Working Writers Series: Wesley Rothman
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not yet had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s interview is with Wesley Rothman.
I serve as senior poetry reader for Ploughshares, a member of Salamander’s Board of Directors, an editorial consultant for Copper Canyon Press, and was an assistant poetry editor for Narrative. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee and finalist for the 49th Parallel, McCabe, and Consequence Poetry Prizes, my poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Bellingham Review, Salamander, Rattle, On the Seawall, LA Review, Ruminate, and Newcity. I teach writing at Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
As my bio suggests, I’m rather committed to and interested in the publishing/editorial side of poetry in addition to the craft. At the moment I teach composition, but my long term goals are to teach undergraduate and graduate poetry courses, both literature-based and creative, as well as serve the poetry community in an editorial capacity. My poems, as I see them, question the mind, its stability and fragility, and memory; history (personal, cultural, national, worldly) and its presentness; cultural norms/perceptions; and the lasting impact(s) of art. Some examples include encountering the dead in our lives; poems born of Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Jasper Johns, David Bowie, and Nina Simone; and the recurrent use of “orbit” as a metaphor for memory, history, and love. As a scholar of black literature, particularly African-American poetry of the 20th and 21st centuries, I’m enamored of the blues as an artistic and poetic form and philosophy, and an absolutely crucial element for American poetry as a whole.
You probably get this a lot, but I’m always curious: As an editor, what is it that you’re looking for a poem to do to stand out in the slush pile?
I think, to a certain extent, there’s a fair amount of history involved in sifting the slush. By history I mean knowledge of Ploughshares‘s previously published poems, the eye of our poetry editor, John Skoyles, a general awareness of contemporary poetry’s climate, and the list goes on. But if I had to nail some, not all, but some crucial factors, these are them: I, and readers, don’t want to get bored, so the more exciting a poem is, I think the stronger it can be, and that might be in terms of content, it might be the use of form, it might be the use of language–there’s got to be something energetic about the poem; if it’s clear the poet isn’t intentionally commanding form, line-breaks, line length, tone, and poem length, the poem burns out; and lastly, innovation or “making it new” certainly can’t hurt a poem, whether that’s through fresh metaphors, voices, rhetorical strategies, or unseen forms.
I love that you’re interested in the grand high artists and pop culture. When you’re crafting a poem, do you mix the high and the low, or do you allow your form to intermingle the two?
The pop culture I’m interested in, to me, is mixed up with high art. For example—I think this might be what you’re referring to—to me Nina Simone very much so has made high art. Anyone who’s listened to her song “Sinnerman” will have a hard time disputing that. Bowie is absolutely high art in my mind. I think in order to address (in poetry) what is popular, whether it’s music or politics or social issues, there has to be a well-cultivated or well-marinated “high art” treatment of it, otherwise it would just sound like the gossip column, although using bits from a gossip column might actually make for an intriguing found poem. To get back to your question, I think my form or my style or my way(s) of making a poem don’t intentionally balance the high and the low as much as I look to the things that strike me and then funnel them or blend them into a poem, something apart from one (low) or the other (high).
How do we encounter the dead in our lives? That’s very intriguing.
We see things or talk with people that remind us. Some people have lost many friends and family, some people have lost quite a bit fewer. But the fact that we, I, use the word “lost” is fascinating to me. They’re no longer living, but we speak as if we lost them in the grocery store and haven’t yet found them. Or it’s as if there might one day be a way to find them. I think they never really leave. We have our memories, we encounter things in the world regularly that bring the people we’ve lost back to us, and so often we have “unfinished business” with those we lose, and that “business” lingers. A friend of mine from high school was killed in a motorcycle accident about a year ago, and I hadn’t spoken with him since the day we graduated high school. We had a rocky friendship near the end of our time in school and never reconnected; there are a number of things there that linger and recircle in my mind and my memory. I think that’s one example.
I’m very sorry about your friend. That is a hard thing to deal with. I feel weird segueing that into a question, but do you think the recircling is a form of healing for those painful memories? Or is healing something that we shouldn’t even be considering; i.e., it’s not something that is possible, healing would only be forgetting, which might be worse?
You largely answered the question for me. I’m not personally interested in healing, at least not in terms of moving past it. Reality is reality and I think it’s important to treat it that way, not only for our mental or emotional health but for creating real art, in my case poems. Just because I write a poem about my friend, George, or about my grandfather doesn’t mean I forget, doesn’t mean they disappear, and I kind of like that. Writing about it makes it stronger, in a sense. If someone else wants to forget, that’s fine, but I’m not really interested in it. For me, I don’t really think it’s an option. I’m not sure I could achieve forgetting if I tried.
This is a logistical question, because I know many people post-MFA end up going into adjuncting. There are always those arguments about the MFA being a terminal degree, but rather than getting into a discussion about MFA v. PhD, how do you balance your time and finances and job security? Do you think there is a future in that?
