By way of introduction to this month’s Featured Selection of new work is an introductory interview with Adam Tavel by our Associate Editor for Special Features Nancy Mitchell, which is followed by the work itself and some biographical material.
NM: Your poems in this selection are in traditional or variations of traditional form, as are many of your poems in your recent book Plash & Levitation, the 2014 winner of the Permafrost Prize Series Award from the University of Alaska Press.
AT: All of the poems here are from my new manuscript, Catafalque, which is almost entirely comprised of metrical work. As the title suggests, the collection is elegiac. For me there was a clear connection between writing poems that grieve and the elevated register of the pentameter line, which dominates. I sought a refinement in my own use of language as a commemorative gesture.
NM: I find this very moving—the yoke, the discipline and rigor of the form willingly undertaken, as a labor of love, so to speak, to honor that which is grieved…and, the added refinement in language to lend grace and gravitas to the occasion…lovely.
In each of the following poems, you strictly adhere to at least one device in the traditional form—in “The End of Practice,” you’re faithful to the form of the villanelle, but not to the traditional rhyme scheme. “Resurrection Horse” and “The Sentimentalist” are both strictly metrical, but after their initial stanzas, they abandon rhyme.
AT: You’re absolutely right. I’d add as a footnote that “The Sentimentalist” has the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet but the loose rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet, so it uses faint slant rhyme in its closing six lines. In some of my sonnets, they are attentive and exacting in their form, but in other metrical poems, I modify the form to suit my needs. In “The End of Practice,” it felt too confining—and overbearing—to keep the rhyme scheme. The poem maintains repetition and alliteration, but otherwise, the rhyme fades quickly. These sorts of decisions are pretty organic for me when a rough draft is gushing out.
NM: Another of your unexpectedly delightful departures from tradition is the ironic, kind of snarky, “anti-heroic” couplet at the end of the sonnet “The Sentimentalist.” After “His mother’s nags compelled:/ go hit the weights and flirt with waitresses,” we get the Volta in the following two lines: “He did. He burned his yearbook loves and lied/when poets groaned the country’s gone to hell.” followed by the deflating, sucker punch of the final couplet “You’re such a little wuss his friends still said/right to his face until the day he died.” Love that!
AT: I’m tickled that you like this poem so much. I wrote it after a year of nonstop elegies as a response to my internal critic, who was simply fed up with gloom. The ending surprised me when I wrote it, but now that I see it from a distance, I think it seeks to affirm the elegiac impulse. The poem is also a ridiculously belated retort to all of my grad school friends who, back in the day, said my poems sometimes suffered from sentimentality, which of course they did.
NM: It’s so interesting how you, if you will, repurpose form—no one could call you a Neo-Formalist! In fact, although most of your lines are more metrically traditional, you don’t (a Neo-Formalist trait Ira Sadoff takes issue with in his essay “Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia” in The American Poetry Review Jan./Feb. 1990) “privilege sound over vision.” For example, your single stanza narrative poem “A Child in Snow” certainly “articulates form with vision” in a highly visual diorama in which the camera/speaker zooms in and out of the scenes within. The metrical variation within the regular pentameter lines support the museum “collection” metaphor, as do the few lines that depart from the pentameter. Your choices are clearly purposeful. It’s very Bishop, one of, as Sadoff notes, “the masters of received form.” Bravo!
AT: You know, sometimes I worry that I “privilege sound over vision”! It’s easy to get carried away with the musicality of English…it’s such a sonorous, sumptuous language. “A Child in Snow” began as an imagined photograph of my wife as a child, but the narrative innocence evaporated once I confronted that foreboding scene and began to explore the museum metaphor. The ending gets pretty bleak—about as bleak as Arnold’s “Dover Beach”—but the discovery is that nature is amoral, nothing is calling the shots, and we’re a part of that chaos. This harkens back to my deep appreciation for Robinson Jeffers. What I thought was an epiphany when I wrote “A Child in Snow” is really just an exercise in Jeffers’s dark wisdom.
NM: Ah, yes…Jeffer’s dark wisdom, or as Grace Slick less subtly sang, “You call it rain/but the human name/doesn’t mean shit to a tree.” So, what led you to write in form?
AT: In the trajectory of my life, it is a colossal irony that I’ve written a single formal poem, let alone a whole manuscript of them, since I loathed traditional poetry when I was young. Well into my twenties, my favorite poets were paragons of free verse.
NM: Can you recall a few?
