JC: Tell me about the epistolary form that links the poems in your collection Red Flag Up (Kattywompus Press, 2013). Did you begin these poems with that form in mind, or did it appear out of the soil, a natural development? Is there an aspect of the letter that you find freeing in terms of poetic composition? I’d assume that for younger readers of poetry, the idea of a letter would seem fairly distant, remote from personal experience. Were you thinking along those lines as you began to assemble these poems?
AT: Red Flag Up had two small catalysts. One was Richard Hugo’s collection 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, which most regard as uneven and not his best stuff, but had a kind of magic for me when I first discovered it in my early twenties. The other was the poet Mary Ruefle once telling me that my letters to her were often more interesting than my poems (or at least the poems I was writing at the time). I have no delusions that my epistolary poems or my motivations for writing them were in any way original, nor did I intend for these poems—despite their ironic titles—to coast on gimmick appeal. (We are in an age of gimmick appeal, I might add, both in and out of poetry.) In the simplest terms, when I began these poems I was out of other ideas, inspired to try something new, and seeking to replicate the loose rollicking energy that good letters radiate.
Let me turn to some of these other questions you pose, though, because they really are at the heart of the chapbook. I wrote all of these letter-poems in a six month span, most in a matter of weeks in late spring/early summer 2011. Part of what allowed me to maintain this pace and enthusiasm was the appeal of the epistolary form as a means by which I could affirm, at the risk of coining a phrase, the confessional necessity. The handwritten letter—as a means of self-expression that buoys intimacy despite distance—has died on my watch, and in the two decades that I’ve used email, I’ve seen it transform from a mere electronic surrogate for the letter to a kind of flavorless obligatory telegraph. (There was a time when I would send and receive long, sweeping emails that sprawled down the screen, moody and sensational, that would capture the spirit of an entire day or week or season. These days, the average email I receive is three or fewer sentences.) I wouldn’t say that nostalgia was a central motivation, but it’s hard not to feel wistful. One of the central ironies of our milieu is that social media has made us more alienated and lonely than any generation that came before us. I’d venture that the largest demographic of letter-writers in America now are felons.
With the first few poems I simply rode the waves that brought them, but once I realized that they were forming a project in their own right, this tension between two forms—letter and poem—as well as the tension between their supposed domains—daily life and artful observation—became my driving current.
JC: The daily is bedrock to your poems. You write about fixing a mailbox in snow and cold, jogging with your son in a stroller, mowing a lawn and crushing a spider with your boot heel, looking at a catalog and watching the weather channel, the death of an old neighbor, witnessing a man and woman locked in sordid argument – and so on, and these are events only in the most compressed sense of that term, yet you transform them into something else altogether miraculous. Is there a clue here to your poetry? Is transformation or transcendence part of your poetic purpose? Do you cast first, then write? Or write first, and in the writing discover what needs to be done?
AT: Well, that is a very flattering matrix of questions, so let me first say I’m grateful that you feel these poems succeed in their attempts to be emotionally compelling. And I’m much more comfortable with the word ‘transformation’ than I am with ‘transcendence,’ although if we can’t occasionally transcend our daily circumstances, then aren’t we liable to go insane?
I think the simplest answer is that a good letter redeems the minutia of one’s plodding through life—meals, sightings, the weather, how our children grow. I think of Van Gogh’s letters, and Lincoln’s, and even Anne Sexton’s and Bukowski’s, and how they all still blaze decades later—they reveal an exacting fervor for language and experience. The challenge for the writer, I think, is to document one’s small passage through life in a fashion that imbues it with gusto and gravitas so the recipient, or outside reader, cannot dismiss it as tedious reportage.
So I gave myself permission to write about daily occurrences and interactions in these poems—running, house chores, taking care of my eldest son who was a toddler at the time. In most cases, the genesis of each poem was either 1) a meditation on a particular friendship, as in the letters to Ruefle, Weingarten, and the Hillenburg sisters, or 2) a wrestling with experience, as in the letters to Schnell, Hathaway, and Heiney. With a great deal of my poems, then and now, being in those states often provides a usable first line. I can’t tell you how frequently my poems start two miles into a run or while washing a mound of dinner dishes. A sudden burst of language comes and then I roll it around like a marble in my cheek.
