Interviewed by Laura Deily
I’m interested in the way writers come about themes, especially for a book length collection of poems. I noticed that many of your poems in National Anthem seem to have political undertones (or at least are very suggestive of war), as well as “Recent History” in Subtropics 10. I was wondering how you came to write about this theme? And did you have a certain way of approaching it?
I can rarely write deliberately on a theme. When I try to do that, I come up with what looks like an essay. But I’ve always had strong, sometimes obsessive interests. For the last ten years, I’ve been especially interested in the idea of “empire”—beginning with questions of how other past empires, particularly the Roman empire, defined themselves against those who were not part of the empire. This is such a constantly shifting, complicated idea—changing from person to person, century to century. But the more I looked at ancient empires, particularly when I was writing Fallen from a Chariot (my third book) and National Anthem, the more I began to imagine our current empire reflected in the ideas of writers from the past. I think those images of war come from that reflection—that is, I’m less interested in talking about war than I am in talking about who we are and how we understand our empire through our (sometimes warlike) interactions with others. Because of this, I’ve felt less like I have to hold strictly to the truth of any particular war and, instead, feel free to invent, to layer one historical period over another, to conflate voices and periods and accounts.
“Recent History,” however, began with a very particular assignment. My friends Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg asked me to write a poem for their blog on Barack Obama—a blog that later became their fascinating book Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days. I wrote “Recent History” for them, imagining it was a poem about Obama and the situation he inherited just after his election. Rachel was less enthusiastic about it. It wasn’t that she disliked the poem; I think she felt it was thematically off, that it was about the previous administration and, so, didn’t fit their project. And to tell the truth, she was right: more than most any poem I’ve ever written, this poem is pretty directly about the Bush administration, composed just after it ended. I guess I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth. (And I ended up writing Rachel and Arielle another poem that they very kindly included on their blog and in their book.)
I’m intrigued with your idea of “empire” and the notion of exploring this for the past ten years. Have you come across any challenges or surprises when writing about the “empire”? Has your initial idea of “empire” changed (especially considering the shifting political climate in the past few years)?
Well, when I first started reading, I was struck by the similarities between, say, the Roman Empire and our own. So many of the political questions someone like Hadrian or Trajan faced were similar to our own—that is, at what point in our expansion do our borders become thin, indefensible, or no longer borders at all, in the traditional sense of the word. And for all of us, what does it mean to be a citizen and how have our notions of the meanings of that word changed as our empire has grown, has included more territory and people? What does it mean to live at a time when one’s own cultural values—movies or games or art or even taste in clothes—wield an unusual power over the sensibilities and desires of those beyond our borders? These questions fascinated me and informed many poems. But the more I read, the more the differences came through, the more alien and permanently lost ancient Roman ways of thinking seemed…the more the similarities seemed bureaucratic and superficial. Do we even have borders in the Roman sense? Are those borders as much electronic and virtual as they are demarcated by rivers and mountains and lines on maps?
But, also, our interactions with the world during Bush’s wars—for all their often unhappy complexity—also changed my view of what it means to belong to an empire. That is, my sense of things was changing during those ten years, from 2000 to 2010, on two fronts: with regard to both my understanding of the distant past and our current empire.
You said that “Recent History” began with a particular assignment. How did “Burial Song” come about?
Many poems begin not with notions or images or (worst of all) big messages I want to communicate. “Burial Song” began with a sense of rhythm. It was originally composed in common meter—that is, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. For a long time, it lived on my hard drive that way. (Like Emily Dickinson, I guess,) I enjoyed the idea of a poem told from an ambiguous, unsettling afterlife in a meter often reserved for hymns. (“Amazing Grace” is composed in the same meter, after all.) But the poem wasn’t really working; it felt rigid and awful and clumsy. So I messed it up a little bit, rethought the rhythms. I rewrote the last two stanzas a dozen times, thought the poem might be better if it began in a sort of insistent trimeter and found a looser, common meter toward the end. But I suppose this isn’t really what most people want to hear when they ask where a poem came from. So often, though, the literal sense of the poem wraps itself around the music of the poem—that is, the music is really at the center and any summarizable meaning is subservient to it, at least in the composition process.
Earlier, you said that you’ve often had “strong, sometimes obsessive interests” when writing. I’m curious—what are some of these other interests?
