Who Isn’t Curious?: An Interview with Keith Ekiss by Emilia Phillips

Keith Ekiss

Keith Ekiss is a Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford University and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow. His first book, Pima Road Notebook (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2010), was the first runner-up for the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2009 and was selected for publication at New Issues Poetry & Prose by Marvin Bell. As a translator, he recently published the first of four forthcoming volumes of The Fire’s Journey (Tavern Books, 2013), an epic poem by the Costa Rican writer Eunice Odio. Ekiss is the past recipient of scholarships and residencies from the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference, Millay Colony for the Arts, Santa Fe Art Institute, and the Petrified Forest National Park. In the summer of 2013, he was a Robert Frost Fellow in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His creative nonfiction has been anthologized in Permanent Vacation: Living and Working in Our National Parks (Bona Fide Books, 2011), and he received his MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

EP: I think you and I are in similar positions in terms of book projects; we’ve both had one book out and are now working on a second collection. Could you tell us a little bit about where you’re at with your second manuscript, In Which White Horses Appear, and how it relates to your first collection? Are there any inherent issues of a second collection? Does the presence of the first collection hinder you in some way or open you up to do things you might not have done before?

KE: In Which White Horses Appear is a book about living in San Francisco, about chance street encounters, the city’s disparities of wealth and poverty, about raising a child, and about a whole lot of fog, which makes good writing weather. I’ve completed a solid draft of the manuscript, and now I’m working to deepen what’s there while venturing into new formal territory. The manuscript was initially written as a series of prose poems, taking as a model Baudelaire’s poems of Paris that appeared posthumously as Petits poémes en prose and more specifically the prose poems of Jean Follain as translated by Mary Feeney and William Matthews in A World Rich in Anniversaries. I wanted a break from the line (no pun intended), which I thought was making me too cautious in my composition. After Pima Road Notebook was accepted for publication, I spent a couple of months working on an essay about some time I spent living in the Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona. I enjoyed the freedom and range of writing lyrical prose so when I started to write about San Francisco, a place where I’ve lived now for almost 20 years, the prose poem seemed natural as a form. But, as these things go, I’ve now turned back to the line (“what separates us from the beasts,” as Charles Wright says) for all the reasons one might write poetry in the first place—it’s drama, nuance, and gift of attention.

I tend to write about the intersection of personal and political history, human spaces and natural landscapes and, in general, about various forms of estrangement. In Which White Horses Appear shares these concerns with Pima Road Notebook, but it’s a tonally different work, more interior, perhaps, despite its persistent gaze toward the city and its citizens. The question of how a poet’s writing evolves from book to book is a tricky one. I don’t have much choice other than to write the poems that feel necessary to write. I wouldn’t be satisfied (and I’m not) when I’m not writing those kinds of poems, the ones where, as someone once said, “the first line is free.” I like sheer impulse to drive the initial draft where the language of intuition works against the formal constraint inherent in writing any poem. In that sense, I don’t think there’s any difference between a first and second book of poetry. In Which White Horses Appear is simply a different book, so I haven’t had to wrestle with any concerns about repeating myself.

EP: I’m fascinated by this notion that the poems in the new collection insisted themselves as prose poems and then later became lineated again. When I did a little work in the archives of Larry Levis at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Cabell Library, I noticed that some of his drafts would move in and out of prose and lineation. In my own work, I often find that if I pull a poem out of lineation and into prose, I focus less on how it appears visually on the page and more on the sovereignty of the sentence, its rhythms. The rhythmic-scape (as opposed to landscape, which I’d say is a more visual element of a poem) does more to modulate subtle nuances in tone.

Did you find that the poems you wrote initially in prose and then lineated changed tonally? If so, how so? If not, what does lineation offer these poems that the prose poem cannot?

KE: Moving many of the prose poems into lines changed their pacing, their rhythmic-scape, as you say. If you’re only writing sentences (prose poems), you only have the work of the sentence, and the movement between syllables and words, to create rhythm. The line, especially at the turn, gives a poem an added rhythmic dimension. Pacing is largely about rhythm, how as a writer you give the reader an opportunity to move through a poem at a particular speed and with particular emphasis. Even as I was writing so many prose poems I was aware of using internal rhyme and passages of metrically-scannable phrases and sentences. Many of the prose poems felt like sonnets, and I wasn’t surprised to find that many of them reassembled themselves as sonnets.

It’s more difficult to explain why some prose poems in the manuscript have resisted lineation. I can only say that these poems worked better functioning “all of a piece.” Lineation, in those cases, would’ve torn apart something that wanted to stay together. Some kind of energy was missing when I lineated those poems that wanted to stay in prose.

EP: Have you ever written fiction or nonfiction? If so, tell me a little about it and also why those genres didn’t “stick.”

