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An Interview with Jason Whitmarsh, Winner of the 2009 May Swenson Poetry Award

“I have a friend whom I would praise.” – Max Beerbohm, “Laughter”

I’ve known Jason Whitmarsh for a dozen years, have followed his progress as a poet, and have learned much from him. The publication of his first book, Tomorrow’s Living Room (Utah State UP) — a tremendous collection, and rightly described by Billy Collins, in his foreword, as resembling “a big bass breaking the surface of a lake after a long spell of staring at the water” — makes me happy. Tomorrow evening Jason reads from the collection at Seattle’s much-loved Poem Emporium, Open Books. Seizing on the Seattle book launch as an excuse to ask some questions that interested me, I interviewed Jason by email earlier this week. His answers, and two poems from the book, follow.

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CW: Can you say a few words about the book’s title? What kind of tone — or contract, even — do you hope to establish?

JW: I liked the chilled domestic quality. For me, it has the tone of a 1950s advertisement; a living room, sure, but one that’s disorienting, or at least really uncomfortable. And the optimism; I like the optimism. Who knew it was going to be all great rooms and dens.

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CW: The book jumps around quite a bit, temperature-wise. Some of the chilliest poems, and also some of the warmest, all bear the same title: “Anniversary.” How do the poems function for you in the collection? Should we read them as a narrative? Another poet might have grouped them into one section; you chose to intersperse them throughout the book. Why?

JW: I imagine a slight narrative arc through the Anniversary poems — they move from marriage to children, for example — but I don’t see them as directly telling a story. I think of them all as love poems, I guess, though I might be the only one to make that claim. I think the attention and the intimacy of the conversations, even in the bleakest ones, is a kind of optimism. I dispersed them so they’d provide a thread through the book; also, together, the shifts between them felt too jarring.

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CW: Reading through your first lines, I’m struck by (1) how impossible they would have been to predict, and (2) how immediately they throw me into the world of the poem. I’m thinking of lines like “Happiness is on display in a downtown gallery” and “Unlike the other porcupines, this one is trouble all the time.” When you’re working on a poem, what process do you go through before arriving at the poem’s possible starting point? What do you hope for, or listen for?

JW: I listen for what Robert Frost would call a “sentence sound” — that tone or gesture that makes the line come alive. It’s strange to admit, but it’s the syntax of the lines that grabs me at first, even though the terms (happiness or porcupine, in the examples above) bear the greatest weight.

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CW: Who are your teachers and what have you learned from them? Feel free to take this question literally: “Richard Kenney was my teacher.” Or somewhat less literally: “Shakespeare was my teacher.” Or not literally at all: “The disappointment of adulthood was, and continues to be, my teacher.”

JW: I went to the University of Washington for my M.F.A. because of the writers — Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds, and, most especially, Richard Kenney. I was very fortunate in that they were also wonderful teachers — the two don’t always go hand in hand. I have great friends who are also great writers (and readers). And I’ve fallen in love with poets who have had an enormous influence, whether it’s evident in my work or not: John Berryman, Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop, particularly.

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CW: Your book is being taught this semester at the University of Iowa. I love the idea of a student happening upon a poem like “31: Imprudent Rivalry with a Deity” (which reads, in its entirety: “So I said to Him, you want / a piece of me, man?”) and thinking, “Wow, poetry’s not exactly what I thought it was.” Have you had moments similar to the one I’m imagining? What have you read that expanded your idea of what a poem might be?

JW: Absolutely, I love those moments. Much of James Tate’s work (I’m thinking of the poem where he fails his Finnish exam, which is difficult to understand, because he is a Finn) or Russell Edson‘s amazing ape poems, or Dean Young, or Ashbery, who I read when I was first reading poetry, and seemed to me to be getting at something in a way that I hadn’t seen or imagined before. It was as if he invented a new mode of entertainment. Lydia Davis, whose shorter stories function perfectly as prose poems, is also tremendously exciting. As I think about it, many of the poems I love seem to confuse the definition of a poem, even Larkin or Bishop. I read “The Fish” and I can’t believe an exact description of a fish can create so much feeling and pressure. I read “High Windows” and the shifts in tone leave me floored. Or Berryman’s Dream Songs, which struck me at first as perverse, but soon seemed not only natural but necessary.

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CW: The penultimate poem in Tomorrow’s Living Room, and the final of the nine titled “Anniversary,” begins, “She says he isn’t as funny as he used to be.” Laughter is one of the book’s major concerns: what’s funny; what’s not funny; what sounds like it’s going to be funny but is actually terrifying. As a writer — and perhaps even as a human being — how do you negotiate that divide between laughter and terror?

