring. It was written in the fifth century BC by the Greek poet Simonides and translated by the great Sherod Santos.

Dragonfly

Being no more than a man, don’t pretend
you can tell what the new day
brings, nor that, seeing someone happy,

you know just how that happiness will end.
Things change—we never know why—
with the zigzag speed of a long-winged fly.

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

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Marcus Wicker is the author of Silencer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). He is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, Missouri Review‘s Miller Audio Prize, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem and the Fine Arts Work Center. His first collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, a National Poetry Series winner, was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Memphis. You may learn more about Marcus on his website here: www.marcuswicker.com.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: There’s a line in one of the poems in your first collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, when the speaker says “write it and please don’t stop.” No Marcus Wicker poem has ever let up on its music or question, shied away from form or looked down on free-form, stopped at pop-culture or academia, at love letter, pep-talk, nor crown of sonnets; but in your new book, Silencer, you really let the boom go. Where your pieces have always had a certain level of self-awareness and examination, these new poems take the same voice and light it on fire, throw it somewhere. “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television,” for example, ends “See, I practice self target practice. There is no sight of me/ in my wears. I bedecked in No-Wrinkle Dockers. Sensible/ navy blazer. Barack Obama Tie, Double Consciousness-/ knotted. Stock dandelion pinned to the skin of an American/ lapel with his head blown off.” Since so many writers do stop and flounder between a first and second book, I want to start by asking how you got from one to the next?

Marcus Wicker: Thanks for the compliment, Cate. The boring but honest to goodness answer to that question is time. Time and space to play around on the page and practice techniques Maybe the Saddest Thing wasn’t interested in. Time to write poems toward four or five different subjects or book directions, then scrap them. Also, time not to write. Time to read poems for pleasure and self-education, time to read the news too frequently, then be utterly done with the news. Time to be quiet, too. And after all of that, I remembered that more than most everything else, I really enjoy the act of writing poems; that it’s a very real source of joy for me. The majority of the poems in Silencer were born from everyday necessity—by following the sonic patterns of the music I was listening to at the time, or trying to match a particular day’s mood to a draft’s tone. The book’s most productive source of compositional inspiration came from writing because it’s what I do, and then perhaps something like “the unconscious” helped define my direction.

CL: What artists influence your poems’ music? How do you think about music in relation to a poem? I ask because when I mention a poem’s music (or lack thereof) many people get a funny look. After listening, however, most can pick out a “musical” or “nonmusical” poem. When I first heard “Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ in Ebenezer Baptist Church” on a podcast, for example, I didn’t have the lines in front of me or time to linger on the (rather complex) theology behind the piece. But the sonics, meter, and rhyme questioning “if in his image made are we, then why/ this endless string of effigies?/ Why so many mortal blasphemies?/ Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied/ to a clothesline with broken necks long as Time?” made clear the high-stake inconsistencies, and simultaneous desire for that one spirit, one body of the gospel. I came to understand first through the music, but does music come first for you in determining the arguments or discoveries of your poems? Or does a poem seek the sonics that make it click or stick?

MW: Some of Silencer’s poems borrow epigraphs and lyrics from Oddisee, 2Pac, Drake, LL Cool J, and others. But its influences run deeper than that. I put together a longish Spotify playlist of music I was listening to while working on the book, for moments just like this, when I’m tempted to over share. You can find it here.

I would say at least half my poems begin by chasing the sound of something I can’t shake. When I really dig a song, I’m guilty of wearing it out. I’ll run the track back to back to back while cooking or driving to Office Max. I’ll repeat a rhyme over and over again in my head. So for instance, there’s a line in “Wesley’s Theory” from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly that goes, “What you want you a house, you a car? / Forty acres & a mule? A piano? A guitar?” One morning I sat down at my desk and transposed that lyric without thinking much about it. And then, in a similar meter I wrote this: “What you need you a bond, you a tree? / Printing press? A receipt? A monopoly piece?” I had no clue whether I would sample or cut Kendrick’s line, let alone what ideas the poem was going to work out, but that I liked the cadence of its inciting trigger enough to try on.

