What draws you to writing more in collages and in an experimental fashion rather than in standard poetry structures?
Awesome question, as I often ask that myself. My overall answer is tied to my love for the unexpected, how poetry shifts into unknown places. Actually, I started writing in traditional forms—sonnets, rhythms, etc.—and examined confessional poetry. As time went by, I looked for ways to push my writing into other territories. I went back to school, to Washburn, to continue looking for ways of writing free verse and examining lyrical poetry. At Kansas State, my thesis was around the lyrical “I” and searching for an answer for post-confessional poetry that could be published. Eventually, at KU, I discovered the experimental mode would be the best in conveying my story—my mode—with hopes that I don’t have to write my memoir anymore. (This leads into your third question.)
Who or what influences your writing the most?
Li-Young Lee definitely was an important influence in the beginning. I went to two different writing conferences where he led the poetry workshop. I love his pacing, his voice, as well as his trying to figure out the role of poetry in the true scheme of life. He sees “poems as descendants of God,” and his ideas still blow me away.
Rachel Zucker was also a huge influence, as she is successful in the confessional mode, while using semi-experimental methods. She is also a doula, and her collaborative work with Arielle Greenberg in Home / Birth truly took my head off, in the Dickinsonian way. She’s also a wonderful person to meet, as well as Lyn Hejinian.
Lyn Hejinian’s book My Life, as well as all of her writing, showed me how a prose poem “works,” and the conceptualism behind it inspired me to write my latest project: My Secret Wars of 1984.
Joseph Harrington also played a big role in that as my mentor from KU. He introduced me to the ideas of collage, experimentation, flarf, etc. He also led a Ronald Johnson Reading Group, which sent me into thinking about the project.
You mentioned that you have an MA and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Kansas State University as well as an MFA from The University of Kansas. Can you explain the reason for the choice to receive a degree/certificate in Women and Gender Studies?
It was incredible to learn that K-State offered the certificate, which required a number of classes flagged for women and gender studies, as well as the capstone which focused on the history of it. Women and Gender Studies is the only academic (if not societal, too?) subject examining and “trying to figure out” why there is violence, racism, sexism, “homophobia” (I don’t like that word), etc. in the contexts of a historically male-dominated society. My father was abusive towards my mother and me, I comforted friends who were girls on the playground, and, still today, am honored to have friends console in me about their past experiences with physical, verbal, and sexual assault.
Another aspect of my life that led to feminism is about my mother. A little while after her divorce, she said, “I don’t think I like men.” I said, “I don’t either.” She went further to say in a relationship way. Sondra moved in a couple more years later, and she became my second mother. In a way, I pursued the Certificate to honor my two moms.
Finally, I am also interested in how masculinity is constructs, as I’ve never felt “masculine.” Women and Gender Studies also examines masculinity. In short, all of these things look at how power, access to information, access to money, and history has shifted to one side of a binary system based on sex, race, etc. Likewise, men have an invested interest in becoming feminists if they believe women have the right to vote, have a bank account, choose to have children, choose any occupation and have the same pay men do. This also includes men fighting against the objectification of women, violence towards women, etc. When I look at ads for Dr. Pepper Ten and Hardee’s, aimed to promote stereotypical, misogynist ideals in order to sell their products, I know there is a true need for feminism.
However, it’s like my wife asked me when we first met, “How do you define feminism? How can you be feminist male?”
I could go on.
You will be introducing a brand new writing course in Fall 2012 at Washburn University where you and your students “will explore and write in a current hybrid approach of writing, combining memoir, poetry, image, fiction, non-fiction, appropriation, collaboration, the political, and Google/conceptual writing.” That’s an awesome mouthful! Can all of that be done effectively in one semester? What made you want to take on such an exciting but very full idea for a class?
Can this be done in a semester? Heck, no! *smile* I’ve designed the class into four different projects, I call them. These are the start to larger projects—which could become book-length collections. As time is limited, as well as the approaches could be new, I feel it is important for a student to discover what “mode” she or he feels most drawn to for whatever writing subject. However, I am requiring more from the Graduate students, asking them to think about their book and pursue it during the semester.
I wanted to take these ideas on because of how rich they have made my experience of writing. I’m so passionate about it all. Also, I love Washburn and want to see students successful in writing—in life. I thrive off of community, and I’m designing the class with that notion of community. Overall, I am teaching the class as if this is the class I ever wanted to teach. Of course, that is idealistic, and all of the creative writing courses should be a Gen Ed requirement in my view—alongside all of the different modes of Art.
With all that said, I want to make the best of the time we have during the semester.
You’re a husband, father, professor, writer, not to mention the magazines you work for—when do you find the time to write? Where do you go to find that personal writing space?
I pull a William Stafford by waking up at 5:30 on mornings I go into work. Since my first class begins at 9, I have time for creativity when the brain has that censor turned off—the part of us that says we can’t write this or shouldn’t write that.
Also, I carry around notecards to jot things down on. Things come to me in small doses. It’s important to get them all down ASAP.
My wife is an understanding woman! We take turns giving each other “free time,” because raising children is challenging. There is not time to write with children around, as the focus should be on them. However, I know Stephen King typed out Carrie while holding his child. I guess it can be done.
My favorite writing places involve coffeehouses. Even in my Washburn office, there is too much distraction. I like taking a stack of books, notecards, and a pen to Blue Planet Café. It’s easy for me to sit down with that mission, that goal to write, as I’ve already paid for coffee, I’m there in the moment, relaxed, and ready to write. Sometime I tell myself I will be able to write at a certain time—especially when I have two or three hours available.
How do you approach the blank page?
Maybe that last part answers the question. I tell the blank page I will visit at six in the morning, or at Blue Planet Café or Flying Monkey. For me, writing comes easiest without the anxiety, so I make my appointment. I show up. I put my ego aside, just as Li-Young Lee describes, knowing I am not going to write any kind of masterpiece. I approach it with fun.
You already explained the idea and thought process behind “My Secret Wars of 1984” but what about “Site Fidelity”? It’s not written in the boxed way much of the writings from the previous project were written. From what I know of your writing, I would say that this is a bit more out of your comfort zone. Am I wrong? Do you find comfort in any style of writing you do?
Actually, I wrote “Site Fidelity” six years ago. It was part of my writing style then—a lyrical, eco-feminist style, I think. I’m trying to find new approaches to writing so the lyrical sense isn’t as obvious. I think I try to get out of my comfort zone whenever I write. It seems that the comfort in writing will just lead to writing the same poem in a different way. Or maybe that is what I’m doing?
And finally, what would you want your epitaph to say?