Kevin Prufer is the author of, among others, In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011) and National Anthem (Four Way books, 2008), named one of the five best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly. He’s also editor of several volumes, most recently New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008; w/ Wayne Miller) and Dunstan Thompson: on the Life and Work of a Lost American Master (Unsung Masters, 2010; w/ D.A. Powell). He is Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, Editor of the Unsung Masters Series, and Editor-at-Large of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.
Turner Canty has a BA from the University of Montana in English and Creative Writing, and now lives in Oakland, California. He writes poetry, and his work can be found in Fence, the Oval and other magazines. He is the newest edition to the Omnidawn feature writing team.
A new poem by Kevin Prufer follows the interview.
Turner Canty: How has your approach to editing and critiquing your own work and the work of others changed in the past years after relaxing your role in Pleiades and joining the faculty at Houston?
Kevin Prufer: Not much. I’ve always tried to keep the editing/teaching part of my life separate from the writing part of my life. As an editor, I can’t avoid making an argument about literature, about what good poetry is, about what American poetry might be (or European poetry when I was co-editing New European Poets, or “young” American poetry when I was putting together New Young American Poets). It seems to me that all anthology/magazine editing is a kind of distillation of a vast terrain of work into an argument about sensibility, value, or literary borders.
And in other ways, teaching, too, involves making arguments for aesthetic values, certain sets of principals about what art is (or might be). At best, I hope to address more than line breaks in a workshop. I hope we can also talk about why we write poetry, about what its social purpose is. Where are we writing from in literary history? What is our moment and how did we get here and how are we addressing it? And where are we going? These are the kinds of questions I enjoy.
But when I’m alone in my room writing—and I suspect the same is true for my students—I am not really thinking about these things. I’m thinking about politics or history. I like to imagine that I’m putting together a little narrative performance that draws on interests, concerns, and worries far outside of poetry, even though poetry is ultimately the language I express them in.
TC: As a professor, do you often find your own ideas being challenged or even ‘work-shopped’ when teaching?
KP: Constantly, and in good ways. The students at Houston are articulate, well read, and often brilliant. And they can be blunt about places where their sensibilities differ from my own. Often we do not even agree about why writing poetry is a worthwhile endeavor. But these are debates friendly and worth having—arguing about these things helps all of us see greater possibilities for the art than we’d otherwise imagine. I’ve found that the best approach for me, when discussing a student’s poem, is to ask three questions: 1) What is the poem trying to do? 2) How is it managing (or failing) to accomplish this? and 3) Is what it’s trying to do interesting? By asking these questions, I find that I can divorce myself a little bit from my own expectations for poetry, and allow the poem itself—and the student—to guide the discussion a bit. Of course, question 3 is where the conversations can get most interesting. Sometimes the answer says as much about the person speaking as it does about the poem.
TC: Although I still get the feeling the poems of In a Beautiful Country are inhabiting the same chaotic, post 9/11 world as those of your previous book, National Anthem, the overt political quality of National Anthem seems diminished or veiled. Do you see this shift in focus as related to the increasing normalcy of living with war and the failure of government as part of our day-to-day lives as Americans? Or have you simply chosen to skew your perspective out of necessity to expand your own poetic process and subject? Or have you observed something completely different?
KP: I hated the Bush administration. I loathed the lies, deceit, arrogance, dishonesty, and cruelty that got us into the war in Iraq (among other things).
On 9/11/01, I was living in a little town in west-central Missouri, about ten miles from an air force base. My students were frequently military or, if not, came from military families. They were also smart and, like a lot of people in the service who have had to think about the real-life repercussions of going to war, they had complex feelings about all of this. Some of them went off to fight, while others returned from fighting to take classes.
It was a strange place to be during that time–surrounded by farms, unfathomably far from the idea of battle … and, at the same time, the B2 bomber flew over my house almost every day, two billion dollars worth of graceful, lovely killing.
So I read Ancient Roman histories—Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, Procopius—and thought about the ends of empires, about the porosity of borders, about the way a nation or an administration can, like a person, seem suddenly to change its mind, to go nuts. What, exactly, are our borders anyway, I wondered, when we can send a bomber from the middle of Missouri all the way to Baghdad, a city where our Hollywood movies are already playing?
I think it was these sorts of dizzying thoughts–and accompanying feelings of frustration, rage, a sort of harrowing historical vertigo—that led me to the poems in National Anthem.
And, yeah, that had diminished a bit by the time I got to work on In a Beautiful Country, which has been discussed elsewhere, also, as a sort of zonked-out sequel to National Anthem. After a while, my despair turned to numbness or, worse, a feeling of enormous ironic (or theological) distance, a sort of grinning skullishness beneath which that same despair wouldn’t go away. So, yes, the book’s a little less cosmic and, in ways, angrier. I think that’s true. I don’t imagine that it’s resigned to some normalcy of living with war, though. I hope not.