CL: What a great list! I can hear the rhythm in so many—and in unexpected ways. Poets have tried on cadences forever—you try on old ones as well, (like with the sestina-esque “Prayer on the Subdivision,”)—but also you try on content! Like when a simultaneously insulted and invisible speaker waits till the end of an academic reception for “all the peanuts from the gallery” and the “olives, the brie,/ the mango chutney co-opted/ from proper serving trays & safely/ out of range” to ask himself “Are you okay?” The lines resuscitate the cliché as danger enters a cordial room, pivoting us toward a hard corner. Which leads me to ask—is there anything too worn out for you to turn back and re-cast? How does the ordinary, or even our contemporary or popular culture help you approach what seems unapproachable, unresolvable?

MW: Lately I’ve been trying hard not to linger on a single draft for too many days, as is my way. I’ve been trying to get the poem on the screen in short order, to retain the same brand of adrenaline that sparked line one, the way I did when first discovering poetry. This means my ear is susceptible to all the wonderful junk one hears over the course of a day—the quick and easy abbreviations, aphorisms, ironic slang and all. My mind works best on the page when I can think about the act of writing as a faithful devotion, and language game, both. So sometimes I challenge myself to keep what seems pedestrian as an experiment in the pursuit of both. To see if I can use the everyday as a tool wielded to approach difficult subject matter and, of equal importance, to bring me back to my desk with a smile on my face. Does that make sense?

CL: Yes, prefect sense. It seems that if poetry is going to be of use, and by ‘use’ I mean doing work only it can, it must contain our common junk, and recycle it to us, recast. There’s delight in this for me and, while Silencer does have a lot language play it is also a collection of (maybe exclusively!) difficult poems—those addressing identity, race, privilege, faith. Often humor is an entry point for something hard or painful, yet with your work it seems to be a way out, as well. How do you see play or humor as functioning in poems? How does a poem progress for you, from that inciting cadence?

MW: Really I’m thinking about humor in three main ways: First, as invitation. I recognize that poetry in dialogue with difficult subject matter can be off-putting to readers for a number of reasons, for instance guilt or, who knows, just general malaise. But humor is an equalizing hook. You’d be hard pressed to find a human who doesn’t appreciate a well-earned laugh, no matter how aesthetically buttoned up they are. Sometimes comedy and irony are the olive branch I extend to a reader sporting expectations of what a poem should be that don’t readily include me.

When I’m really trying to grind an axe, I might open a piece wielding a joke as smoke screen, as in “Watch Us Elocute.” I’m a big boxing fan, and in a match, fighters rarely win via one-punch knockout. Best to flash the jab obscuring an opponents’ vision before landing the big right cross. This isn’t to say I think of readers like foes—quite the opposite—but it’s always the punch you don’t see that hurts most. In this way, I like to sit a reader down for a dramatic situation that feels comfortable and then reveal the heavy artillery.

Also, I think levity is important for healing a heart ailed by the current political and social climate. Not to speak of the private heft we find ourselves lugging around from place to place each day. I love reading work that moves me to laugh during trying times, and before anything else, I’m just aiming to write the kind of poems I’d like to see floating around.

CL: And some of that sting has to do with the fact, maybe, that the speaker seems equally self-interrogating or self-deprecating, ostensibly even surprising himself with that punch. I’m thinking of “Film Noir at Gallop Park, On the Edge” that ends:

in the director’s cut I’m the one being fatally
femme: I pretend to check my face in the rearview mirror,
pull a plume from a pinner & squeeze the trigger
on a can of lavender Febreze. I chase myself out the window
smarting every time someone flinches at the sight of me.
Metaphorically, I could only be the pitch dark
asphalt simmering in this parking lot. The fog lifting off
a black tar river, already gone. Though obviously, given
the opportunity, nay the luck—I’d play delivery boy,
even maintenance dude. Anything but walking dead
man. & I’ll be damned if I didn’t just run
all this way to tell you that. Fuck.