Time balance, finances, and job security have been a major consumer of my energies over the past six months, actually. To stay in the adjunct game is incredibly exhausting because from semester to semester there’s no guarantee that you’re income will be consistent, that you’re work load will be consistent, that you’ll even be offered a class here or there. My primary concern on the job front right now is procuring a full time position, either as a teacher or a paid editor. Most of the work I do in the writing world is volunteer, and I love doing it, but no one can do full time (or more) work for free. I recently read an article about 20-somethings in the work force, particularly the creative/educational/publishing fields, and what I boiled it down to was one phrase: that our generation(s) work for social/cultural capital instead of capital capital; we have to really prove ourselves and gain respect and pay our dues and become known for our skills before we can really settle into full time positions and negotiate salaries. I don’t know if that’s entirely true for all 20-somethings, but it isn’t far from mostly true. Just because I’m editing poetry for three journals/press, on the board of another, teaching at two colleges, and publishing poems and reviews doesn’t mean someone is going to give me a full time poetry gig. I need a book, extensive publications, and/or a PhD… That’s how it goes, and I’m working for that.
Where does your interest in Blues stem from?
A couple places. I grew up in a music house, not playing musical instruments, but my dad has worked in the radio and music industry for forty years, so I grew up hearing everything, and as I got into college, blues and jazz stood out as particularly mesmerizing, arresting, and honest. Secondly, in the context of poetry, one of the first poets I read religiously (and still do) was/is Terrance Hayes, and while he isn’t a “blues poet” in the same way Langston Hughes was, there’s something mesmerizing, arresting, and honest in his poetry just as I felt when I started seriously listening to jazz and blues ten years ago.
I think the honesty and the arresting qualities hit really close to home for me in terms of poetry. Poetry has to be both of those things, and the blues is a way to get at the point of poetry, whatever “the point” might be, if there has to be one.
I’ll out myself as not being a poet myself – tried, failed, felt good about failing – so I’m always in awe of people who write that form. Since it has such an aural quality, was it growing up in a music house that led you to the art, or was there something else that drove you there?
In elementary school I was really good at math, so I don’t know if music led me there, but it’s very much something in the back of my mind all the time. I got into poetry my junior and senior years of high school after reading Emily Dickinson and hating her, and Walt Whitman and loving him. Things have changed. I still love Whitman, but I’m starting to better understand and appreciate (an understatement) what Dickinson accomplished. My senior English teacher, whether he meant to or not, convinced me to be a poet. He would moderate detention sometimes and I would take poems to him while detention was going on and we would workshop them, talk about “the point” of the poem. That’s oversimplifying, but he got me into poems. Then I went to undergrad and met Jericho Brown and the rest is what it is.
Oh no, why did you hate Emily Dickinson?
I felt like I was reading church hymns. I didn’t get her crazy em dashes. The potency of her metaphors, images, and language whooshed over my head. I read the two at the same time and the comparison led me to extremes, initially. Also, the Dickinson I was reading for school was really sing-songy and that irked me at the time.
What do you feel is “the point” of poetry?
Other than being an art that I feel at home reading and experiencing, and an art that I have practiced for years and like talking about, I think there is a point to it, even if it is a bit idealistic. To me, the best poetry is not just acrobatic, formally impressive, or even exciting. I think poetry deals with the insanely infinite scope of the human condition, and in that way it is relevant to everyone. I’ve had this idea floating in the back of my mind: we go to museums and pass paintings or photographs or sculptures, why not poems. We should print poems in large format and hang them on the walls of museums. Some poems will be easy to experience for anyone, like a Van Gogh. There’s a luminescence and poignancy to his paintings that I think most anyone can access. Then there are the Gerhard Richters, the Georgia O’Keeffes, the Jasper Johns’s, the Frida Kahlos that are a bit more difficult for some to experience and appreciate, but they are still there on the way for all to see. I think poems work in a very similar way. Just as some visual art addresses aesthetic quandaries, and other visual art viscerally addresses social and political concerns, poetry can do all of that, and does, as well. So I suppose that’s “the point” I’ve been alluding to throughout this discussion. Poetry can do things just like visual or performance art, but because it’s often hidden away behind the covers of books, it’s harder for people to access and see and experience. We should find more ways to have it in people’s faces.
You can follow Wesley Rothman on twitter @wesleyrothman and on facebook.
When Critics Mess with Our Holy Texts: Not “The Moose”!
There’s an old joke in the world of poetry workshops where a typical workshop takes an Emily Dickinson poem to task: clarify this, make this more consistent, cut this stanza (seems repetitive?). It’s funny because it’s ultimately so unthinkable. Not Dickinson. Not “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.”