Frank O’Hara marked daily life as his rightful territory a half century ago, but to be honest I wasn’t seeking to elevate chatter or my persona-self into stylishness. Rather, I was attempting to embody a duality: how could I render real letters as poems, but also have the poems function independently even if the reader was oblivious, indifferent, or annoyed with who I am and whoever might be my intended recipient.
JC: I know you’ve musical talent. I know you enjoy playing, and jamming, riffing on guitar. Does music have an influence on your poetry? Do you write in a way that imitates the way you might compose a musical piece?
AT: My first great dream was to be a musician and only later in life did that morph into the poet-dream. The young years I spent immersed in church music and studying music in my rote student’s way may very well be the single greatest impact on my writing. Even in a free verse poem that appears to have no formal structure, I obsess over sound (alliteration, assonance, breath, cadence) and form (enjambment, stanza structure, the visual appearance of my lines). I try to read widely, but I’m quick to abandon poetry that is either unaware of, or resistant to, aural considerations.
I’m embarrassed to say that I hardly play much anymore. I played trumpet for over a decade and no longer own one. I have to blow the dust off a guitar to tune it once or twice a month to improvise goofball songs with my sons. There is a kind of perpetual frustration I feel with my musical limitations and the result is that I avoid that feeling by avoiding playing. This isn’t a healthy coping mechanism, of course, as a little practice goes a long way, but in my best moments I feel as if my modest talent might stretch further in a poem than in a song. But even that is a silly statement, really, since all good songs are poems and all good poems are songs. When I suspend my self-doubt in the act of writing a poem, though, I feel it is my one best chance at singing well.
JC: Mary Ruefle, Norman Dubie, Richard Brautigan, Roger Weingaren: these are some of the writers who are recipients of your letter-poems. Could you talk about these writers a little? Why these writers and not others? (Are there others? These are only the ones with which I’m familiar.)
AT: You are right that many of the poems in Red Flag Up are intended for prominent poets, and we should include the second poem in the chapbook as well, since it is for the poet William Hathaway. A few others are directed to writer-friends of my own generation: Kramer, Heiney, Schnell, Hemery.
I didn’t map any of this out when I began, though—I tried to prolong my own sense of mystery about these poems for as long as possible. The moment we realize something is a project, it takes on the requisite burdens of a project, and then it demands planning, structure, and organization. Soon thereafter, the yearning for completion sets in. So I merely told myself I was writing a lot of letter-poems, and these were merely the poets and friends foremost on my mind during the months that I was composing them. Can I get away with calling the resultant roster a happenstance, a pleasant motley? O, how my little chapbook would be different had I written it a year earlier or a year later, but I didn’t.
JC: Two poems I’d like you to walk us through. The first poem “The Fix” functions as a kind of prologue since it is the only poem in the collection that isn’t identified as a letter in the title. If you could address its tightly arranged form, that would be wonderful. And the poem entitled “Letter to Schnell Written on Glovebox Napkins” with its rather sad drama enacted before our eyes and its startling conclusion that somehow has us following a wrench circling round the earth toward a steering wheel that is punched to produce a horn honk that sounds something like ‘the name America.’
AT: I thought of the first poem, “The Fix,” as an invocation of the muse in the form of a traditional ode. It’s a rigid little Shakespearean sonnet about fixing a battered mailbox on a snowy night after it is sideswiped by a salt truck. Originally the poem was part of another manuscript, but I quickly saw its value in the chapbook, and I liked its wry, symbolic role there at the beginning, even if it didn’t fit tonally with the rest of the letter-poems. One reviewer was dismissive of its inclusion, but for me, it was a Whitmanesque affirmation of how the chapbook itself functions as a ramshackle mailbox, unifying and ferrying these little letter-poems along.
