Photo Credit: Kelly Marshall
To start, is there a theme to the poems in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom?
Hmm. How to answer this question? I don’t begin a poem because I want to say something about X,Y, or Z. I begin a poem because I feel like making something out of words. That’s the feeling — the itch — I want to make something out of words and I usually look for piles of words somewhere else to make things out of.
A lot of these particular poems for example started off as a game. I had an extra copy of Jim Brodey’s collected poems, Heart Of The Breath: Poems, 1979-1992, so I started using one of them as a kind of notebook. I did erasures at first. I would white out words in his poems to make my own. A good number started that way, though I always cheated. I always added things or changed things. Or used lines I made out of the words in one Brodey poem with lines I made from another. I would give myself an assignment before bed: make ten questions using words from Brodey poems. Stuff like that. Trying to write in his book in ways that didn’t feel like writing and then a few days later thumbing through it and typing stuff out, hoping to find a poem. I think only one poem in the book is actually a true erasure. But that Brodey book was an active Ouija board for me for a while.
And some of the other poems came out of things I typed while listening to Robert Duncan lectures. So that his words would interfere with my thoughts and vice versa. I like doing stuff like that. I don’t really have any deep thoughts or feelings I want to express anymore. I just want to have words with me. I want to have words to play with at the desk in the morning. But because I wrote these poems in a similar way at a particular moment in time there’s a way that I think they all belong together. They seem similar to me in their heft and color. In their moods.
The title of the book came early on. I have a little dog who hates people touching him, and whenever I take him to the vet they put the tiniest muzzle on him because he gets really angry and starts trying to bite people’s faces off, but he’s so small and only has a handful of teeth left and it’s just so pathetic. And I always liked these strange records and 8 tracks that we would find in our parents’ record stashes as kids in the ’70s: So And So Sings Folk Songs Of Americaor whatever. The title was a joke I said to myself at the vet’s but then I thought it was a good description of being a poet. After a while — I guess Trump happened about midway through writing the book — the title seemed apt for our political moment. There’s a lot of Russians in this book, but they were there before anyone knew about election interference. Maybe Brodey was giving me messages about the future of America and the future is now.
Anyhow, the poems have a lot of nouns in them. Concrete nouns. I really like having unexpected concrete nouns in poems. I like them in novels, too. It’s hard to think of an unexpected noun, at least for me. And there’s nothing more beautiful than a dense list of concrete nouns. That’s why having an extra copy of someone like Jim can be very helpful. You can look into one of his poems and a noun comes up to you. Words will just come on by and say hello, please use me.
Since there isn’t a theme, how did you decide what to include in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom?
I just put the good poems in.
Makes sense. Along similar lines, what form of poetry do you employ in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom and why did you feel this was the best one to express yourself?
I wrote a sonnet by accident. What I mean is I wrote a poem and then noticed afterwards that it was a sonnet. Easy to do in English. Otherwise, all form is what Jackson Mac Low would call “intuitive.”
Prior to The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom you released another poetry collection, Companion Animal, as well as the novel The Bruise. Are there any writers who had a huge impact on the poems in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom that were not big influences on Companion AnimalorThe Bruise?
Not really, though because of the Brodey I thought of this book as my “NY School” book and there’s a way that the density of the poems, the fact that they are thicker, have a more ornate style than the ones in my last book, I let myself believe that.
How about non-literary influences; are there any song writers or visuals arts who had a big influence on The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom?
Don’t know what you are talking about.
Never mind. Now, some of the poems in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom were previously published in such poetry journals as the Berkeley Poetry Review, Oversound, and Cordite Poetry Review. But are the versions in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom the same as they were in those journals?
None of the poems changed significantly. I read the poems to myself periodically and usually take a word out here and there. It’s just something that happens from living with a poem for a while. I think the poem about the carport [“Summer In The Network Of Privileged Carports”] took the longest to feel right in that sense. But it was only a matter of a few words.
Back when I used to write poetry, I would sometimes do readings at open mics, and this would sometimes prompt me to make changes. Do you do that as well?
Yeah. Readings are the best way to test drive a poem. If you can’t say it in public, then there’s something wrong. If you blush at something you wrote, if it doesn’t move the right way in your mouth, then there’s something wrong. I read everything I write out loud. When I was writing my novel, I read every chapter out loud to myself as if it were a public reading. If it doesn’t sound good out loud, then it isn’t right.
And this is my last question about your influences. You are an Assistant Professor of English And Creative Writing at the University Of Georgia. How, if at all, has working with young writers influenced your own writing?
I get a lot of energy from teaching undergrads especially. Having to take things down to basics, to make an argument for why a poem is worth reading, why it’s one that everyone should know — I’m talking about teaching literature, rather than running workshop — is really helpful for my own thinking. I have to make explicit things that were for me implicit. I begin to understand things better and see how certain poems work in themselves as machines or culturally or whatever. I get to think in primary terms, which is an exciting way to think about things. And students always see something that I didn’t. Just to be in a room with twenty people who really think poetry is important makes life one million times better. And really, given the economics of time, those are the people I discuss poetry with most often and most seriously.
The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom is being released both in paperback and as a limited-edition hardcover. Aside from being better when it comes to cracking walnuts, is there anything else different about the hardcover?
It’s going to have a navy blue cover and it will make my mother feel like I’m a real poet.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs Of Freedom, they should obviously read Companion Animal. But once they’ve done that, what poetry book by someone else would you suggest they read and why that?
Anything by Nikki Wallschlaeger, Anselm Berrigan’s new book Something For Everybody, Brent Cunningham’s chapbook The Sad Songs Of Hell, and Ana Bozicevic’s Rise In The Fall. They all have language that will surprise you.