Kentucky Derby, recently released by Salmon Poetry is your third collection of poems. Was the process of writing this book different from the writing of the first two, Long Division (Salmon Poetry 2009), and The Cartographer’s Vacation (Owl Creek 1999)?
Yes, very different. The poems in my first book were written over a period of roughly 15 years. The poems in the second book reflect those culled from about six years. With the exception of 3-4 poems, everything in Kentucky Derby found the page during a 6-week stay up at The MacDowell Colony in Spring 2009. I felt tremendously lucky for that.
One of my favorite poems in this collection is “To the Lifeboats.” Can you talk a little about this poem?
Thank you. I wrote this poem in June 2009, shortly after leaving MacDowell, the morning after a rollicking, swell dinner at the home of some dear friends in Provincetown, Bob Steinberg and Lise Motherwell. The title comes, very literally, from the sign that my friend Lise got from her father’s house down the street. Her dad was the painter, Robert Motherwell. And the sign now hangs above Bob and Lise’s door. The poem, I think, reflects the sort of joy I was feeling then. Two days later we learned that my mom had lung cancer, so everything was really about to plummet, but I didn’t know that then. What I can say is that this would be the kind of poem I couldn’t write again for some time.
Your mother is a very present character in this collection. Could you talk a little about her role in this book?
It seems more relevant to really talk about her role in my life, which is fundamental, and thus fundamental to my voice and to my poems. My mom always encouraged my writing and was very tolerant of the mythic mothers who showed up early on in my poems. When I was in college I wrote a poem about a mother sitting on a front step. That mother was drunk and had sagging breasts. And my mother said to me, with plenty of good humor, “I’m not a drunk, and my breasts don’t sag!”
Which was true. Also true: the strength and conviction with which she went through life. So that was my model. And my mother had a very clear sense of the responsibility each of us has, and a sense of social justice. That has surely influenced how I see the world and what gets into my poems. And the humor is most likely informed by her too.
Right after we learned that my mom was sick, I went down to Atlanta to be with her and the rest of my family. It was a hard time. One thing for which I felt so grateful was having all these new poems to share. Shortly before my mom left home to go the hospital, we were sitting around the kitchen table with a few close friends. I started reading the poem “Kentucky Derby” aloud. It was the first time my mom and dad had heard the poem, and I had this idea at first that it was a poem apart from them, taking place up in New Hampshire. And then I kept reading and realized that the poem had taken us back into my childhood, to Beaufort, South Carolina, where we used to go to visit relatives. I realized then that my parents were really part of this poem, and that they remembered the same bird named Lippy that I recalled, and the same plastic golden eggs filled with candy. I saw that recognition on my mom’s face and had a new sense of how poetry can connect us both to our past and to our present, and to each other.
How did you get into writing poetry?
I’ve always been comfortable with downward mobility and have always organized my thoughts in verse. I’ve been enamored of storytelling and making people laugh from early on. My poems attempt all that while also trying to make sense of the world.
You studied poetry as an undergraduate at Tufts University and then as a graduate student at the University of Iowa. What have been the influences and friendships that have come out of that?
I think it would be hard to underestimate the importance of all that. At Tufts, I studied with Philip Levine, who told me that there was such a thing as graduate school for poetry. He told me where I should apply and where I should go. I went to Iowa when I was 21 and was immensely lucky to be transported to a place where poetry mattered so much and where I was surrounded by gifted and passionate poets, some of whom would become lifelong friends. Over the years, we’ve taken great pleasure in following the directions of the others’ words and lives.
Who are your poetic influences?
I expect there are many, and that someone reading my poems might be privy to influences I’m not. There are many poets I’ve admired, though I can’t say who has really influenced my style or voice. A few of these, in no real order: Philip Levine, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Wisława Szymborska, Neruda, Keats, Antonio Machado, James Tate, Russell Edson, Randall Jarrell, Frank O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Your poem “Live Girls,” which was published in Memorious, is set at a poetry reading. You’re the director of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series, the almost 40-year-old series founded by Gail Mazur in Cambridge, MA. How did you get involved with the series? How has your work with the series influenced you?
I first started helping Gail out when I was in college. I stood at the door, which I guess made me the bouncer. A bouncer with a basket, taking $3 donations. After a hiatus, I began helping out again in the mid-90s, and then took over when Gail stepped down about ten years ago.
My work with the series has kept me attuned to new voices and new poems. I get to discover poetry that thrills me, and then sit back and listen to the poet read. What could be better?
How do other types of creative work influence you?
I find inspiration pretty much everywhere, especially in poetry and in painting and sculpture, and in conversing with their makers. If one thinks of the world as a place always under construction, always becoming new, then everything around us might also be seen as a creative work ripe for inspiring.
You are originally from Atlanta. Do you find that the culture or speech patterns of the region of your youth influence your work?
I suspect that my diction is a function, in some way, of my origins. There’s a mix of formality and the colloquial, an inflection, I suppose, that reflects the South. At least, given the deep traditions of Southern literature, I’d be a fool not to hope that there was some of that voice in me.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on something new every day. It’s what Yip Harburg called “the business of dreaming.”
Visit the magazine at www.memorious.org.