JW: When I write a funny line, I often put pressure on the poem to move away from humor — towards terror, or sadness. The modes seem congruent to me. I also think being just funny (and I shouldn’t use “just” — being funny is an astonishing feat, and I love the writers who make me laugh out loud) is risky in a poem — you can end up in the realm of jokes, which deliver great pleasure, but only the first time around. The terror adds the trapdoor that drops you into the poem.

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CW: Your book is chockablock with formal pressures and inventiveness. On any page we might find a lipogram, a sonnet, a double abecedarian. A prose poem follows a triolet. Your villanelle “One Art” borrows Bishop’s title and her end words, but takes Bruce Lee as its ostensible subject. [A sample stanza: “They attacked one by one (why?), and the last, or / next-to-last had knives and guns that went / nowhere. ‘You want some?’ (Me, as kung fu master.)”] Paul Muldoon once called form “a straightjacket in the way that a straightjacket was a straightjacket for Houdini” — meaning, I think, that the formal constraint makes the performance, the drama, possible. Does this figure chime at all with your experience? Could this question be any longer?

JW: I like Muldoon’s figure, particularly the generative aspect of it — what form gives the writer, or what the straitjacket gives Houdini (as opposed to his audience, which obviously prefers him in a straightjacket to a sweatshirt). I exploit form — I use it to give me interesting lines, or poems. I don’t think it’s nearly as central to my work as it is for a more formalist poet, though I often wish it was — it’s deeply satisfying to me. I just can’t get it to work as much as I’d like, or as much as others can.

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CW: Suppose Tomorrow’s Living Room had been published five years ago. How would it be different?

JW: A lot worse. More poems I didn’t understand myself, more chilliness. It was a blessing, in the end, to have to wait. Though that’s not true for everyone, of course — Catherine Wing published her book right after getting her M.F.A., and it’s stunning.

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CW: The pronoun “I” shows up quite a lot in your book, but it’s a shifting sort of “I” — and one that seems hard to attach, at least consistently, to you, Jason, the writer. How much do you worry about a possible conflation between this “I” and you? And how consciously are you trying to undermine the association?

JW: I don’t know how much I consciously undermine the association, although I definitely want the separation. I’m happily married, and have a lovely family, for example, and I wouldn’t want people to take the Anniversary poems as an argument against that. It doesn’t seem to me an easy problem, though, particularly with poetry. Berryman wanted everyone to take Henry in the Dream Songs as not the author, but who doesn’t connect the two?

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CW: You earned a B.A. in mathematics from the University of Chicago. What connections do you find between math and poetry? Does your training in one field assist your practice in another?

JW: I think the tight forms are interesting in a way that mathematics can be interesting — but I’m leery of drawing too close a connection. I also know so little about math, really. Math taught me about sitting in a chair and thinking for six hours straight, which is a useful skill for a writer, though not one I do enough of.

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CW: Here’s a possibly annoying question — but I’m curious to know the answer. What’s your favorite poem in the book? And why?

JW: Probably the Anniversary poem about happiness. I think all the Anniversary poems are the core of the book, and happiness was one of the first — and still, it seems to me, one of the more inventive and interesting.

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CW: You’re thirty-nine years old — five years younger than Wallace Stevens was when he published his first book. Do you ever pick up a copy of Harmonium and shout, “In your face, Stevens!”? It’s OK if you do.

JW: All the time. I only have his Collected, though, so I have to be fairly specific in my trash-talking: “In your face, pages 7 through 212!” We’ll have to wait a few years to see if I can trash talk the rest of Stevens. Seems unlikely.

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from Tomorrow’s Living Room

TWO, COUCHBOUND

Two’s calculation of death over time: Ten thousand bodies a thousand years ago is five hundred bodies when Columbus lands, perplexed by the undergrowth, is one hundred when the railroad runs through, is ten when anyone you’ve known was born, is, this year, one. One comes home, briefcase in hand, sobbing.

ANNIVERSARY

Happiness is on display in a downtown gallery. He wants to go see it; she says they haven’t the time, and besides, it’s certain not to be any good. “We’re not New York. All they show here are watercolors and stained glass.” It’s been getting great reviews, happiness has. Galleries in other cities have made offers. Perhaps more could be made, or, if not, this happiness could be moved. You’d have to think it through, first, the danger of taking something like that elsewhere. It might not survive, or it might survive so well that the original would seem a trick. It could keep you up at night, protecting happiness.

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