First of all, I’d like to give a shout-out to Jerry Brunoe, co-editor of Toe Good Poetry, for nominating me for this next-big-thing interview.
What is the title of your forthcoming book from David Robert Books?
Beautiful Problems: Poems
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Mathematicians speak of a beautiful problem when they come upon a use of numbers that equate in some unexpected way or don’t equate but should. Such a problem may be peculiar to math alone, having little or nothing to do with the universe, without descriptive value for some physical event such as the angle at which the reflection of a branch will be bent as it enters beneath a stream. Yet there’s never been an equation or formula for beauty, and although perhaps each of us has an innate sense of it, it’s not in the beholder’s eye but in the changing relations we have with each other and with the built and natural world. It’s an addicting and ephemeral experience, aspiring to become an idea but never quite bidding a final farewell to the senses that engender it. For me, it’s always been marked by a melancholy that elevates. The book spun its way out of these paradoxes of beauty, especially regarding those experiences of it when one feels in its presence but is reluctant to use the word or label.
What genre does your book fall under?
The poems are lyrical narratives mostly in free verse but some in poetic forms such as sestina, villanelle, and sonnet. Praise and elegy comprise their function.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The book focuses on common problems of contemporary life such as divorce, disease, accident, and grief that no one would call beautiful while experiencing them although the dead would find any one of them most welcome and funny.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’d say about three years. I kept playing around with sequences of poems that I’d written as individual lyrics to see if they saluted one another across that cliff of blank space between them. When it dawned on me I really had five little books or houses all gathered around different aspects of beauty, I turned each one into a section of the book and made a little village or apartment complex out of them, all sharing the same plumbing, so to speak, and attending the same group event.
Which poets have most influenced the writing of this book?
I know one book I needed to read at a time when I had quite a bag full of beautiful problems of my own was Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World. Maybe my book is a much smaller, darkly humorous version of such a map. I’ve also had a lifetime affair with the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson. I love the musicality of his verbal surfaces and the ironic depth of his wisdom that warned against “songs without souls that flicker for a day.” I hope my poems have at least cracked open the iron door of obliteration, letting in a little light.
Is there one person more than any other who inspired you to write this book?
Meeting and eventually marrying Kathleen O’Sullivan transformed my sense of self. She’s a phenomenal classical pianist and designer who has more creativity and can-do spirit than anyone I’ve ever met. Writing the book made me feel more worthy of her. I am sure the philosopher Roland Barth in his book A Lover’s Discourse would list this crazy notion as another instance of amorous “dépense” or expenditure.
Is there any event that prompted you to write a book?
It’s not so much an event – thank goodness – but a slow, drawn out process known as getting older that put a gun to my head. A friend of mine told me how an artist friend died leaving closets full of paintings vegetating in various stages of composition. As for me, when I’d sit down at my writing desk, the poems I’d written over the years kept opening the drawers a little asking for release, for a life of their own. Let me out of here!
Is there any special feature of your poetry that might pique a reader’s interest?
I twist and turn a lot of everyday idioms in this book. For instance, there’s a poem that plays with the way we use the verb “have” – one can have a boyfriend, a body, a key chain, a feeling, a headache – and I’ve had it with having, to be frank. There’s always a lot of humor and inadvertent meanings that jump out of the box of a language’s idiom once you know there’s a box to open.
What’s next on your agenda?
Another book of poetry, no doubt, to further yank open that box, but also an opera Ms. O’Sullivan and I have been writing for some time now tentatively titled The Empire of Love. It’s based on the life of the poet Luís Vaz de Camões who wrote what became the national epic of Portugal, The Lusiads. He led or, I should say, suffered a fascinating life mostly in exile from the nation that he so loved although it largely turned its back on him in his lifetime. Ironically, in the year of his death in 1580, Portugal was annexed by Spain and disappeared for sixty years as a nation – not that I’m making any case for poetic justice in such a tragedy. It’s a different kind of empire the opera envisions – the poet’s lifelong, unfulfilled love for a handmaiden to the Queen, Catherine of Ataíde, is what we have in mind.
Now I’d like to pass the baton here to Deborah Hauser, a poet and fellow Long Islander also imagining a different order of things, towards a democracy yet to come.