KE: I have written nonfiction and hope to write more in the future. There are subjects I haven’t been able to address in my first two books which would be better served by prose. When I started writing In Which White Horses Appear, I intended to write about my experience working in Silicon Valley for many years as a technical writer. But, somehow there isn’t enough pressure on that material to turn it into poetry. I need a more relaxed pace to write about those experiences and a greater discursive freedom—to wonder around and get lost in thought—than works for my idea of a poem.

I’ve never written fiction, although of course I love to read stories. I’m a fan of the lyrical novelists: Woolf, Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson. But, I can’t imagine staying “in character” long enough to write a good story or a novel— I like the immediacy of poetry and the personal essay.

EP: Eunice Odio’s The Fire Journey—the first volume of which you translated—is a wildly mythical and coded long poem that draws on multiple sources for contextual layering and moves in and out of formal strategies, employing drama formatting and small lyrics interspersed with surreal narratives. Her work foils your descriptive, image-based poems of Pima Road Notebook. Has this translation project, especially moving into new volumes, influenced your own poems? How so?

KE: That’s a terrific description of Odio’s writing and her methods in The Fire’s Journey. She was a highly romantic—even vatic—poet who saw little difference between the vocation of God and the poet. In Odio’s cosmogony, God and the poet are both the supreme makers. Her poetry is very different than my own which is part of the challenge and excitement of translating her. There are definitely poets who come over into English with greater ease; I’m interested in how Odio resists English, not just the language but North American expectations of what we want from a poem. Odio simply wouldn’t care for “no ideas but in things” (although she lived in the U.S. for a time and was translated by William Carlos Williams). All this is to say: any influence from the past 10 years of translating Odio hasn’t appeared in my poetry. But, it might. Sometimes, there are long germination periods for these flowerings.

EP: For me, I often catch myself parroting poetic voices in my own work after spending a great deal of time with them in much the same way I unconsciously pick up someone else’s accent when I talk to them. For me, I still find myself lunging into new techniques because I’m never sure, beginning a poem, what kind of poem I want to write. At what point did you decide what kind of poem you wanted to write? What caused that decision? How has that style evolved for you?

KE: Frost once said, “The knowing can come later.” At the outset of a poem, I rarely know what kind of poem I want to write. I’m driven by impulse and the tectonic overlap (I can’t resist the quake metaphor) between the desire to write and what I might paradoxically call “the enabling resistance” of language and form. Usually, I don’t decide the kind of poem I want to write, I look back on the kind of poem I’ve written. However, things aren’t always so impulsive. I do occasionally try to write poems in particular forms or write toward a subject or experience. For example, I’ve been trying to resurrect the form of the “dream vision” after a good friend recommended The Temptation of St. Anthony by Flaubert, who worked on it for thirty years. It’s a strange, wild, allegorical fantasy and is very much unlike the realism of Madame Bovary. The dream vision is a medieval form with a few latter day examples (“The Fall of Hyperion” by Keats and “The Journey” by Eavan Boland, among others). I have no idea if the experiment will succeed. Ultimately, you write with your whole mind and what matters is the poem itself and not the process (always messy) that produced the work.

EP: Often I caution my students against writing dream poems simply because it often provides an easy resolution, a kind of eject button—waking up. Handled incorrectly, the dream simply becomes a kind of vehicle for a brief voyeurism that provides no self-reckoning. When handled masterfully, what does the dream provide the poet that cannot be accessed through other dramatic situations?

KE: The tradition of the “dream vision” should be distinguished here from poems about dreams. The dream vision was a popular form in the late middle ages—the poet falls asleep and receives instruction—a kind of wisdom the poet can return to the waking world. It’s a highly didactic form, at least traditionally. The poet who writes a dream poem attempts to capture the imagery and (supposedly) unfiltered rawness of the subconscious. To my mind, this is just one more way a poem might start, not a privileged way or one which I would avoid. Again, what matters is the poem itself rather than the process (rational and didactic or irrational and surreal) that created the poem. As an illustration of what I mean by process and poem, there’s a poem by Wordsworth called “We are Seven” in which “a little cottage girl” tells the speaker that her family numbers seven, although two of her siblings have died (making them five among the living). The girl feels the continuity of those lives buried beside her in the church graveyard and so refuses to acknowledge them as dead. It’s a haunting, melancholy, and somewhat sentimental nineteenth-century poem, but Wordsworth said he laughed when he wrote it. Process and subject are personal and idiosyncratic . . . all we have as readers is the poem itself.

EP: Do you ever laugh when you write?