AT: My earliest influence was Bukowski, who gave way to William Carlos Williams, the Beats, and Gary Snyder. I was a history major as an undergraduate, and I have vivid memories of straying on my late-night library jaunts to slack in the poetry stacks. H.D., Cummings, Anne Sexton, and contemporary poets like Gary Soto and Sherman Alexie where all a part of that swirl. I remember reading American Poetry Review a lot since Bishop Library at Lebanon Valley College carried a subscription. I was completely oblivious to the fact that Cummings and Sexton were remarkably inventive in reimagining traditional forms.
I was attracted to free verse for generational and cultural reasons, as so many students are today. First and foremost, free verse was easier to read, as it tends to mimic our natural speech patterns, and though I fell in love with poetry as a schoolboy, most of the poems I was given in public school were presented as timid justifications of the art. “I know we all hate poetry,” so many teachers insinuated, “but here’s one you can actually understand!”
NM: You’re so right—in an effort to be helpful, many teachers sent the message that poetry is far too impenetrable for the likes of you, so let me give you something that sounds like talking, but at the same time, totally unrelated to your adolescent experience.
AT: Yes! I yearned for poets who I felt were “relatable,” but looking back, what I really yearned for was poems that I could understand and participate in the emotional charge.
NM: You mention Bukowski as your earliest influence; …wow—it’s amazing what a “gateway” poet he’s been for generations of latter day “angelheaded hipsters” who, like you, were “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Can you name a few others?
AT: Like most teenagers, I preferred Hughes over Frost and Plath over Dickinson. I relished the adolescent resentment in “Theme for English B” while naïvely missing its affirmation of racial identity, and admired “Lady Lazarus” for what my mother would call it’s “attitude problem” despite being confused by its allusions and Freudian complexity. I sought to reject anthology poetry, brimming with its dead aristocrats and their stuffy diction, but what I was reading was still the stuff of anthologies. No one showed me Etheridge Knight, or Sonia Sanchez, or any other truly bold stuff in high school.
NM: Yes; the benign neglect, the damage done. After a few semesters of watching Intro to Poetry students’ eyes glaze over and hearing their hearts and minds slam shut, I dumped those department-mandated, ridiculously thematic tomes!
AT: At any rate, without being wholly conscious of my motives, I started writing sonnets in graduate school, which eventually led to my timid experimentation with other forms.
NM: Was this when you were in the MFA program at Vermont College? This was a critical turning point—were there particular sonnets that drew you in?
AT: Yes. I studied with David Wojahn for about six months. That was probably the beginning of it.
I suppose, too, that I was attracted to the challenge and uncoolness of form, the sense of competition with oneself, and the sonnet’s permutations and pliability. And of course I was attracted to the musicality. Sometimes, a line of pentameter arrives for me fully formed while I’m running or washing the dishes, and intuitively I let it lead me. In the past few years, I’ve pursued form intently as a generative method. I relish the compression and intensity it demands from the very first draft. How many of us do our best work when the terror of a deadline finally becomes real? How many runners clock far better race times than they could ever post in practice?
NM: You’re right—even if I end up kicking away the scaffolding of the form, at least it gets me up and writing. Your comment about the line of pentameter running from/with and through you reminds me of another poet friend who, try as he might to break with his customary penchant for syllabics, throw caution to the wind, and write free verse, still ended up with strictly syllabic poems; the pattern had become ingrained—he surrendered to the body’s wisdom.
AT: Your friend’s unconscious need for syllabics doesn’t surprise me. I agree with Wordsworth’s general assertion in “Nuns Fret Not in Their Convent’s Narrow Room” that what appear to be form’s obligations can be liberating forces. If you ask a roomful of students to write whatever they feel like about God over the course of a semester, I think you’ll get a lot of blank stares. I think you’ll get their pens moving if you tell those same students they only have five minutes to write, or only five words.
NM: I can’t agree more. One semester, in a desperate measure to prevent students from slapping anything down at the last minute for worksheets, I accepted only strictly traditional sonnets. My God, the indignant tosses of heads, the impassioned accusations that I was crushing their creative geniuses! But you know, as they knuckled down and worked to pack the lines with imagery and sound, to use rhyme consciously with enjambment, and to skillfully manage the Volta and resolution in the final couplet, their confidence and skill grew. Some of the best work of their entire creative writing career portfolio was done in or after that class. One of my students managed his deep response of horror to the film The Killing Fields in an elegant, elegiac crown of sonnets that he later presented with a defense of traditional form at prestigious national student conference. However, the initial resistance to working in form is high, sometimes vitriolic!