Double-fuck! It’s a double-edged blade, turned both on self and the society that has shaped the self. Do you see your work as political? As social critique?

MW: Ha! I would say that Silencer is pretty candidly political. There are poems that reference the Whig party, tax code, the dairy, coal, and oil lobbies, Jim Crow, the stand-your-ground law, former president Barack Obama, and other overt touchstones. But Silencer is mostly political in the sense that I’ve made a series of educated choices—some of them liberal, some conservative, all independently informed by personal interest—the choice to write in persona, in form, in hard, swaggering rhyme and muted tones, both. Or the choice to place a playful poem with religious undertones that samples Drake lyrics, near a stump speech on being both uncomfortable and at home in academia.

Social critique? Sure. I’m willing to go there when I’m willing to go there, you know? And concerning self-interrogation, thanks for hearing me the way I want to be heard. A mentor once reminded me you can’t always be the hero in your poems. If I’m going to make straight up observations about whole institutions it’s only fair that I account for the way my own ticks and predilections color an argument. My most pleasurable writing moments come from following a barrage of sounds and ideas toward an unexpected statement or landing. I knocked myself out a couple of times while finishing Silencer, and each one of those punches felt a little like a kiss on a collarbone. I guess that’s one convincing reason to practice poetry over boxing.

CL: I ask because I don’t think of your poems as political, first—rather as Marcus’, as reflective of Marcus being in the world as any good poem results from one having been in the world and engaged with and changed by it. But I guess that assumption is a political one, even—one of participation. In the polis or city-state, I can’t help recall that only landed men could vote or have a voice—just the ability to speak made it political. And also urbane in some way, so I’m drawn to the sub-urban in this collection, how the book’s final section “Cul-de-sac Pastoral” troubles and re-casts our notions of and relations to land, wealth, home. Why does Silencer need to challenge the pastoral, in the end? How do you see these poems as furthering this mode?

MW: There’s this longstanding, idealistic notion that with enough hard work and a little luck one can achieve just about anything in this country. Of course, a thinking person knows that contract is laced with fine print, but let’s say you’re a black citizen who’s managed to accumulate some markers for middle class success—the house in the well-maintained neighborhood equipped with a shiny gas grill and deck overlooking the tree-lined yard. Crepe myrtles everywhere. Always sunny. What then does it mean to own a picturesque slice of the land your ancestors helped build, when they were owned? What does it mean to be tethered to an American dream wherein the background plays an ever-looming nightmare? And when I say nightmare I mean systemic agitation: unimpeachable stereotypes, uneven lending and hiring practices, the threat of death by police brutality, a judicial system that doesn’t value black lives equal to those of certain other citizens, all of it. To my mind, this feels like a pretty circular existence.

The final section of the book, “Cul-de-sac Pastoral,” sings and shouts down this lifestyle, day and night. I’ve tried to mimic this circularity through a series of sometimes serious, often satirical prayers marked by Catholic liturgical hours. And hopefully the form—an invocation and five linked hybrid ghazal/sonnets, culminating in a broken sestina that recycles the cycles’ end words—also contributes to this reality. The poems’ landscapes and parody are in dialogue with the pastoral tradition, but their barbed, diglossic tone seek to challenge that tradition because, in the end, there’s no such thing as idyllic living for African Americans.

CL: That’s so well put and crucial to remember: that there is no simple bliss. Which might be why I marvel at the ghazal/sonnet form here; it takes strict and inherited structures and neither utilizes nor strictly flaunts them, but internalizes and then refigures. If ever a circle could be broken, I imagine it will take this sort of creative writing and living. It’s also interesting you use cul-de-sacs and the book of hours, since those where-to-go moments often bring us to our knees, or calling to some sort of divinity. Intersections of faith and the material including affluence and consumption come up a lot in your work. Can you talk some about the intersection there? Or the dead-end, should I say?