It’s surely rare that a critic takes a Dickinson or a Shakespeare to task. You might be an outlier and prefer other poets. Or “My Life Had Stood” might not be your favorite Dickinson jam. But the thought of a critic actually getting in there and saying this poem does not succeed, this word or move is wrong—if we’re talking about the untouchables of the canon, the Shakespeares and Dickinsons and Blakes (“dark” and “secret”?—redundant?)—is preposterous, or seems so to most of us.
Why? Because it’s patently obvious that Shakespeare and Dickinson are great poets, geniuses; furthermore, that they’re geniuses who know their own minds and intentions better than we do. Anytime we take issue with an author’s work, we’re claiming, at least in a limited instance, that we know better. And heaven forbid we then suggest a revision!
And yet, I know: nobody’s perfect. Shakespeare and Dickinson—never mind the mystery of who they were and what they thought—surely made mistakes. And maybe it’s a critic’s job (a critic with incredible confidence) to point up those mistakes, those failures, to even offer (oh, but it’s too insane to say!) corrections. Because there must be a limit to our worshipful regard. These writers aren’t really gods. Right?
Plus, here’s the thing about knowing better: our various schools of criticism are empowered by, operate by, knowing better: better than popular thought, better than past thinking, better than our poisonous western culture.
One of my holy texts is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose.” A great poem, right? Undeniable, right? And yet we can’t really say that. Challenging these monoliths makes the critical world go round. And though Bishop might be the best-regarded American poet of the 20th century, she isn’t as safe as a Shakespeare or a Dickinson. The window of time is smaller; we think we can know better what she meant and thought (or should have)—there’s ample evidence. And with evidence comes scruples.
Take Canadian critic Robert Boschman, who, in his recent eco-critical study of Bishop, takes issue with the end of “The Moose.” Now, anyone familiar with eco-criticism and “The Moose” might have seen this criticism coming: the moose is too nice, too consoling, too Romantically what western culture wants to make out of the natural world at the expense of the natural world: in a phrase (Boschman’s), too “like a park.”Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house (or, safe as houses). A man’s voice assures us “Perfectly harmless…” Some of the passengers exclaim in whispers, childishly, softly, “Sure are big creatures.” “It’s awful plain.” “Look! It’s a she!” Taking her time, she looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly. Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?
Eco-criticism, it would seem, can’t abide the moose that comes out of the woods and halts the bus in its dreamy divagation through the night forest of New Brunswick evoking an uplifting note of “joy” from us “all.” No, says Boschman, with that, Bishop fails us and herself (compared to other, more successful poems, like “At the Fishhouses,” which, with the untamable power of what he calls her “primordial sea,” advances the anti-human/western eco-critical agenda).
Perhaps what irks the eco-critic worst of all is that word “harmless.” Boschman seems eager to find in Bishop’s poems allegories for “nature” (in this case, the moose herself), a nature that should be full of indifferent—if not retributive—harm.
But Boschman does more than claim that the moose is too sweet. He also knows how the poem should have gone instead. Yes, the moose should have been a he-moose and not a she, and he should have caused the passengers to feel threatened and not joyful.
Where would he get such a notion? Does he dare so brazenly revise Bishop? He does. But he makes it like it comes out of her mouth—what she almost, could have, should have written. Because, you see, critics have a dug up a letter in which Bishop describes experiencing the confrontation between such a moose and such a bus. What happened, apparently, is that a she-moose was wondering down the road, the bus stopped, the moose walked off into the woods. While this went on, the driver related how one time a he-moose had approached his bus and, like in the poem, sniffed the hood.
Aha! Bishop’s poem, we see, is a mix of fact (she-moose) and fiction (hood sniff).
Boschman asks chidingly: “If it was the more aggressive male of the species that, in point of fact, sniffed at the engine, why change it?” According to Boschman, she “changed it” to “have it both ways”—that is to say, beautiful and terrible, “sweet” and scary. This, claims Boschman, amounts to “facile consolation.”
“The Moose” needs no defending here: it defends herself. But I’ll say this: there’s plenty of threatening, anti-social nature poems out there. Plenty of apocalypse. But earned, authentic hope and joy–dare I say, awe?–a poem both social and sublime: it’s the rarest thing and endures for a reason.
Eco-criticism opens up Bishop’s poem in several ways. For example, the “wending” tidal flow of the poem’s first sentence, and the interplay of natural descriptions with place names, are brilliant observations that help us better understand the culture of the poem. Indeed, I think it’s very important to watch a poem’s treatment of, and underlying assumptions about, the natural world. But it gets sticky when eco-critics judge the success of a poem, absolutely, on whether it advances the eco-critical agenda (even as they try to convince you that the poet is really, at her best, an eco-poet at heart). Especially “given the ecological crisis at hand in the form of a rapidly overheating planet,” I worry that critics get away with these kinds of readings all too easily.