KE: Ha! I don’t think so. But I’m often aware that the emotion I might experience in writing a poem isn’t equivalent to the emotion that’s conveyed in the language. A good poem hopefully has nuance—shades of meaning and mixtures of tone. Just as writing and revision are often braided in the act of composition, so are the thoughts or emotions, whatever we want to call these bodily swirls, that appear and disappear in the act of writing. Here, a favorite quote from Montaigne might apply: “Life is material motion in the body, an activity, by its very essence, imperfect and unruly: I work to serve it on its own terms.”

EP: Thanks, Keith. I love Montaigne, and this quote makes me think about how words act as a kind of material motion, imperfect and unruly. I’d argue that the sounds of any given language reflect what the culture of speakers value. In your poem “Russian Winters,” published in Blackbird, a character learns Russian, which you describe as “A language of gutturals, an opposition to winter.” How would you describe American English?

KE: American English, and English is general, is a hybrid language. In practical terms, this means you almost never write too far into a poem without encountering words with different lineages, whether French and Latinate or Anglo-Saxon and Germanic. English seems natural for a language of mixed tones and, compared to the romance languages, a certain hardness. I’m not sure that American English is naturally fit for beauty, but it’s capable of beauty. We often encounter and idealize other languages—Italian is musical, for example, or French is romantic, but I wonder much the native speakers of these languages today would idealize their own languages. A certain chauvinism and questionable essentialism lurks beneath these discussions. Nevertheless, in “Russian Winters” I couldn’t help but think that the woman in question, a former co-worker of mine, was importing a certain harshness into our mild, Northern California landscape by learning Russian while nursing an infant. I admire that ambition.

EP: Has she read the poem? If so, what does she think of it?

KE: I lost contact with Yvonne after I left that job. I haven’t seen her in 15 years. I can’t imagine what she might think of the poem if she happened to read it.

EP: Do you have rules for yourself when it comes to writing about real people?

KE: I probably should, but I’m afraid that I don’t have any rules. Usually, a poem begins so privately, and it stays private for so long as I revise and tweak it for months and years, that I’m not imagining what the subject might think of the poem. After my first book appeared, my mother said, “I wish you wouldn’t have written so much about the gin and cigarettes.” In general, I just hope for a certain amount of leniency and tolerance from anyone who wanders into one of my poems. They’re quiet things.

EP: I’ve had students write about drinking and smoking because they think of it as “edgy” or adult—and therefore meaningful—but it strikes me that it also sort of plays into the stereotypes of who writers are and what they do, what sort of lifestyle they lead. Talk to me a little bit about how you present the writing life to students.

KE: I tell my students: if you can sit, you can write. Anyone can write and everyone who wants to should write. The act and practice of sitting at a desk for an hour or two and working with language can help to clear the mind and clarify experience. It can also lead to frustration when the poem doesn’t happen the way you’d like . . . but that comes with the territory. The writing life is various and unique to each person. I tell my students it’s a great profession because it can lead you anywhere. If you like astronomy, you can write about deep space without having to solve the complex mathematical equations. If you become fascinated by Egypt, you can write about Egypt without necessarily making it your life’s work. Reading and writing are gifts for people who are curious and who want to explore. And who isn’t curious?

Alan Shapiro*: What’d you think of my last book? Just kidding.

What book of poems or what poem turned you into a poet, how old were you, where were you when you read it first?

KE: Alan, I loved Night of the Republic and I’ve recommended it highly to friends. It’s a lovely, musical book and a pleasure to read. If I had a barrel full of cash, I’d buy everyone a copy.

The process of becoming a poet has been long and slow and I was a reader for a long time before I started to write. I first encountered poetry as a teenager on my older brother’s bookshelf, where I found an anthology of American classics that included Longfellow’s “My Lost Youth” with its refrain, “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long youths.” I probably didn’t agree with Longfellow, my thoughts didn’t seem like long, long, thoughts, but I enjoyed the melancholy rhythm of those lines and I read the poem repeatedly. My brother’s other anthology was called Shake the Kaleidoscope. It had no table of contents and wasn’t organized alphabetically, chronologically, or by literary movement. You just opened the book and dove in. I couldn’t understand much of the poetry, but I read it all, which is perhaps the kind of doggedness that makes a poet. I still remember Kenneth Koch’s poem that began, “We sailed the Indian ocean for a dime.” It wasn’t much, but it was a start, and it made me want to read more. After high school, I attended the University of Arizona in Tucson where the support for poetry is legendary. I heard Joy Harjo read during the fall semester of my first year and she was the first contemporary poet whose work I wanted to absorb. After years of attending readings and studying poetry I started to write. Poetry is sticky and if you like to read it you will eventually want to respond with your own poems.

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

KE: As a poet who teaches (if you teach), how do you think about what you want your students to read? Is there still a canon? Should students embrace, question, or ignore the literature of the past? Is there a ‘we’ to which poetry speaks or do different literatures speak to different people?

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013), the prose editor of 32 Poems, and the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.