When reading through your new collection, The House with the Mansard Roof, I couldn’t help but notice the sonnet “Merton in Love.” What inspired you to write that poem, and why in that form?
A colleague of mine, John Christie, presented me with passages from Merton's journal as well as an article in The Merton Seasonal about the topic. It seemed apt to tell the love story as a first-person sonnet (in the Renaissance tradition). I had previously written the dramatic monolog about Merton's nose job ("Father Louis' Nose Job"), also prompted by John, and had read some of my poems at the Merton Center when Wendell Berry picked "The Sublime" for the inaugural Merton Prize for Poetry of the Sacred.
Poems of yours like “After the Sack of South Carolina: W. Gilmore Simms in Exile” and “Henry James Shaves at 57 (New Year’s, 1900)” are entrenched in history, while other poems like “Drought: A Farm Wife’s Diary” and “Eads Bridge, St. Louis, 1935” reflect on pieces of art. How would you say that your interests in history and art affect your writing?
I have long been interested in the interrelations of literature and art and in fact wrote my dissertation, which became my first book, on landscape in the poems of Wordsworth and the paintings of Turner and Constable. Encountering Turner's handling of light when I first saw his pictures as an undergrad studying in London taught me how to see and helped me move in my poetry toward metaphorical expression. In general, I am committed to preserving the past. I began the project on the WPA art of the '30s as a way to write more objectively, but I ended up contemplating the lives of my grandparents and their contemporaries during the Depression, so many of the poems turned out to be personal after all. History and art tend to serve as spurs to the imagination too.
People have different ways of dealing with writer’s block and lack of inspiration. What do you do when the ink runs dry?
I accept that most writers will run into occasional fallow periods. To keep the imagination charged, I try to write in my journal, read the poems I love most, listen to music, look at art, watch good films, go hiking. I am not like William Stafford; I do not even try to write every day or sometimes even every month. But when I know I am ready for the unconscious to offer up its gifts, I try to write several poems during the upsurgence. Another thing that can end a drought is to go back and revise earlier poems. Real revision can be every bit as creative as the generation of first drafts.
Another thing I couldn’t help but notice from the collection was the presence of country-life and nature. What would you say it is about the natural world that is inspiring to you?
As Thoreau said, the wilderness is a tonic. I enjoy the dispersal of the ego I experience in nature, the escape from the world that is too much with us. Nature is grounding. And I don't think you need to retreat to the mountains or the beach to feel this. Just sitting outside in a leafy back yard or gazing out the window at the night sky is restorative and awe-inspiring. Our daily lives are lived too much on the surface; nature has a depth that can mirror and awaken our own inner recesses and remind us there are powers that subsume us.
What poets have you looked up to or continue to look up to?
Among my favorite poets are Wordsworth, Keats, and Yeats. I greatly admire the late W. D. Snodgrass, Seamus Heaney, and Ted Kooser. Some of Sharon Olds' early poems made a strong impression on me.
One of my favorites from The House with the Mansard Roof is the poem “Summer Storms.” Could you tell us how that poem in particular came about?
"Summer Storm" pretty much unfolded from a real experience. When my wife Bev and I moved into our 1890 Victorian the yard had no trees at all, just a big old tree from the neighbors that loomed over us. So we planted a tulip poplar, which we were told would grow very quickly. That spring we had several terrible storms and one morning we woke to find the top half of the slender fast-growing tree sprawled across our deck. It seemed to beg to be turned into a metaphor.
The book begins and ends with poems that address the death of your father, and fatherhood in general. They seem intrinsically related, as if they give hints to the weight of each other. Was this intentional? And, for a more general question, how much do you feel the order and location of the poems in a book reflect how the poem is received?
The placement of the two poems surely is intentional and I wanted the poems to frame the book and guide the reader to relate them together; I also hoped the opening poem with its image of family blood would adequately introduce a major theme of the volume, the importance of the past and our need to re-member it in the present. I think the placement of poems in a book can affect their reception, but I am not sure the poet can very accurately gauge this reception himself or herself. Overall, my organization of the book is really more intuitive than anything, and one reader--John Christie--has carped a bit about how I placed some poems in their respective sections. arguing they really belong elsewhere.
Changing gears a little—The House with the Mansard Roof is your third poetry collection. How has your writing changed since your first collection, Seeing in the Dark, was published in 1993? How would you say the process of getting poetry published has changed?
My early poems were written normally in first person and in free verse and were based on autobiographical subjects. Many poems in House are in form; in fact, my favorite style for the last 15 years or so has been blank verse---unrhymed iambic pentameter. For example, the poem "Preheating" appeared in The Music of Exile, but I realized it was nearly in blank verse so I decided to revise the poem, tightening its rhythm, and thus republished it in a shape I like much better. I also began to write more dramatic monologs, adopting the voices of others. I strive now for more of a balance between the subjective and objective.
As for the process of getting poetry published, there are many more contests now, with vastly increased numbers of submissions; there seem to be few small presses that are truly open to submissions outside of contests and outside of their circles of insiders. On the other hand, the Internet is surely changing publishing, opening up venues, and one finds self-publishing becoming more and more common. So it may be harder to get published by an established press but easier to find other outlets, some of which serious poets would be better off avoiding.
Is there any advice you would like to pass on to younger poets?
Read widely and read deeply in the poets who move you. Learn to appreciate all types of poetry. Learn to love revision as much as you do what Ginsberg called the sanctity of the uncorrected rough draft. And if writing poems is your bliss, don't give up. The process of writing is its own reward.