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Nothing and Something–an interview with poet Rob MacDonald

As Resuscitation Party is your first full-length collection, I’m curious as to a) how long it took to put together, and b) who you were reading while writing it. Are you the type of writer that shies away from direct influence while working on your own stuff or do you rather embrace it?

Resuscitation Party includes a bunch of recent poems and also some poems that go back to my time in Emerson’s MFA program. I’ve been pretty content sending individual poems out to journals for years; I didn’t want to send out a full-length manuscript until I had a collection of poems that felt like they really belonged together. That took some time because I’m all over the place. I get bored quickly, so I bounce around with regard to subject matter. Putting the book together required looking through hundreds of poems and letting a cohesive narrative bubble up in an organic way.

Since the poems span so many years, the list of books that I read while writing Resuscitation Party is very long. That said, I don’t think that readers will have to work too hard to see the influence of poets like James Tate, Heather Christle, Wendy Xu and Matthew Zapruder. I’ve had the honor of taking classes with Annie Dillard, John Skoyles, Stephen Dobyns and Bill Knott, and there’s no doubt that all of them are in the book, too.

I’ve asked this question to other poets before, but in curiosity’s interest I’ll ask it of you—do you have—or would care to identify—favorite words you return to again and again in your work? Words that you like, for whatever reason. I asked the same thing to Eileen Myles before and she hates and won’t use the word “shard”—too stereotypically poetic—and likes and often employs “you” and “dog.” John Gallaher stated that he’s an equal opportunity employer; he doesn’t play favorites. Are there words, then, that you come back to again and again? Any words that you revile and won’t deign to write or type down?

Let’s see.

Nothing

It looks like I’m a big fan of “nothing.”

If I stray too far from the language of everyday life, I start to get uncomfortable. Ideally, even if my poems are full of weird ideas, the language itself is straightforward enough to bring people in. I hope that the poems, at least on the surface, are pretty accessible. We don’t need to be pushing more people away from poetry.

A request as much as a question—do you have a favorite poem in Resuscitation Party? If so do you mind stating why you like it as much as you do—what do you think it offers both the reader and yourself that some of the others either don’t do or don’t do as much?

SHE WALKS TO THE SEA

I know what     bossa nova is

thanks to the people     at Casio

who made     my first calculator.

There’s a rhythm     to arithmetic

and a proper way     to play guitar.

Absence     makes all the difference.

The college kids     are starting

to wear     white shoes again;

they must be     mermaids.

I don’t know that this is my favorite from the book, but it’s the poem that I’m liking right now. The stutter of it is a little different from my usual style, and I’m happy about the way that both the form and the logic are sort of fragmented. The title is a line from “The Girl from Ipanema,” and the poem is playing with that song’s history, too. My hope is that readers will find more in this little poem as they reread it. I think that’s all I want to say about that.

Bill Knott! I love his work and corresponded with him a bit before he sadly passed on in 2014. In 2010 or so, out of the blue, he also once self-published a long poem of mine as a chapbook that I gave away free to people at readings; to this day, I’m thrilled about it. Can you tell me what he taught you, both poetically and as a human? I truly believe that in twenty years, hopefully less, he’ll have a revival in the manner of Frank Stanford or Jack Spicer.

What stands out most when I think about Bill is that he was unapologetically himself, both in person and in his poems. He was clearly never trying to fit in, and I’ve got a ton of respect for his determination to play by his own rules. In class he was brutally honest, and that was great. Thanks to Bill, there’s always a voice in my head asking if my poems are complete shit. I’d be in big trouble if that voice wasn’t there.

A question about publication—I know Racing Form Press is a relatively new publishing house, and I was curious about the circumstances of your working with them. As you mention that you “didn’t want to send out a full-length manuscript until [you] had a collection of poems that felt like they really belonged together,” does this mean you bypassed the contest circuit entirely? Or? And how has your partnership with Racing Form been so far? (I know it’s still kind of early.)  Do you have any plans of touring Resuscitation Party in the near or far future?