MW: Dead-end for sure. Circle anything enough and you’re bound to find yourself at an impasse. Christianity teaches us that those who do good deeds and live faithfully will be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven. The American Dreams says work hard enough and you’ll be rewarded materially, in the now. Between school and family life, I heard a lot of both growing up, and so it stands to reason that I’ve internalized both equations. All I can say is, after the hellish historical and political strife my folks have gone through, there are days when I think some form of reparations from a merciful God might justify an advance on the kingdom. Of course I feel guilt, even now, for thinking this aloud, but perhaps that’s one of the many invisible engines revving those poems where faith and consumption collide.

I like what you say about Cul-de-sac Pastoral internalizing and reframing strict structures. I take the ten-syllable line (but not the pentameter) and octave-sestet structure of the sonnet, plus the repeated end word of the ghazal, and try to sing within new parameters. These are poems about the anxiety of living inside the gates of suburbia and the palisades of bias, and gaudy success symbols the speaker has an ambivalent relationship with. The liturgical hours are a way to pray, think through this anxiety during specific portions of the day. I’ve always admired the structure that faith and form provide, but I’m more interested in sincere, open dialogue than strict religious tenants; more focused on the rhythm of my thoughts than traditional meters. “Cul-de-sac” borrows across literary, ethnic, and parochial traditions to say it my way, while in dialogue with other ways.

CL: I often have to remind myself that most faith traditions promise neither certain reward nor parity, but rather offer peace or fortitude for struggle and, in the case of Christianity, the guarantee one will not be alone. Which might be why I’m also drawn to poetry; when poems have touched me they come off the page and speak directly in my ear. I can almost feel the breath. And in that sincere, open way you describe, they hold my chest together or defibrillate it, depending on the moment. I’m curious about the way you think about loneliness or solitude in poems. “Ode to Browsing the Web,” for example, complicates the idea of connection, witness, and open dialogue and actually turns into a prayer of sorts, to the Internet. In the age of Twitter and YouTube, of marketing blasts and mass communication, how do you negotiate the tension of an intimate public poem? How does that come to shape the dialogue?

MW: I’ve got a real love/hate relationship with the Internet. I’m a Youtube junkie. A little iffy on social media, though. I think Facebook and Twitter are certainly fine places for poetry people to spend time with words being less lonely. I’m with you—there’s nothing quite like the surprise of reading something beautiful, especially by someone you don’t know, and feeling changed, reassured, more connected. I like the way folks like Eve Ewing, Kaveh Akbar, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, and Nick Ripatrazone use the web to build community and a community of readers. That’s fresh. But there’s also the element of social media that breeds vitriol, silly poe-biz envy, phoniness, and for me, genuine anxiety. I acknowledge some of these concerns in my poems about the Internet, perhaps to feel less alone about my position. Yeah. I think that’s right. And for sure I care more about the intimate act of writing a poem than the platform and people who might stumble upon it somewhere online.

CL: Speaking of a community of writers and readers, if you meet someone entirely outside that sphere or who has never encountered a poem before, what one would you give him or her?

MW: Yusef Komunyakaa’s, “My Father’s Love Letters.” It’s got expertly enjambed lines, a complicated but clear dramatic situation, memorable phrasing and imagery. It’s one of the few poems I read over and over again, every year, and never grow tired of. Super satisfying.

CL: Oh yes, agreed: “…Baby, Honey, Please…” And thank you, for speaking with me!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

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Greg Wrenn‘s first book of poetry, Centaur, was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Brittingham Prize. His poems and essays have appeared in The New Republic, AGNI, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. A former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he is an assistant professor of English at James Madison University. He is currently […]

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Keetje Kuipers has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, and a Bread Loaf Fellow. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, her poems have appeared in such publications as American Poetry Review, Orion, West Branch, and Prairie Schooner. In 2007 Keetje completed her tenure as the Margery […]

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Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. He is also the first Poet Laureate of Ohio. His latest collection is Dothead (Knopf, 2016). Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: I think in this case I’ll begin at the beginning, with the epigraph from your most recent collection, Dothead. In it you quote Dr. […]

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