Interviewed by Lupita Eyde-Tucker
Let’s start with the first poem, which is called “American Domestic.” That title calls up a tradition of poems that talk about American domesticity, whatever that might be. What does that mean to you? And how do you think this poem plays into that tradition?
I guess I was thinking of the title as a bit ironic, because it’s not overtly a domestic poem at all. I was initially thinking of that Grant Wood painting, American Gothic, and thinking abstractly about participating in this tradition of representing something overtly American in art. But then of course the poem is about a drone pilot—the idea that this drone pilot is in America and that this is, in fact, an American domestic landscape, even though I think most of us try not to think about it that way. I was trying to create an ironic tension between the title—its alluding to high, traditional art—and then the subject matter, which I think feels contemporary and undercuts—but also participates in—this idea of American domesticity.
There’s a lot of light in this poem because of how it lays on the page and the very precise nature of the language. There’s not a lot of density in the lines. The lines are very precise, compact. Did they come out that way or did you like try to compress them even more? I would like to know about that process.
I am a reviser more than a writer, if that makes sense. I often don’t really remember writing my poems. I have a first draft of a poem that I usually jot down on lineated paper, often at night when I am about to go to bed. I begin at that time so I can forgive myself of any idiocy I might have written down because I was sleepy, you know what I mean? Then, in the morning, I try to make the draft into something that feels more functionally poetic. After that, the process for me is mostly about compressing and revising—which is to say that my first drafts are generally quite bad.
I started writing poems in the mid-nineties, when I was an undergrad, and then in my MFA from 1999 to 2002. I think that my work has become more and more compressed since then—which is partially a product of my work as an editor, which I’ve done for a very long time now. I mean, you’re doing some of this work at Subtropics, right? You spend all this time looking for reasons to reject work when you’re first reading through the slush pile. I hate to say it that way, but it’s sort of true. You’re trying to winnow quickly so you can get to a group of poems that are of a similar quality, so you can see them better. And I think that that work has affected my own writing. I’ve become self‑critical, and I have less patience for indulgence in my own work than I used to.
When this poem began it wasn’t about a drone pilot at all. I taught for 12 years in a small town called Warrensburg at the University of Central Missouri, and it’s right next to Whiteman Air Force Base. A lot of my students were either the children of Air Force folks, or were currently in the Air Force, or had just gotten out of the Air Force and were in school on the GI Bill. It was a strange place. Many of the stealth bombers are housed on that base. So, you would come out of a building having talked about Shakespeare or something, and then a stealth bomber would swoop down over campus on its way back to base. What’s really horrifying about those stealth bombers is how incredibly beautiful they are when they’re flying. And that for me is a real tension because, aesthetically, they’re lovely; yet they’re capable of doing incredible damage and killing many people.
The Iraq War was going on when I first moved there, and I always felt pulled in multiple directions about the interactions I had with students, with Air Force personnel, and then with the war that was going on at the same time—I felt very conflicted about all of that. And many of the stealth bomber missions in Iraq in 2003 to 2004 were actually flown out of Whiteman Air Force Base. The bombers would refuel over the Atlantic, bomb in Iraq, and then come back and land in Missouri. You would go to the coffee shop and there would be these stealth bomber pilots who’d just returned.
I initially started writing this poem about the bomber pilots and trying to think about my own unresolved feelings about that work they had done. I showed an early draft to Kevin Prufer who I taught with in Warrensburg during that time. We’d both already written poems about those bombers, and I think his response to that early draft was something like, “Another bomber poem? Don’t.” And I decided he was right.
Meanwhile, I had a student who had told me about her father’s work as a drone pilot. It occurred to me that that was potentially more interesting than a bomber pilot, so I started moving the poem in that direction. I remember thinking that all I wanted was for the poem to try to capture that internal conflict—that sense of definitely not loving the work drone pilots were doing, but knowing that it was work, that it paid bills for local families in a part of America without many opportunities, and thus had a local, domestic value. I wanted to try to capture that conflict.