I’ve only sent out manuscripts a couple of times, and only to presses that I really love. I had this crazy idea that if I kept publishing poems in enough journals and the poems were good enough, an editor would eventually approach me and save me from all of the drudgery of submitting to contests. It took some patience, but that’s basically how it played out. I owe some huge thanks to Matthew Lippman, who works with me and whose book Salami Jew was the prior release from Racing Form. Matthew put in a good word with Sid Miller, and here we are. I’m thrilled about how the whole thing has been, and I’m excited to see Racing Form keep growing. As far as readings, it’s really tough during the school year, but I hope to get out there this summer.

You have some great titles in Resuscitation Party—“Whatever the Opposite of Hypochondria Is;” “In Search of Our Stupid Inner Selves;” “Expat/Sexpot”—and I’m interested in how important the title of a poem is for you—can it make or break the actual text? And as there isn’t a poem in the collection actually titled “Resuscitation Party,” how did you land on it for the volume title? Directly or indirectly, what meaning does it hold within the context of the poems in the book?

Actually I really struggle with titles, so it’s great to hear that they’re working. Sometimes, I feel like I want to give the reader a little bit of context, but more often I’m playing with language and making sure that I’m not taking things too seriously. It’s a way of knocking the poem down to earth before it can even get started.

The title of the collection is tougher to explain, but several years ago, I was driving back to Boston in the middle of a snowstorm, and my car spun around on 95 South, just north of the city. There was nearly no visibility, but as I was spinning down the highway, I saw eighteen-wheelers all around me, and then somehow I got control and took my exit, and it was all fine—not a scratch. There’s a little part of me that thinks it was impossible to be that lucky, that I must’ve really died out there, and what I’m living now is some alternate timeline. That’s a long way of saying that each day is like a brand new life, like we’re constantly getting another chance and constantly being challenged not to waste it this time. So, I think the book tries to walk through some ideas about figuring out who you are and grappling with your own meaninglessness and eventually coming to terms with the world, despite its lack of answers and all of its awful parts. It’s about how we’re constantly dying and being reborn and inventing new ways to celebrate that ridiculous process.

That’s amazing and scary about the impetus for Resuscitation Party’s title! Thank you for the context . . . I was curious. A few final questions—you mention your desire to, when writing, “not [take] things too seriously” and I’m wondering if you could briefly expound on that—what do you mean by it? Is one of your poetic pet peeves taking oneself too seriously? Or?

I guess so. It’s probably more of a political thing than a poetic thing, though. Poetry can drift into elitism at times, and it’s fun to push back against that. I grew up listening to a lot of punk bands that stripped things down to the basics—two minutes, three chords. There’s something elegant about that, and when it’s done well, the singer can just stick the mic into the crowd and trust them to deliver on the chorus. There’s something really powerful about a genre that brings people in and says, “You can do this too.” I’m not excited to write inaccessible poems for other poets, but I feel like I’ve got to watch out for that. I’d rather keep the language pretty simple and write about everyday ideas—hopefully in some new ways. When I say that I don’t want to take things too seriously, it’s not about avoiding the big questions; it’s more about avoiding the presumption that I’ve got any of the answers and instead making it clear that I’m right there with the readers, struggling to figure things out.

As I know you’re the founder and chief editor of Sixth Finch, I’m curious how editing influences your own poetry—does it at all, or are they two separate endeavors entirely? And what keeps on keeping Sixth Finch keeping on—do you still have the same passion for editing and working with writers as you did when the magazine first started? And any recent Sixth Finch publications that have particularly inspired you and reasons why they stood out for you?

In terms of the link between editing and writing, I’m definitely always learning from the insane numbers of poets who send us their work. We’re still a tiny operation, and I’m not outsourcing the review process to a team of interns. I read almost everything, and that’s a huge time commitment, but I’m constantly seeing poems that stretch me and make me question my own writing and consider new ways of balancing lines on top of one another.

Over the past few years, we’ve been making an even more concerted effort to bring a wide range of voices into Sixth Finch, and I’m psyched about how that’s been going. Dara Cerv has been great about pointing me toward some poets I hadn’t known, and we’ve both solicited work from people who hadn’t submitted to us in the past. Now we’re seeing submissions from more queer poets, more poets of color, poets who bring something different to the table, and it’s a real honor to bring those voices to a big audience. As much as anything, that’s what keeps Sixth Finch going; knowing that we need to keep reaching out and searching and supporting the best of what’s out there.

Thanks, Rob!

Check out some of Rob’s recent work here and here. And pick up Resuscitation Party here.