IF GOD’S VOICE INTERRUPTED THE STORY: an interview with kevin prufer
Kevin Prufer is the author of five books of poetry and the editor of four anthologies, the most recent of which are In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011), National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008; w/ Wayne Miller), Until Everything is Continuous Again: Essays on the Work of W. S. Merwin (WordFarm Editions, 2012; w/ Jonathan Weinert), and Russell Atkins: on the Life & Work of an American Master (Unsung Masters, 2013; w/Michael Dumanis).
Among Prufer’s awards and honors are three Pushcart prizes, two Best American Poetry selections, numerous awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Prairie Schooner/Strousse Award, two William Rockhill Nelson awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation.
Born in 1969 in Cleveland, Ohio, Kevin Prufer received his undergraduate degree from the College of Letters at Wesleyan University. He has graduate degrees from Hollins University and Washington University. He is married to artist and literary critic Mary Hallab.)
JULY WESTHALE: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Kevin! It’s such a pleasure to talk to you. Let’s dive right in! I would love to begin today with talking about trauma in your writing. So many of your poems, especially the poems in your forthcoming book Churches, and your 2011 release In a Beautiful Country, deal with violence, war, national trauma, and emotional layering. Which begs the question, as Judith Kitchen asked so eloquently in the Georgia Review, “what can poetry do in a degraded world?” What do you think poetry can do in a degraded world? In your opinion, what role does poetry play in national trauma?
KEVIN PRUFER: Let me think about that. I think that poetry engages in complicated thinking about complex issues. Trauma or love or sex or mortality or God — all of these things are complicated and I think that poetry more than any other art form engages with complexity and ambivalence, which is a good response to trauma. Though I’ve had little serious trauma in my own life, I’ve seen a lot of it play out on a national level—and I think one of the national responses to it is having powerful feelings in multiple directions. Poetry, in its ability to think doubly and triply, can engage with trauma in all kinds of ways. One of the things that led us into our more recent national trauma, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a failure to think complexly about large questions — or you might call this a failure to think poetically. (laughter) I think that’s the best I can do, July! It’s such a hard question.
JW: That’s a terrific answer. Thank you. I’m being purposefully mean to you. (laughter)
KP: That’s cool. (laughter). You’re not mean; it’s a really good question! It’s just a sort of ‘what can poetry make happen?’ question, and I never know what to say except, “it can make thinking happen!”
JW: You don’t know what to say except for “everything”. (laughter). Well, switching gears, Churches is coming out next year, which I am personally extremely excited about.
KP: Yeah — me, too!
JW: Can you tell us a little bit about it? How did the project begin?
KP: I always try to take a little breather before I start a new book. It’s a way of not getting too comfortable with myself, or repeating myself. When I finished In a Beautiful Country (a series of angry, or some people think morbid, political emanations), I wanted to see what would happen if I moved into narrative more aggressively. So I started thinking about how the stories we tell about ourselves or our country inform who we think we are. I find that my own students are often suspicious of narrative — perhaps because of the power of narrative to assert a single story onto a country or a person. Perhaps they suspect that narrative, unlike lyric, can’t think complexly. I think that’s a misapprehension, that when we say “I’m going to tell you a story” we’re suggesting “this is the only story and there are no other stories.” But narratives are politically powerful. There is a reason we have national epics, and a reason we are perhaps a little wary of people who will tell us whose stories are valid and whose are not. In Churches I tried to write poems that engage complexly with narrative, that braided narrative together, that explored what happens when I mash up two or three different speakers from different times or centuries, or braided together lyrics that were told from the perspective of God and also, perhaps, a child. I wanted poems that were narrative and disrupted narrative at the same time. I was also thinking less about politics and more about God and mortality.
JW: That calls to mind that poem of yours that you read at Lesley University this January — about the little boy who falls asleep, the bees?
KP: Oh, yes —
JW: Where is that poem published?
KP: It’s in the Southern Review. I can’t remember which issues. It’s called, “Where Have You Gone?”
[00:06:17m]: Listen Now
JW: That also reminds me of the philosophies of Nikki Finney. Last year, I was fortunate to take a workshop with her at Lesley, where she taught about methodology and the way that time works in poetry. She believes in braided narrative, though perhaps with fewer voices. She utilizes three timelines: personal, national, international, to talk about one specific event. Do you utilize any kind of specific methods or tools for writing your narrative poems?