That’s interesting, because at the end of the poem, there’s this scene where the door opens and the light comes out. That conflict of darkness versus light is played out, but then there’s no punctuation at the end. It’s like a hanging opening. Could talk a little bit about that choice to not put a point on it, too? I think that ties into what you’re saying.
I really loved W.S. Merwin in my formative years, when I was first reading poems. I particularly loved his books The Lice and The Moving Target, which he wrote during the Vietnam War. I loved that they are political books—he’s writing about the political environment, the war that America was engaged in at the time and his own opposition to it—but he’s also thinking about those politics in a much larger context. To me, those are really effective antiwar books because they don’t feel purely rhetorical. They feel like they’re truly poetry and not just rhetoric, to go back to Yeats’ opposition. (Yeats says that out of arguments we have with other people, we make rhetoric, and out of arguments we have with ourselves, we make poetry.) I love that you can take those books by Merwin; you can flip them this way and they’re clearly engaged in a sustained political argument, and you can flip them the other way and they’re engaged with much larger, abstract considerations of what it means to be human in a world that humans can destroy.
It’s in “The Lice” that Merwin drops all his punctuation. He said that he felt like his punctuation was nailing the poems to the page. In my last book, and now in the book I’m working on, maybe a third of the poems lack punctuation.
I think we’re living in a moment where we get rewarded a lot for our certainties. I feel like the more that’s the case, the more it’s important for poetry to feel like it can push back against that sort of absolutism. So, I’ve become interested in writing poems—or trying to write poems—that are thinking about indeterminacy and my own lack of certainty. Places where I feel really conflicted, and particularly conflicted about issues that I would be rewarded for having certainty about.
For example, as someone on the political left, I’m supposed to hate drones. And for me, I certainly understand that position if I’m participating in a political discussion. But in a poetic environment, I also feel a connection to the people who are doing this terrible work, who might not have signed up to do it. I understand that those drone missions also protect American soldiers’ lives and generate income in economically depressed parts of America. I can see their value as much as I really don’t like them. I feel very conflicted—and that’s why I wanted to write this poem. I think—I hope—the lack of punctuation maybe nods to that lack of a clear conclusion.
One of the things that really clicked with me about what you said was about seeing the human in these situations. Yes, they’re talking about drones, inanimate objects that caused destruction, but there are people behind them. And we have to think of them as children, brothers, sisters, fathers, neighbors, in all those different ways.
That brings in this idea—this feeling that I get when I read these three poems—particularly the first two, this one, and “Late Capitalism”: there is a self-implication from the speaker that I actually love. Side note, I’m a huge fan of ghazals, and “Late Capitalism” is like a backwards ghazal with the repetition, though it’s at the beginning of the line. Can you talk about this idea of late capitalism and how you are implicating the speaker—and then I think by extension the readers, in this parsing of what late capitalism is?
Yeah, you know, I’m always a little suspicious of the term “late capitalism.” It seems either very optimistic or bleakly pessimistic. Capitalism is of course flawed in many ways. The idea of “late capitalism,” which lately I hear people on the left saying quite often, implies that something is going to replace this. Either a better system is going to show up or we’re all going to die. I’m not convinced of either of those extremes—I think it’s equally possible we’ll just keep muddling along—so I wanted to write this poem.
For me it was a fun poem to write—and unlike my other poems, it came out pretty much the way it is now. I made some small changes and I trimmed it down a little bit. But I knew immediately that I wanted to repeat the term “late capitalism” as much as possible, which I thought was kind of funny. I actually had Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” in the back of my head when I was writing. She lands “we” at the end of her lines over and over (though of course my repetition is on the opposite side). I wasn’t so much thinking about a ghazal, but I was thinking about that emphasis of repetition, which is in both of those forms.