AT: I read a young critic who reviewed a book of sonnets recently and he went to great lengths to express how he felt the sonnet, as an abstraction, bore the sins of history. I find that severe. I understand his point—for many the sonnet represents an exclusionary tradition that remains a symbol of oppression and/or the status quo—but logically, the sentence itself, literacy, and the English language at large have been far greater weapons in the oppressor’s arsenal. How many creation myths and tribal histories did the invention of the book destroy? How many hundreds of indigenous languages did English help obliterate from our continent? Can we even fathom the ways in which English is a symbol of assimilation and brutish economics in the 21st century? Yet we continue to speak this language, and to write in it, with the hope that our efforts may prove redemptive and one day free from suffering, and that our language, all language, can tether human beings together, free from considerations of power, because we need it to understand our species, we need it to survive, and we need it to find a love supreme. I feel this way about the sonnet and other poetic forms, too. Beating up on an abstract literary form is a facile political gesture, and to insist on doing so ad nauseam willfully overlooks history’s greatest lesson: we examine the injustices of the past to prevent as many as possible from ever occurring again.
I believe passionately that poetry should be a diverse, inclusive art—particularly here in America. Confronting the racism, sexism, and classicism in Anglo-American literature is a necessary moral act for any writer working with the English language, but forsaking everything that was written before we were born accomplishes little beyond self-congratulatory smugness. It replaces the tyranny of the past with the tyranny of self-righteousness. One envisions Robespierre smirking as he sent untried masses to the guillotine.
On a related note, I find it tragicomic that so many contemporary poems seem indistinguishable from advertisements. I’m always grateful for accessible poems, and witty poems, and poems that challenge me aesthetically, but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with poems that seek my attention and do nothing once they’ve gained it. There’s an interview with Arthur Miller from the mid-1980s (right around the time he published his memoir Time Bends) where he criticized performance theater for “obeying the worst signals of the culture.” I share that frustration. When a poem doesn’t offer its audience anything more than the hollow fleeting distraction of an internet meme or reality show, and thus seems driven by how entertaining it can be, for me that’s the moment it fails as art.
NM: Speaking of the internet: do you think the quality of poetry has been compromised with the proliferation of online journals?
AT: I love online publishing. At the risk of sounding like DiCaprio at the end of The Aviator, it’s the way of the future. I co-founded and co-edited the online journal Conte for nine years, so I like to think we were here before online magazines were cool. I suspect that those of us living now will continue to enjoy lives enriched by a literary culture where traditional publishing and digital publishing exist in a symbiotic, if at times strained, relationship. It makes me uncomfortable to think that my children or grandchildren might live in a world where printed matter no longer exists. I absolve this discomfort by not thinking about that reality very often. It won’t bother them because it will be the world they know.
I’m convinced that the internet has allowed for greater equality and transparency in literary publishing and will continue to do so. We still have a long way to go. But I don’t know a single young writer who thinks that their dream can only be realized in New York City now. Online publishing gives voice to the marginalized, expedites the magazine- and book-making processes, and saves millions of trees in the process. Are there gobs of bad poems online? Sure. Are a few of them mine? Regrettably. Am I comfortable with the trend for online submissions fees? Not at all. But these are problems one might anticipate with any new medium. I’m confident we’ll sort it out.
NM: What are your feelings about prose poems?
AT: Like many poets, I regard Russell Edson as the father of the prose poem. We just lost him last year. What a brave, original soul he was! I see prose poems as simply poems without line breaks. I like them immensely. I’ve attempted to write a few. For me, they are a part of the tribe. Certainly they put ultimate weight on the sentence to propel us along, but that’s just craft talk. I still think of Faulkner as a poet who happened to write novels.
NM: Faulkner; yes!
AT: The current vogue for “hybrid forms,” I’ll admit, is a different matter since a lot of what celebrates itself for defying genre these days seems cavalier to me. To put it bluntly, the term “hybrid” sounds like a marketing gimmick. How curious it is that I noticed the chatter about hybrid forms right around the time I noticed the chatter about hybrid cars. It’s impossible to regard something as innovative when you’re mentally editing it after three sentences. I suspect that for some writers, breaking convention is an end unto itself. A century ago, Robinson Jeffers called this “originality by amputation.” I see no gimmickry at work in the richly experimental, genre-defying writing of Susan Howe and Mary Ruefle and Shane McCrae. There is also a secondary risk in broadcasting one’s own newness, in that one overlooks the brave transgressive legacy all American poets share. Poets like Jean Toomer, Charles Olson, and Wanda Coleman immediately come to mind. I know Richard Brautigan referred to Trout Fishing in America as a novel, but what a sad misrepresentation that is. Brautigan invented the surreal lyric essay.
NM: I’m amazed at how the subject of formalism is still so divisive in the poetry community; is it really, as Dana Giona suggests in “Notes on the New Formalism,” which appeared in Volume 40, No. 3 of The Hudson Review, “an encoded political debate?” Where do you, or do you, find yourself on the continuum of this argument?
