KR Conversations

W. M. Lobko

A micro-interview with W.M. Lobko by KR Associate Heather Crowley.

W. M. Lobko earned his MFA from the University of Oregon. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including Washington Square, Post Road, and Grist, and is forthcoming from Hunger Mountain and Catch-Up. His poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches in New York City, where work on his novel The Quick Brown Fox doggedly continues.  His poem “My Brother, My Gastroenterologist” was originally published in KROnline.

KR: Is there a story behind your KROnline piece?  What was the hardest part about writing it?

WML: Like so much of the poetry I’ve written since December 2005, “My brother, my gastroenterologist” deals with my brother Jonathan’s death. It does so in ways that are, for me, fairly direct, but establishing the straightforward way in which the poem puts forth and deals with certain facts about his passing wasn’t the most difficult component of writing it. In fact, writing about him, at length, ad nauseam, has been a given for me. If anything, I need to make a conscious decision and put in conscious effort to keep Jonathan out of my poems. Much of the raw material and ore of “My brother, my gastroenterologist” felt already prepared for me: I had the biographical facts of where and how my brother died, and I had the facts regarding what happened to the instrument he used to do it, and I had the aftermath of my thinking about these things years later as my roommate’s pug Zoe trotted around the foyer as she gobbled up the dead insect husks along the baseboards. (Here is as good a place as any to acknowledge that the poem’s title is indebted to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leyner, a book whose grab-bag madcappery I very much admired.) These wasn’t much work in gathering the raw materials, is my point. The most difficult thing in writing the poem, and poems of mine that are similar in structure and tone and approach, is ensuring that those raw materials are sufficiently refined and properly soldered together. Example: two of the important referents or secondary subjects in the poem are Ms. Pac-Man and the French stunt eater. Those elements overlap and relate in pretty clear ways, and they tag back to the governing subject of the brother and the speaker “taking in” and “digesting” very different substances (buckshot, news). It’s right and good, I think, that those secondary subjects are in the mix so as to lend additional significance to the primary subject, and to the way that the primary subject is investigated. But establishing a sound and tone and syntax for the segues between those subjects was very difficult. Take the segue away from the poem’s Ms. Pac-Man moment: “I’ll order her a pink bow / whereas I am the empty blue box in the center / where treats like cherries should glisten.  I’m dead / to her” and so on. That “should” was hard-won. “Should” implies that the cherries aren’t glistening there, now, in the empty blue box the speaker is, and why not? What other little Pac-protagonist has come along to gulp them down? How many points were they worth? What else should be the case but is not? These small linkages were important to the poem as it took on not so much its shape but its voice. Likewise the conditional tense with which the poem brings forward that Frenchman: the poem now contains an “if” / “why not”, whereas earlier drafts featured a “if” / “I’d like” and plenty of other conditional formulations that were not right. It’s entirely possible that I’m making too much of this issue, but moments like these, in my own poems at least, seem to be the source of a poem’s tone of voice and personality and presence. A “why not” is necessary in the poem at just that point to solidify the tension between (one) the poem’s devil-may-care, hey-let’s-try-this spirit and (two) the fatigue and gut-ache the speaker is suffering through.

KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?

WML: God. I don’t know. Maybe those are two answers in and of themselves, and maybe I shouldn’t try to elaborate. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. What sends me to the red desk at the end of the hallway is often just an image or a phrase I’ve snatched out of conversation: examples would include the image from some local television’s newsfeed of a large portable tent under which Houston police department members were arresting protestors away from the public eye. Written on my hand right now is a statement I spotted underneath a talking head sports analyst on Comcast Sportsnet this afternoon: the quotation reads “WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM WIN?” The collapsed cavemannish syntax of headlines! The idea that winning can be instructive and not merely a reason to celebrate! All of that is still raw material, and may not lead to anything at all, but it may. It all sounds so mundane this way, but it’s how I work. Raw materials themselves are often mundane in their original forms for me, or they sound inert, or they puzzle people when they hear that they have led to a whole poem or story. But then again they contain a potential energy, a fuel that’s activated (and consumed, I suppose) in the act of their turning into poetry. Beyond a phrase or image, I never know what is going to occur in the poem I sit down to write. I try to be as agendaless as possible. I would say that the same thing is true as I go through my daily life. Like anyone, I have a reading list, and reading obligations, and reading time that is pretty heavily circumscribed by other factors. For these reasons, I try to read my surroundings as well as the poems and novels and news articles that are my daily bread and butter. I want the ideas I take in to have at least the ability to combine in ways that I could never have planned. The correspondences that occur naturally, or overnight, or with what feels to be only my partial involvement, are always superior to anything I plan to a T. I don’t want to know as I go through my holiday with my family that the first Hollywood alien invasion flick we watch (my father has a weakness for them) will be laughable excrement, but that the other will be formulaic but surprisingly moving, and will rattle around in my backbrain all night, and will show up somehow on the page the next morning. I don’t plan to do anything particular with the phrase “moment’s lotus” which I scribbled down when my mother said it instead of “moment’s notice,” but I’m glad the phrase is jotted down so that it can be polished to a sheen, or cracked open, or discarded, or found to be a geode, or set in a small ring. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, if anything. I find that insanely exciting.

KR: Nicole Krauss said in a recent Guardian column that “We’re programmed to do the ‘easier’ thing… People no longer have the concentration to finish things; we skim along the surface, and it’s miserable.” Do you see this absence of ambition in the literary audiences of today?  How do modern attention spans affect your writing?