I’m a little skeptical of poets placing themselves on a moral high ground. I have a poem in my current book called “Meeting the Board” about the board of a university I used to teach at. They were very right‑wing, despite the view that academia is entirely left‑wing, which is of course nonsense. (Though it makes a good political argument on Fox News!) Some of the board members seemed to relish the antagonism that they felt with humanities professors, and seemed to enjoy the power they felt over us. Because at the end of the day, we were these small, lefty professors making small salaries.
At the same time, you know, I’m perfectly happy to be a poet who has a middle‑class life because I’m employed by the academy. And there are certain compromises I make to be able to do that. Many poets do. And sometimes, very occasionally, poetry does generate big money—very rarely, but sometimes poets actually get paid significant amounts of money to travel around the world and read from their work and participate in all sorts of stuff. And all of it seems to me to be a part of this environment we either optimistically or pessimistically call “late capitalism.”
So, I think I’m absolutely implicated in this world I’m poking at, and I absolutely participate in it. And I suspect many poets are, in fact, pretty compromised in terms of their position toward—or inside of—this “late capitalist” environment we live in. I certainly am.
And then we have “Six Notes on Violence,” which has some zooming out and zooming in, in the poem. What are some of the decision-making processes that go into coming up with these “Six Notes on Violence”?
So let me zoom out for a second and say that for a while now, I’ve been really interested in—and kind of actively trying to complicate—this idea that you have domestic, personal poems, and then you have political or historical public poems. When I was growing up as a poet, that seemed to be a standard kind of division. I mean, there are a hundred different ways to slice up the poetry pie. I think in America we often divide it up first into avant-garde and traditional—that seems to be our default. And then I think a second way we do it is through subject matter: does this seem like a public poem or a personal poem?
And I guess I’m suspicious of those divisions. I think the personal spaces we inhabit are always at least partially built by—and inside of—socioeconomic and political life. And history. And so I’ve been trying to write poems where I think about the “public” and the “personal” within the same poem—which is the sort of poem “Six Notes on Violence” is. Or else I’ve been writing books where I juxtapose “personal” poems with “public” poems.
I think the two occasions of this poem are pretty upfront. The first is that a guy really was shot two blocks up from my house. I think he was 15. And one of my neighbors found him right
after he’d been shot and held him as he died in the street. It was terrible. And then—I can’t remember if it was at AWP or where it was—I remember reading an account of a panel about violence in literature. I remember thinking that the way the panel was addressing violence seemed to me so abstracted and academic. I wanted to push back against that a bit, not against that particular panel per se, but against this idea that poetry is so often these days rooted in the thinking of the academy. And that kind of academic pontificating about subjects that are very real is something that I wanted to, you know, poke a needle in—to deflate it a bit.
Yes. And I really love that part of this poem because there are so many specific things in that section—to say, it allows the panelists to “flash brightly inside the airless cavern of the Marriott.” I saw those flashes like the kind of flashes you see when shots are fired. Because there’s this idea that that language can be violence, but we still have to think in language and we still have to speak language. I connected with this part of the poem because of that, because this idea that they’re pontificating on—what they think violence is—seems to be very violent.
Yes. And I’ll also say that I have often gone to conferences and pontificated obnoxiously on panels, and sat up on the stage and felt like I was saying something that was a “bright flash”—and then realizing later that it was a really silly thing I’d said. I mean, I’ve been teaching in the academy for almost 20 years. And so, you know, that idea of self-implication—I feel very self-implicated or self-criticized there, too. I could just as easily be up there on that day like those panelists in that abstracted scene there.
It’s ego, right? The arguments we make are certainly driven by our ideas and our response to the world. But they’re also sometimes driven by ego and by a desire towards self-elevation. The thing I’ve always found a bit strange about postmodern arguments against privileging is that you’re then inherently privileging your own arguments by making them. That’s the trap. And there’s no way out of that trap, I think, because it’s a fundamentally human trap—and I catch myself doing it all the time.
Thank YOU, Lupita.