In David Roderick’s The Americans, the suburb is an island of somnolence and amnesia, a space both shielded from harm and offering enclosure with the beloved. However, the outside world—its violence and its effaced histories—continuously perforates that space. We are asked to sieve between these histories: to confront the lure of the apocryphal cherry tree and how it unmakes the granularity and contradictions of lived history; to live that tug between personal history (a shoebox of Polaroids) and our complicity within collective, national history. Regarding Americanness, Roderick comments: “Mostly I got what I wanted/ forgot what I was.” Yet to the contrary, the outside seeps into our sleep, as drone pilots and the Trail of Tears; and haunting even the idioms of the interior: “The dead return/ as lampposts, gas guzzlers.” Yet, meanwhile, amidst the undertow of complicity, we are startled awake with moments of awe and grace.
David Roderick’s first book, Blue Colonial (2006), was chosen by Robert Pinsky as winner of the APR/Honickman Prize, and the Pitt Poetry Series published The Americans this fall. He has published widely (including the very first poems from this collection in issue 13 of Memorious), and is the recipient of a Stegner Fellowship, the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, and an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. David was recently interviewed on NPR’s Here and Now, and he graciously talked in further depth with me this weekend about the themes and nuances of Americanness and his poems.
In the first poem in the book, the suburb is sliced open. Tell me about opening and closure in the book, and how you enact that in language and form.
The opening poem is a letter to the suburb that rhapsodizes about my childhood within the confines of its beautiful, semi-pastoral atmosphere. There are troubles beneath the surface having to do with the bland (blind?) rituals of suburban life, but generally the poem tries to offer praise. After exploring those troubles in the interim, I hope the last poem, titled “Faithful See Virgin Mary in Office Window,” returns the speaker to some semblance of suburban wonder. The end of that poem is almost rapturous.
Funny you should ask about language and form regarding these two poems. The shorter lines and turns in “Dear Suburb” seem to me rather cautious when I read them now—they’re hesitant meditations until a flourish of insight grows toward the poem’s final sweep. In “Faithful See Virgin Mary…” I built by extending the rhythm and pacing as long as I possibly could. The poem is one long river of a sentence. Possibly it enacts the speaker’s release from the anxieties and trials he experiences throughout much of the book.
Tell me about the conceit of the suburb and what needles in, and how.
I’m privileged more than most. I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that my privilege doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’m not sure how the world beyond my quiet suburb needles into my life and my poems—mostly through the news, I guess—but it does, and daily. Doesn’t it for everybody? Maybe this kind of stuff haunts writers and artists more than others. In short, I’m down on myself for not being more civically engaged beyond teaching and writing. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to invest more energy into community projects.
I’m interested in the tensions between different kinds of history in this book —personal, collective, nation, human — and where and how the speaker feels complicit. Can you talk about your relationship to American history in this book?
This is a huge, complex topic I can’t possibly cover in a few paragraphs. I’ll say this though. I think it’s common among people of my generation to feel as if we’re collectively adrift since September 11, 2001. As a generation. As a country. In order to feel my way toward that anxiety, I’ve tried to contextualize it historically in a number of ways by exploring concepts of empire here and abroad.
Yes, I noticed that. Can you talk about some of the other empires you chose to examine, and why they in particular seemed like interesting counterpoints for the American suburb?
I hope those meditations help bring our own country’s historical moment into relief. Let’s see. Spanish conquistadors make a few appearances. A poetic sequence addresses the British Empire’s subjugation of the Irish people. Another touches on the Roman Empire and its influence in Morocco, where my wife and I vacationed a few years ago. The book includes a poem about the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who suffered under Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Allow me to reverse course here—I’m not interested in the idea of empire as much as I am in telling stories about people subject to history’s broad sweep.
Can you describe for me the role of awe and grace in the book? How do they offset the complicity and violence of the other aspects of Americanness?
Well, something had to offset the complicity in which I’d been wallowing. Luckily I became a father—my wife gave birth to two daughters while I was writing the book. Prior to their arrival I’d developed an antagonistic stance toward the suburbs and American culture in general—our wars and political gridlock and sagging economy. I grew up among people who really feel the brunt of those problems, so when I opened “Letter to Shara…” with the line “A tree of despair grows inside me,” I meant it.
The poems in The Americans that gravitate toward awe, joy, or grace were all written after my children were born. It would have been a very dark book, and much lesser book, without the counterpoint they provided in my life and in my poems. Their excitements and pleasures helped me rediscover my own.
Tell me about the animal in the book. Both the shorn beast, the human animal (“but still the lice bit him”) in the Target parking lot; the burrowing mole; the “dead-mule smell/ of lilac.” These suburbs are not a completely domesticated space.
Wow, what a perceptive question. I haven’t thought about this, frankly. I think I’ve always been curious about and maybe even attuned to animals. A few years ago one of my poetry classes accused me of teaching lots of poems with animals in them. I hadn’t noticed, but they were right! And now you’ve asked this pointed question.
If I had to hazard a guess I’d say that maybe suburban life, because it’s so civilized, has sheltered us from the wilderness outside and carried us too far from the wilderness we hide inside ourselves.
My mother recently gave me a bunch of papers and stories I wrote when I was a kid. This one sticks out, written when I was seven years old. Maybe it’s my first poem:
“Once there was a pumpkin man. He was a hungry and nice pumpkin man. He liked to eat pumpkins. So he went to look for them. He looked and looked for them. He asked a rabbit and a chipmunk. They just said they saw carrots and acorns. He said that was no use. So he went to look again [until] he saw a wolf. He did not know it was a wolf. So he asked the wolf. The wolf said the only thing I found was you.”
So the pumpkin man gets it in the end, I guess. It’s probably foolish to share something I wrote when I was so young, though maybe it suggests my interest in animals was encoded at an early age.
Can you tell me about your influences (literary or otherwise) when you were writing this book? What helped shape your thinking during this time?
The most obvious influence is Robert Frank’s great photography project, The Americans. He took about 30,000 pictures and distilled them to 83, which he then meticulously arranged, exhibited, and published in the late 1950s. Those pictures reveal the underside of the American dream, the gritty reality of our political and social relations—class and race tensions especially. Frank had a knack for capturing the faces of so many extraordinary, nameless, heartbroken people. He was Swiss and an outsider, kind of like a modern-day de Tocqueville. In my book I try as hard as I can to channel Frank’s objective view, to share it—even though I know that, as a card-carrying citizen, such a viewpoint is available to me only in flashes, if at all.
I’ll share a few other important influences because I love making lists. Off the top of my shining bald head: Thoreau’s journals; Akhmatova’s poetry; David Hockney’s paintings and drawings; Orion magazine; J.M. Coetzee’s novels; and Bob Dylan’s early stuff. Eavan Boland’s poetry is very important to me. A few contemporary poetry books reshaped what I thought was possible in terms of operating at the intersection of personal and public concerns: Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Kimiko Hahn’s A Narrow Road to the Interior, Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music, and Robert Hass’s Time and Materials.
– Nomi Stone’s first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook, was published by TriQuarterly in 2008. She is currently completing Kill Class, a collection about war games.
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