WML: I’m most mindful of the issue of attention spans, and whether or not I am occupying them well or poorly, every time I give a reading, or suffer some friend to listen to a piece over the phone, or when I read aloud to myself to test for pacing. The more mindful I am of my readers’ or listeners’ attention, the more attention I myself pay to syntax and sentence length. Alternating the syntax of a piece is an obvious way to help a reader enter it and negotiate a way through the world it’s created / creating for them. A poet who modulates the pacing of his poetry very deliberately but still in such a way as to sound casual is Albert Goldbarth. He has a demonstrable and dependable and essential knack for giving readers handholds, moments of clear meaning and/or reflection, which readers can pause upon as they descend the sheer cliff face of his poems. When I taught his work in an undergraduate creative writing course, my students and I would place little flags atop hillocks of earth next to each such moment. Reading a Goldbarth poem without these moments of careful articulation would otherwise be a lot like basejumping. (Well, I suppose the experience is still like that.) So, syntax. That said, I do not see an absence of ambition in readers today. At all. What I see instead is an abundance of hunger for connection. Admittedly, the latter can be mistaken for the former. Audiences today are discriminating, not lazy. They are aware more than ever before of the options that abound in front of them if a piece of writing is not insightful enough, or sufficiently chock-full-of information, or surprising enough. There are as many reasons for putting a piece of writing down as there are for picking said piece of writing up: we have infinite reasons for moving our eyes from left to right over these symbols, and we have infinite hopes for them. But if we find a piece, be it a poem or a story or a long-form investigative article or a photo essay on Tumblr, which both requires and demands attention, then The Average Reader will stick with it, and finish it, and rise to the demands it imposes on our time and attention. Perhaps what this new media zeitgeist (or whatever) means for those who write is that if we can’t be sure that a reader will make it to the end of the chapter, or the poem, or the sentence, or even the end of the line, then that line and that sentence and that poem and that chapter had better be the best and truest assembly of language possible for that writer at that time. The Average Reader, I have to believe, will sense and respond to writing that possesses this quality, and is out there, and is tapping F5 until the page refreshes with what we have to say, and is hoping fervently that what we have to say will be more than where we’ve checked in, or with whom, or what we’re the mayor of now.

KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

WML: Five years is not a long time at all in one’s writing process. I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything at all, beyond the banality above about how long it takes to succeed, in even very modest ways, with one’s writing. Editing and publishing one’s work in journals is painstaking work. Composition isn’t, for me. Writing new work is a swift and euphoric process—maybe too swift. But editing is painstaking. Attempting to place your work in a larger context for new readers is painstaking. And, further, what I’ve found is that that process isn’t painstaking in the way that I always thought the word implied. That word makes me think of ginger grimacing, and harsh insucks of air, and torturously long pauses between every small decision, which subsequent decisions will countermand or undo. Editing and publishing is painstaking in that each new subsequent draft is also an act of composition, of creation, and so that swift euphoria sweeps in to make each new draft The Best Draft Yet! I’ve found that I have to guard against optimism, which is weird to say and weirder to do, because without optimism, no one would do this work. I couldn’t have learned this without experiencing it. I heard the proscriptions about leaving finished (“finished”) work in a drawer for weeks or months or more, and did so, sort of. I was impressed when I heard it said of another poet, who had graduated from the University of Oregon MFA program ahead of me, that his poems had numbers after each title – 64, 79 – “those indicate what draft the poem’s on.” I chuckled along with my MFA classmates when the awesome poet and great teacher Joseph Millar offered this advice about how long a life in poetry was going to be: “Buy stamps, and bend over.” Work needs to cure. But the temptation to call it done, to open the drawer, to uncork the oak barrel without really tasting a damn thing, is a temptation of a subtle power that I don’t think a beginning writer (which five years ago I still was) can appreciate at first.

KR: When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant.  What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?

WML: This is a very interesting question. It implies that “sustained art” and an online reality are at cross-purposes or mutually exclusive. I wonder if that’s true. Art is going to do what it’s always done, which is (for one definition) to chronicle, respond to, and ask questions about the artist’s time in ways that are careful, crafted, and in and of themselves memorable for having a form distinct from casual discourse. Art’s role isn’t going to change. What may change is how and where we present it, preserve it, protect it, and consume it. I think of places online where sustained art is available—take the fantastic online journal Sixth Finch, for one. Poems and artworks on that site, and sites like it, benefit tremendously from the clean, spare design that the site’s administrators have chosen. When I’m reading work on that site, I find the presentation of the work facilitates much easier concentration for me. (McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is another example of this spare, no-menu-bar approach to design, though its other aesthetics are obviously worlds away). Design, however, is just one important aspect to this question; readers’ habits constitute another. Take me: to compose my responses to these questions, I closed down eight tabs in my internet browser. My phone, on mute, is unreachable from where I am sitting. In fact, I’ve oriented my chair, dunce-like, toward the verge of two white walls. This has done wonders for my productivity. Art is going to have to be the aesthetic equivalent of this. It needs to be the thing that people are willing to turn their chairs toward, to the exclusion of everything else. That has always been the case. What’s new is that we need to be willing in ways that we haven’t had to be before to turn our chairs toward it. A free program released in the last year or so would, upon activation, prevent a user from accessing her internet connection. It was called Freedom. Usually, I would consult Wikipedia to refresh myself on its development, hit up CNet to see how many downloads the program is up to, canvas Google for news relevant to the program. Happily, however, my internet browser is closed down until these interview responses are complete.