AT: I’m quite aware that these discussions of poetic form are politically charged. For the record, I’m a Poet Without A School, and saying that is not my veiled attempt to skirt the issue by being vacuously neutral. I’m too moody to claim a movement and too insignificant to have some movement claim me. I write poems to learn about myself and others, to experience the world more fully, to grow as a human being, and to participate in the temporary joy of creating something new. Poetic forms have a part to play in this life practice. I hold no special affinity for the New Formalism or its practitioners. I reject the privileging of a narrow tradition over traditions that have been marginalized or embrace a more inclusive view of what poetry can be. An elitist canon is a dead canon. My dream is to be a poet of dexterous range who can write with conviction and conscience about a variety of subjects in a variety of styles, and I see poets like Robert Hayden, Anne Sexton, Hayden Carruth, Amy Clampitt, Seamus Heaney, and Kevin Young as giving that dream permission. I want each poem to cry its own song. I want to flummox my obituarist.
NM: Well, Mr. Tavel, if your most recent book and these featured poems are any indication of your power to flummox, your legacy is secure! Thank you so very much; it’s been a pleasure.
The End of Practice
for my son Graham
Your squeals explode beneath the parachute
beside your soccer friends who drowse and snot.
No bliss but yours alights the silent field.
The college girl we all call ‘coach’ insists
we save this toddler stuff until the end.
Your squeals explode beneath the parachute
that’s barely clutched by these, my fellow dads,
who scroll their phones and text their absent wives.
No bliss but yours alights the silent field:
your ruddy cheeks flush again each time I raise
my purple swatch into arena glare.
Your squeals explode beneath the parachute
so I resist the scream of my disease
to drop the fabric flecked with pinhead mold.
No bliss but yours alights the silent field.
We grown-ups pile the jerseys damp and stale.
You dash again to wreck the rainbow folds.
Your squeals explode beneath the parachute.
No bliss but yours alights the silent field.
Each night two sons descend into my grave
and heave aside the casket lid. Astride
what spine the earth has left, they weep and shake
until their torch awakes my cobwebbed eyes
that drink the moon. Imaginary spurs
prickle my ribs. We ride from stone to stone
and stitch cold names into a song for stars
that rouse and fade again behind the clouds.
Horsey please. Horsey go. Whenever my skull
slurs down in dirt they lash my silver weeds
of mane and hold its wispy braid as reins.
The cemetery pond reflects our grins
milky and mercurial. You must not pray
the meat of me returns. We mosey back
to peer above my pit. Each night my hooves
unaided guide the teetered lid in place.
Would sigh each New Year’s Day to see the waste
confetti made across revelers still drunk
on dreams inside their sleeping bags. The case
of cheap champagne, its frozen throats like monks
in snow upon the window’s ledge, brought tears
he blamed on allergies. Eventually
shorn hair across the barber’s floor would steer
his aimless pilgrimage through city streets
toward blubbering. His mother’s nags compelled:
go hit the weights and flirt with waitresses.
He did. He burned his yearbook loves and lied
when poets groaned the country’s gone to hell.
You’re such a little wuss his friends still said
right to his face until the day he died.
A Child in Snow
A girl extends her dragging stick in snow
that shrivels from what sparse light intrudes
through clouds. Her theory of December leaves
a long meandered line from her driveway clear
down to swings treacherous and glittering
with ice, uninviting as a museum
display where panel knobs no longer flash
and tiny handprints interrupt the dust.
It slows her not. She reclaims her kingdom
with knock and smash until a seat is free
to creak her back and forth. Her mother fogs
the kitchen windowpane an hour watching
the exhibit dim and prop a gray-faced moon
upon its shoulders as she scalds the pots
crusted over with day-old film from soup.
Though growing dark she likes to see the ends
of her daughter’s ragged hair cascade
beneath her touque, the flaxen ponytail
fanning weightlessly each time the swing
arcs its grin. Surely we could leave them here,
suspended dreaming in the snow-glint dusk
casting glances back and forth across the lawn,
but just inside the maples lay a buck
who sprinted dazed a mile away to fall
exhausted, arrow-struck, leaking from his gut.
His pricking ears can register the groan
of chains that sway beyond the hollow where
each pant pumps out a little blood beneath
his matted fur. Across his muzzle now
bursts of snot rope and froth. Together
we may watch his final shivered wheezes
stutter out their steam. Our cicerone
has led us here, defenseless and awake.
Adam Tavel won the Permafrost Book Prize for Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015). He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming) and the chapbook Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013). Tavel won the 2010 Robert Frost Award and his recent poems appear or will soon appear in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Passages North, The Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and American Literary Review, among others. He can be found online at http://adamtavel.com/.