KP: No. I do when I’m revising. I think of poetry as performative. Even on the page, a poem is performing. So I begin by asking, “What’s a good story I could tell?” Then, I start telling it. When I’ve come a certain distance, I stop and ask myself if something I hadn’t initially considered is now happening. Or maybe there’s another story in this story. What would happen if God’s voice interrupted the story with a completely different perspective on things?
I think Nikki Finney’s three-point structure is really interesting. I like that that’s how she writes. And, come to think about it, three is about what I can handle, too. At four, things begin to fall apart. But it sounds like Nikki’s much more deliberate than I am (laughter). I like to grope my way through the first draft, then make it mean something, later on, in revision. I ask myself when I’ve told the story, “Now, what was that all about?” And answering that question becomes the process of revising.
JW: That sounds about intuitive to what I know of your work. And this segues nicely into the next question, which is, what is your process as a writer (which you’ve touched on already), and how has that process changed as your career has evolved? What was your process like when you were an MFA student versus what your process is now?
KP: Well, it’s changed a lot. When I was an MFA student, I was very interested in tight lyrics, and I think I wasn’t writing ambitiously; I was writing for a workshop. My sense of audience has changed a great deal! (laughter) Because then I always wondered, “can I get this past my teachers?” The result of this kind of thinking wasn’t usually good poetry, just unobjectionable poetry — and there’s a big difference between a good poem, and a poem you don’t object to. I think a big shift for me was moving away from thinking of poetry as something I was writing for a small group of like-minded people; moving from that to a better model, which involves imagining poetry as an act of communication. Poetry is often the best way we have for talking about complex ideas, because it is often the most economical way. I know it’s not cool to say, “how can I make my reader engage with these ideas?” (laughter), but I do ask myself that. I hate thinking of the poet as some person living alone in his room, expressing himself to the air. I find myself objecting, saying, “no, a poet is someone trying to hook a reader and then express really complicated ideas.”
JW: I wonder if you would talk a little bit more about the idea of poetry being the most economical way of talking about complex ideas?
KP: By economical, I mean poetry can talk about ideas with great economy, can mean many things at once. In just fourteen or fifteen lines, Emily Dickinson can express enormous, mutually exclusive, competing ideas about the nature and possible non-existence of God. When we’re talking about God, she asks, are we talking about a void, about a consciousness, about distance? One could write book after book of philosophy about this — and what’s amazing about Dickinson’s economy of poetry is that she can cut to the center of this in a handful of enormous evocative lines! (laughter). That’s what I mean by economy. I think poetry can mean things — multiply, simultaneously, briefly, densely.
JW: That’s a hell of an idea. I love it.
KP: (laughter) I do too!
JW: One of the things I really admire about your work is that there is a very powerful voice. You’re an amazing reader, and your reading in January in Cambridge was one of the best I’d ever heard.
KP: Thank you.
JW: How have you cultivated the performativity of your readings? And who are some of your favorite poets to see read?
KP: I think you learn how to read poems out loud by reading a lot of poems out loud. I read my poems out loud to myself as I write them, and become engaged in rhythm and the sound of language — even in very long lines, I always scan to see where the weak beats are, and to see visually what the poem sounds like. In the process of reading them out loud to myself alone in a room, I hear how I want them to sound. Who do I love the hear read? Gosh, there are a lot of them. Doug Powell is a very moving reader; he’s unbelievable, really. When you hear him, you get the sense that he understands his poems in ways you had not considered, which he does! But you can’t always hear that in people’s work. Alan Michael Parker is a terrific reader. Just tremendous. Joy Katz, who has a book coming out, is a wonderful reader. And it’s funny, a lot of the poets I think are really incredible readers may not be known for being performers, may write poetry that one imagines wouldn’t perform out loud well. I heard Cole Swensen read and I had no idea how wonderful her poems sound, how hearing them made me understand her work better. That is a sign of a good reader. You come away thinking, “Oh, that’s what that’s about!”
JW: Hearing poets read out loud can really add a layer of dynamism to poetry that perhaps didn’t exist before. Which is why it can be disappointing at times when you go to reading of a poet you really admire, only to come away thinking that they aren’t great at the performative aspect of their work.
KP: Maybe that has something to do with the way the poet feels the poems communicating. I know a lot of poets who just write for the page, for whom the experience of the poem is entirely in the mind. Asking for a great reading of this kind of work might be like asking a painting to perform as a sculpture. And then, some people are just lousy readers.
JW: One of my favorite websites is the Listening Booth of the Harvard Woodbury Poetry room. You can hear all of the poets who have come through Harvard read their work — Cate (Marvin) is up there, and she’s an incredible reader!
KP: Oh I know! Cate’s hard to read with because she’s so good!
