I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?
Oh god. Am I supposed to have an elevator pitch? Honestly, I don’t know. I almost feel like this kind of summary view would be impossible for me, or maybe even not my business to try to undertake. It’s fascinating to read the ways that other people have described the book, and generally I think they see things that I can’t because I’m too close to it. I know it has to do with relation: between people, between readers and writers, between parts of the self and kinds of poetry, between the self and the world it occupies. There. Was that an elevator pitch?
How did you come upon the subject of your book?
Hm. Whatever the subject of my book is (I’m open to suggestions on this), it came together on its own. The book has roughly twenty years of poems in it, so if it has a theme—relation, maybe, in sticking with my elevator pitch—it was an emergent one, not something that consciously guided the poems.
And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?
The title is a line from one of the oldest poems in the collection, “Diner” (“the leaves sing their little arias”). It just felt right. Later it struck me as having to do with voice, with singularity and plurality: “arias” is plural, but the aria is typically a solo performance. I don’t know much about opera at all, but I do remember that the aria is a kind of counterpoint to the recitative, which narrates or tells the story. The aria is more musical, more repetitive, maybe more of a meditative space. It doesn’t have many words. It stuck me when I finally held this book in my hands that, for a book that in some sense represents twenty years of work it’s a very slight little volume; lots of white space, not many pages, no story. So maybe the poems are the aria, and my life is the recitative? Something like that.
Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.
Since it was such a long journey, there were a lot of hard things. Mostly I had to re-learn how to write after a several-year hiatus. But this also turned out to be the best thing because when I came back to writing it was with no expectation of publishing; poetry just felt necessary, a necessary practice. When I started writing this way, rather than with the desire to create objects that other people would want or admire, the poems became more interesting. That is, they became interesting as places for me to be, and I’m hopeful that that also makes them interesting places for readers to be.
And the most pleasurable?
When I was in my twenties I had some poems published in The Iowa Review. They asked me to remove a line from one of the poems, and I did, without a second thought, thrilled as I was to be published at all. During my final proof of the manuscript for the book I put that line back in. It felt like sending a message to my younger self. Like, hey, you’re okay, kid. And then, of course, hearing from readers who are moved in some way by the book. That still feels like a miracle. Thoreau asks in Walden, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?” I think all writing is finally premised on something like belief in that impossible thing, that miracle. We don’t ever achieve it of course, but we come close sometimes, or we feel like we do. We approach the neighborhood of miracle.
What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?
The worst thing, for me is the “you have to write every day” thing. I don’t write every day. There were years that I didn’t write, and sometimes even now I don’t write for weeks. When I’m not writing, I bake, I play with my kids, I teach, I read; I think and talk and try to be a good parent and a good friend, I pay attention to politics. I think all of those things are as valuable as writing, and that all of them are necessary to my writing in some way because they’re necessary to my life. It took me a long time to realize that the particular place of writing in my life was not going to be the same as it was for other people. George Oppen’s career is a great model for this. Not-writing is part of writing. Silence is okay.
Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.
Joseph Massey’s Illocality is wonderful for its performance of and encouragement of a kind of meditative engagement with the world. His poems are spare—minimalist, I guess you would say—but they’re so expansive in their invitation to the reader. They help, you know? And then Karen Weiser’s book Or: the Ambiguities, which is a prolonged engagement with Melville’s Pierre. I love writing that is explicitly relational, that engages with other writing directly, and the way Karen weaves her own experiences, and especially her experiences of profound loss, into her thinking about Pierre is really gorgeous and delightful.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.
This gossamer, this shade of mind, this breathing, this small sleep, this Heraclitian, this circumference, this frame of thought, this root system, this plane leaf, this noumena, this stream, this thought that is called I, this habit, this clockwork, this handwork, this ghost house, this neighbor, this harbor, this topography, this desperate scraping, this language, this fractal light, this
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
Where are you right now?
Answer: in my little cinder-block walled office, drinking a cup of tea, with a pile of papers and books next to me and threatening to topple over (The Iliad, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Emerson: Essays and Lectures, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Fear and Trembling/The Sickness unto Death), and an unopened candy bar waiting for me to finish this interview. There’s the most beautiful soft snow falling out the window, and I’m thinking about Emerson’s sentence in the Divinity School Address: “The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.” I’ve been wondering all day whether I’m real like the meteor of the snow or spectral like the preacher. I hope I’m real, but I guess you never really know.
OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?