TC: While reading In a Beautiful Country, I was drawn to a few central ‘moments’ in the book that seem critical to the action and themes of the collection as a whole. I’m thinking about the man walking through the glass door in “Ars Poetica,” or God’s message to ‘Cheer Up’ in “Behind the Barracks After the War.” These instances seem to repeat in or inform many of the other poems such as “Gods Grandeur” or “Recent History” in a way that, to me, allowed you to sustain a dialogue between multiple themes and motifs throughout the work. My question is, was this employed as a necessary or accidental device in the creation of your collection(s)? And if this was intended, how much discipline did you use in selecting these tropes or ‘moments’ for repetition/reenactment?
KP: I write the same poem over and over again. I can’t help it. I find an image–snow, little rows of pills, car wrecks, a guy walking through a plate glass door—and I work and rework it, trying to wring as much meaning from it as I can. But I throw most of those attempts away and hope that what feels incredibly repetitive while I’m writing looks like a carefully organized set of themes to those who only read the few poems that survive. I think all this rewriting forces me into a kind of coherence across many poems. That is, I have to ask, how is this poem furthering the argument that the last one started? If it doesn’t further the argument, I probably toss it out.
On the question of dialogue among poems: I’ve always liked those moments best when a poem seems to be of two minds, when it asserts itself and the opposite of itself at once. Poetry, above all art forms, is suited to this—to expressing complexity, double-mindedness, ambivalence. I’m much more interested in poems that ask important questions forcefully than poems that resolve complex questions neatly. It seems to me that religious doubt, historical anxiety, political disquiet, and mortal uncertainty are the best foundations on which to build poems. I suppose I feel the same way about books of poems, about the conversations poems might have with each other.
TC: There seem to be some attempts at self-quantification in the book, for instance, earlier I described my notion about your use of repeated tropes and motifs to give the collection a thematic palette. You also group the poems in sets of four and often repeat titles, sometimes even re-using those from previous collections. Are you working with some kind of self-imposed system here? And do you see the interconnected relationship of your collections and writing as building towards some kind of larger project such as with Charles Olson and his ‘Maximus’ poems?
KP: To the first part of the question, I think the answer is no. I don’t have a set of rules or a system I’m working from. I think the limitations of my imagination and skill are enough! But to the larger question, the answer is yes. I imagine that I am working on a long project that began with my third book, Fallen from a Chariot, and continues with the book I’m writing right now. I’m still trying to figure out how to define the project, exactly. I am interested in narrative—the way we construct historical narratives as insufficient containers we hope will hold the unfathomable complexity of our national past … and how those narratives then come to contain us, politically, socially, individually. And, at the same time, how we do the same things with the tiny-ness of our own lives, our personal narratives that come to define us for ourselves. What’s the difference between these two things? Is one just a microcosm of the other? Surely not. Writing it like this, it seems grandiose, but it really is something I keep pounding my head against, the sources, illusions, and defining historical/personal powers of narrative.
TC: In a Beautiful Country was published in March 8th 2011. A lot of things have since appeared or changed on America’s social and political radar. Do you feel that the trajectory of your work has shifted? Has it been natural for you?
KP: I’m writing longer poems now. The speakers in these poems are mostly fictional characters inhabiting worlds that are not much like my own, telling complicated, braided little stories that I’m afraid they come to believe in the telling. I’ve never imagined that the speakers in my poems are at all like me, but it’s exciting to allow them to tell such complicated stories right now.
BEHIND THE BARRACKS, AFTER THE WAR
God said, quit your crying. God said, I stopped the planes, I closed the base,
I turned out the lights, what else do you want?
And down from the mountain, not smoke, but a delicate wind the likes of which
we only half-remembered,
and God said, I saved some cities, I doused their flames,
and God said, I waved away the smoke so you could breathe,
and on their delicate necks, new flowers swayed in the post-war breeze
so the field smelled sweet and strange,
and Here is a hand grenade, God said, hollow harmless. Here is a Remington M24,
bolt-action, also empty––
and it’s true the fields stopped burning after a while,
and it’s true he had enormous arms,
and, you live in a free country, he kept saying, invisible behind the apple tree’s
burst of petals,
at ease, he said, here is your mortar,
take it home and keep it, here is your nightfighter, here is you interceptor,
take them to your wives, here is your gasmask, here is your repulsion device,
here is your pulsebomb, your smartbomb, your brainbomb,
give them to your children, they’re useless now,
and then the wind kicked up and then it was late, a cool and lovely evening after the war
the field behind the barracks exploding with lightning bugs,
my duffel by my side–– I was going home at last–– and, what’s wrong with you?
God said from high above the rooftop. Cheer up!
Reprinted from: In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011)