Ripped from tipsy sleep soft as velveteen
I heard the salt truck's thwak at 3:13
and peeked my bleary eyes through dusty slats
to see our battered mailbox lying flat.
Some shivered fool seen only by the stars
that grinned and gleamed and played their part
of ancient mockery again, I bent
against a goddamn Hebron wind that sent
my hunting hat like a giant tangerine
bowling down Wetipquin Road's icy sheen
as my chapped and shaking hands tried to right
a busted flap and flag submerged in white.
Hebron, our crummy one-horse town, was named
for caves the Romans burned for want of game.
The second poem that you mention, “Letter to Schnell Written on Glovebox Napkins,” is about an actual argument I witnessed one morning between two young parents in my daycare’s parking lot. The poem’s intended recipient, my friend Adam Schnell, had at the time relocated back to his native Calgary after living in the Midwest for several years, so the poem’s finish made intuitive sense, though it surprised me when I initially wrote those closing lines. I see “Letter to Schnell…” increasingly as a political poem—in our worst moments, aren’t we a nation of two opponents screaming across a parking lot, fighting over a child?—although that was far from my mind when I started it. Its opening stanzas are about protecting a son, and it’s only as the poem unfurls that the fatherly impulse to protect becomes exposed as impossible. I know Frost’s “On the Figure a Poem Makes” gets quoted ad nauseam, but that poem rode its own melting, and its finish was a discovery for me rather than some preordained destination.
JC: Were there any letter-poems written which weren’t included in the collection? Did you consider, for example, a letter to Jim Harrison, whose “Letters to Yesenin” suggest an undertow of influence, making him a most worthy recipient?
AT: I had a few drafts that simply never amounted to much, although there was one letter-poem to Gordon Lightfoot that saddens me to think isn’t in the chapbook. It was simply dreadful, though. I was, and remain, more infatuated with the idea of that poem than I ever was with the poem itself—Gordon Lightfoot rules. I think every poet learns this lesson in the halting recursive process that is manuscript assembly, and in such cases we either find a way to fix the awful stuff or we learn to let it go.
Regarding Harrison, he is one of many great poets who, I’m embarrassed to say, I have not read much of. I’ve made a note of him. Poetry is a lifelong apprenticeship.
JC: I must ask: did you have fun writing these poems?
AT: You know, a lot of these poems were great fun because they had a kind of amateurish zeal driving them. I didn’t expect them to ever find much of an audience or have much luck with editors because they were intentionally loose. And when I say “loose,” I don’t mean “sloppy” or “unrevised,” but they’re all discursive, tangential, breathless and associative. So the only pressure was the self-imposed pressure of experimentation. “Letter to Weingarten Written as the Script for an Imaginary Western” gave me the most chuckles.
I’m not really in a position to give advice to anyone. (That great fatalist Faulkner, my favorite novelist, once said to a group of doe-eyed undergrads in 1957 that he was “inclined to think that nobody really can teach anybody anything, that you offer it and it’s there and if it is your will or urge to learn it you do.”) But I think there is a lesson here that all poets must learn over and over again: we must immerse ourselves in the poem for the sake of the poem and dodge all other contextual concerns—such as how it might fit in a manuscript, or where we might send it—until we can’t make the damn thing any better. Sometimes it only takes two hours or two days, but sometimes it takes two months or two years.
And if this process of making poems isn’t fun, why do it? Many of my letter-poems have an elegiac quality, but that didn’t make them unpleasant to write, the same way that many of my most recent poems are quite rigorous in their traditional forms. Is this sonnet derivative or who even cares about rhyme anymore are the absolute worst things for my writing-self to ponder midstream. I hope the kids don’t find me hiding with this legal pad is a good place to be.
JC: Finally, why didn’t I receive a letter? Why?
Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award and his chapbook Red Flag Up was recently published by Kattywompus Press. He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, forthcoming), and his recent poems appear or will soon appear in The Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, Passages North, Southern Indiana Review, Salamander, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. He is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Here is the link to the page at the Kattywompus Press site where Adam Tavel's Red Flad Up can be ordered:
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