Though classical history remains an overwhelming sort of interest, I’m trying to get away from writing about it too directly, lest I start repeating myself. I’m a little obsessed right now with 1950s science fiction, which is evolving into a strange sort of voice in some of my new poems. And I’ve also become interested in writing poems that float from consciousness to consciousness, trying to tell stories from the points of view of conflicting observers, to juggle multiple narrative strands. I’m not sure how that’s working out yet, though. (I’m writing from the quiet of Marfa, Texas, a strange and beautiful desert town, where I’ve got piles of papers all around me, little scraps of science fiction narratives I’m trying to piece together into poems.)
And for several years, the work of the very obscure poet Dunstan Thompson has been overwhelming. (He published mostly in the 1940s, marvelous, often homoerotic, sometimes violent poems; later his unpublished work took a more contemplative, sometimes theological turn….) My friend D. A. Powell and I have an edited volume coming out next month on his work—a collection of his poems and various essays by other writers about this strange voice in American poetry.
You work as an editor for Pleiades and, as you just mentioned, you also edit books. Would you talk about how this affects or informs your own writing?
I began editing as a way of participating in what I sometimes imagine T. S. Eliot meant when he talked about the literary tradition. I wanted to know what writers of the past and present were saying, what the enormous conversation of literature was about—partly so I could participate in it and partly, let’s be honest, because I was curious. (I never majored in English, and took my first true English poetry courses in graduate school.) To that end, I edited books on European poetry, contemporary American poetry, overlooked poets, and, as I mentioned, the work of Dunstan Thompson. I think by putting myself in a position where I had to read both broadly and with intensity in one literary area, I improved my own writing through the example of better work by others. Also, I gained a sense of where I fit in in the literary landscape and what the traditions were that I wanted to participate in. I guess what I mean is that editing books helped me become more self-aware as a writer.
Pleiades is another matter. So much of the work of that magazine involves more than just reading and selecting contents. There’s advertising, layout, design, promotion, grant writing, etc., etc. The actual selection of work makes up perhaps 5% of the actual work of the magazine. I edited Pleiades for fourteen years, though, because I think the heart and soul of American poetry are in the small press and, in order for us to have an vital poetry culture in this country, we need vital and engaged small-press publishing to support it. At Pleiades, we worked hard on that, not just by publishing good poems, but by printing hundreds of pages of reviews of poetry books each year. But did it influence my writing? I don’t think it did, to be honest. I made many friends whose work I admire and try to emulate, but only through their examples—that is, only in this secondary way—did the magazine influence my work as a writer. Still, I wouldn’t trade the experience of editing Pleiades for anything. It continues to be wonderful, even as I move to the University of Houston and, so, slip down the masthead of the journal a little bit.
What’s on your reading list this summer?
Well, as I mentioned, I’m off in Marfa, Texas, as I write this, on a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. They’ve put me in this lovely house surrounded by desert and the floor-to-ceiling shelves are stocked with books. Hundreds and hundreds of them. The ones I’ve taken off the shelves and have next to me as I write are Alan Dugan’s Poems Seven, Louise Glück’s The Seven Ages, Miltos Sachtouris’s Poems, W. H. Auden’s Selected Poems, and Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See. I’m also reading a strange science fiction book called The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, and John J. Adams’s Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. Last night, I was paging through J. Allyn Rosser’s excellent Foiled Again, and, in German, I’m reading Norbert Lange’s Rauhfasern, with an eye toward translating some of it. I like to be reading a lot of books at once.
You said that you’re working on a series of science fiction poems at the moment. I don’t come across science fiction in poetry very often. This sounds like a unique project. Would you talk a little more about this? Do you think science fiction lends itself to poetry?
These days, I’m interested in narrative, in the ways I can twist it, or layer one story on top of another, or present conflicting, even contradictory narratives at once. Free of the expectations that their stories will conform to our sense of the “real world,” the science fiction narrative seems to me a good way of exploring some of the limits of the form.
Or, put another way, it might be that the science fiction narrative is a way of writing as far outside the limits of my own experience as possible, so that I can truly inhabit the experiences of (imaginary) others. In the science fiction poem, after all, I’m beholden only to rules of my science-fictional creation, not the rules I have to obey in my own life. So, maybe writing science fiction poems is just another step in my constantly trying to get away from myself and the limitations of my experience.
So, in these new poems the whole earth catches fire, or corporations have bought up the moon and installed cannons on it (which they fire relentlessly down on us when we disobey them), or a man lives in the shelter of a bird larger than a mountain, or a young woman finds a not-quite-human mystical baby on the side of the road.
Kevin Prufer’s poems “Recent History” and “Burial Song” appear in Subtropics 10.