JW: They have one of the largest digital archives of poetry readings in the world. Definitely check it out!
KP: I will!
JW: Along that same vein, what would you consider one of the most pivotal times of your writing career?
KP: Oh yeah there’s one moment, but it’s going to sound weird. It has very little to do with writing. My second book was just under contract, and I was in England with my wife, and we decided we wanted to go see the Roman baths. I was neutrally interested in this and thought of the baths as just another thing to see along the way. They seemed as interesting to me as seeing a butterfly collection or a display of 19th century paperweights.
We walked into the ancient Roman baths, which are sunk a whole story down into the street now, because what was street-level for them is now ten feet below street level. Over the centuries, street level has gone up so much! So we climbed down into the baths and I sat on the edge of the water, looking at these fragments of statues and reading the lead tablets on which Romans had scratched ancient, mundane curses to throw into the water. And there I had an epiphany, and everything became sort of vertigo-inducing, and I started to think historically in a way I’d never thought before. It’s really impossible to explain. It was like I could suddenly understand something about the foreignness of events that had happened 2,000 years ago. And it seemed as though, for 30 minutes, I was in two different times at the same time. It didn’t make any sense at all. When I came out of that, I was obsessed with ancient Rome and Classical history. I spent my entire next book Chariot trying to recapture that feeling and I think in a way that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since. Everything just stopped existing in the same way. Maybe it was a mini stroke or something (laughter).
JW: That’s one way of thinking about it. I often think of those moments as something unlocking.
KP: Something unlocking! You know, when I wrote the poem “Churches,” there’s a line in there that is the best I could do to recapture it, this feeling that we’re all hurtling forward in history: “There ought to be a word that suggests / how we’re balanced at the very tip of history /and behind us everything speeds irretrievably away.” It’s what I keep trying to write about, in one way or another.
JW: What a fantastic story. Not weird at all.
KP: It’s a little weird.
JW: (laughter) So because this column is largely about writers writing about writing, my question to you is what advice, if any, would you give to emerging writers as they struggle to find their way?
KP: Sure. A practical question. I have two thoughts. The first is that poetry writing and rejection can often seem synonymous. If you’re not thick skinned about people who don’t understand or like your work, you’re going to have a hard time making a life of it. So if you make the decision to become a public poet (as opposed to a poet who writes just for herself), you should do it with the knowledge that a lot of smart people are going to reject you. That’s thing number one. Thing number two is a corollary to that, which is if you’re chicken shit alone in front of your own computer, when are you not chicken shit? Which is to say, that it’s important to say what you mean, and not what you think will please people. Which is what my teacher Carl Phillips told me more gently once, when I was writing unambitious poems. I am very attracted to the title poem in Brenda Shaugnessy’s book Our Andromeda because it risks so much.
JW: She is one of the balliest poets I came across when I worked at Copper Canyon, and she’s a lovely person.
KP: She is lovely, isn’t she? And so is her husband, Craig Morgan Teicher. Another fine poet.
JW: Absolutely. OK, and for the last question — which I know you’ve been thinking hard on since I sent you these questions last week — what poet would you date, living or dead, if you could? And we live in a fairly polyamorous world, so it doesn’t have to be just one!
KP: Oh, I have two! I’ve been thinking about this. I mean, who’s got the sexiest brain? That’s really what the question means to me. And I think the sexiest brain award goes to both Anne Bradstreet — and I know it’s weird to want to date a Puritan poet; I mean, perhaps it sounds like it wouldn’t be that much fun! But I do love her brain, and her conflictedness. I find smart, conflicted people really sexy. And Stevie Smith—
JW: Stevie Nicks?!
KP: (laughs) no! Stevie Smith. Though Stevie Nicks is sexy, too!
JW: I just saw your article on Anne Bradstreet, it was well done!
KP: Thanks! I have been thinking a lot lately about how that’s a brain I could really live inside. (laughter) Or date! Whatever.
KP: You had mentioned Millay. I think that’s a fascinating choice!
JW: She had a sexy life!
KP: I heard that — this is the new biography, right?
JW: Yes, Savage Beauty. I can send you my copy.
KP: I’ll get it on Kindle. I read books like that lying in bed. I worry that I’ll fall asleep while reading one of those huge biographies and it will fall on my head, killing me.
JW: Still. It’s not the worst way to go.
KP: (laughter) A great way to go, actually!
JW: (laughter) Well, Kevin, it is always a pleasure to talk to you.
KP: It’s a pleasure to talk to you, too. Thank you for making the time!
July Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com