Interview with Featured Poet
[Town Creek Poetry] Can you speak a little bit about The Coal Life, how the book came to be, and how long you worked on the manuscript?
[Adam Vines] I have poems in the collection that I wrote over fifteen years ago. Around 2009, I printed out all of the poems I had written and started looking for thematic ribbons, and a collection began to emerge. The manuscript went through a number of different ruminations—from a manuscript with over one hundred poems to a more manageable and cohesive forty-something poems. The collection formed after I realized the underlying anxieties with the natural world and faith and family and after I stopped compartmentalizing poems into sections mostly defined by subject matter and thought about overall rhetorical, narrative, and thematic trajectories. The manuscript was an “almost” many times in first-book and open-book contests before it was picked up by U of Arkansas P, who published it in 2012.
[TCP] Would you describe your recent trip to Antarctica and comment about how, if at all, it influenced your writing--even if temporarily? Did experiencing a landscape so vastly different from the one you're used to shape the contours of your poems for a while? Did the distance from the familiar help you come to terms or to understand the familiar in new ways?
[AV] Antarctica is another world. It was exhilarating to be on the ice and to witness what I had merely read about and seen pictures of. I visited penguin rookeries, watched killer whales and leopard seals hunting these penguins, and witnessed humpback whales bubble-feeding for krill. I swam in the Antarctic Ocean and climbed glaciers. Despite the bewilderment and the ecstatic moments, I found myself depressed at times. I realized that these moments weren’t caused by the desolation and isolation but manifested from the desire to witness life in the way I knew of it. Antarctica lacks the color green. I longed for the green of Alabama, the green that in my context of experience equals life and my history. So, yes, I came back to my world with a greater appreciation and understanding of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I have drafts of poems informed by Antarctica; however, the influence of Antarctica had a significant effect on the way I am approaching poems grounded in the natural world that I thought was hyper-familiar to me, my home turf, but now understand as a greater mystery that I feel compelled to investigate.
[TCP] You collaborate with other poets on projects; indeed, we collaborated on an elegy for Jake Adam York and have another project planned for the future. Can you speak to the advantages of poetry collaborations and specifically about your forthcoming collection from Unicorn Press?
[AV] I started writing collaborative poems with Allen Jih, a fellow student with me in the University of Florida’s MFA program, over ten years ago. At first, the collaborations started as a way to challenge us syntactically, to move us beyond our preconceived notions of what constitutes a poem, to broaden our aesthetic sensibilities. We were talking after a workshop one day, and both of us realized that we were too dependent on the same kinds of approaches and subjects in our poems and that we were coming to the same types of conclusions. We relied too heavily on default modes of writing and understandings of our experiences and the human experience. So we imposed personae, subjects, prosodic concerns, etc. and began sending two lines back and forth by email until one of us wrote “cooked.” Then we would start another poem. We started sending these collaborative poems out to journals, and editors seemed to like them, so after fifty or sixty drafts, we sat down and revised them and found that the poems, which seemed so disparate, were actually clinging together in a number of surprising ways. We put together According to Discretion, and Unicorn Press will publish the collection in spring of 2015. We are nearly finished with a second manuscript, with all of the poems written in iambic trimeter tercets. While writing drafts, Allen and I drop each other into difficult syntactical and rhetorical wranglings from line to line. Furthermore, we have very different cultural and social experiences. Allen is fifteen years my younger, Taiwanese, and has a background in psychology. I am an outdoorsman who was a landscaper for nearly twenty years. We battle over exterior and interior spaces, both literal and figurative, which I hope creates an innate anxiety in the manuscript and individual poems.
[TCP] You edit the Birmingham Poetry Review. Does editing influence your writing or writing process in any way? If you were to name the biggest advantage and disadvantages of being an editor, what would they be?
[AV] Yes, it influences my poems and writing. I have perused tens of thousands of poems that have been submitted to Birmingham Poetry Review over the past fifteen years. I see what is being written today by up-and-coming and established poets, for better or worse. I see the trends and tics and pitfalls and influences and piggybacks. Some of my poems are influenced by poems I admire, or I am reacting to poems that have problems. One disadvantage is that I am always reading submitted poems, so, many times, when I get home and have a bit of time to write, and after I have scribbled on my students’ poems, the last thing I feel like doing is crafting a poem. This is like the landscaper whose yard looks like shit. The last thing I wanted to do after cutting yards all day when I was a landscaper was to come home and cut my own.
[TCP] Can you comment a bit about the advantages and disadvantages of Facebook and other relatively new ways social media plays a part in poetry? Certainly, we can share our work and our progress with many other like-minded folks. At the same time, as you've mentioned to me before, Facebook can become a time vortex, drawing our attention away from the writing itself. How have you balanced social media with your writing?
[AV] I love seeing people’s successes and frustrations with writing. Facebook gives us the opportunity to see what occurs in the poetry world as it is happening. Some think Facebook is full of self-promotion. I see it differently. It gives me the opportunity to hear about a wonderful book, interview, individual poem, reading, lecture, or essay that I otherwise would not know about. Writing can be such a solitary endeavor. Facebook gives me the chance to engage with writers. More poets are being heard and read because of social media. I have no doubt that a substantial amount of my poems are in the hands of readers because of social media, and probably seventy-five percent of my readings and lectures are a direct result of social media. However, nasty people with agendas and insecurities also exist on Facebook. Facebook can also zap large chunks of time if one lets it do so. I disengaged with Facebook last summer so I could fully concentrate on my second and third manuscripts. It was good for me. But I enjoy being back on in a limited capacity now.
[TCP] Who are you reading now? Also, who are your poetic touchstones and why?
[AV] Some strong collections I have read over the past months: Stephen Kampa’s Bachelor Pad, Jane Satterfield’s Her Familiars, Chris Burawa’s The Small Mystery of Lapses, Greg Fraser’s Designed for Flight, Chad Davidson’s From the Fire Hills, and Erica Dawson’s The Small Blades Hurt. Some great rereads: Wojahn’s The Falling Hour, Bruce Smith’s The Other Lover, Jonah Winter’s Maine, Halliday’s Tasker Street, Hudgin’s Ecstatic in the Poison, Lawrence Joseph’s Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos. Touchstones: Bishop, Clampitt, Merrill, Hollander, Hecht, Hudgins, Claudia Emerson, Milosz, Michael Hofmann, George Herbert, Frost, Schnackenberg, among others.
[TCP] Is there a particular type of poem in the contemporary poetry world to which you're particularly drawn, and, perhaps, a type that repels you? Obviously there are countless gradations, and categorization can be destructive, so in general, what sorts of poetries excite you, and, if you're willing to answer, which do you find suspicious?
[AV] I am drawn to well-crafted poems, not poems merely driven by subject or impression. I love to see a poem that is concerned with both content and form relationships, one that has phonetic, syntactical, and rhetorical gaits that accentuate or inform the content and has at the least a backbone informed by prosody. I am suspicious of poems that are, for instance, radically lineated but that could be typed margin to margin and the understanding would not change. I am also tired of poems that aren’t concerned with sound and sense or don’t understand primary and subordinated imagery and syntax, a poem where everything is in competition for attention, so nothing rises and nothing becomes subtle underbelly. These are unattended poems.
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