9L: It’s funny you say that writing is such an excruciating process because “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane” is presented as a sort of forced exercise…as therapy. Do you treat your poems as a way to work through things? In other words, are there a lot of “Dear Dad” poems?
SB: A poem can't be successful if it primarily serves the poet. If the main point is to work through some psychological trauma, or to vent some frustration about the workings of the world (remember all those awful 9/11 poems?), the poem is more or less doomed; the reader won't feel invested in or sympathetic to it. Those poems may be personally valuable (or in the case of the 9/11 poems, socially valuable), as a way of working things through or rallying people to action, but ultimately I feel they have very little place in the literary world.
"Letter to Toss" uses the well-worn devices of the confessional mode as a way of communicating the experience of grief and loss to an audience; writing it was an act of craft—of holding personal investment at a distance in the service of making a good poem—rather than of therapy. That said, I am working on a series of "Dear Dead Dad" poems. But the voice of the speaker in those poems is very close to the death, whereas I'm two years away from it.
I think most poets need a little emotional distance to write about things like this successfully. Wordsworth famously said that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." I disagree with the first half of that statement; the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" has little poetic value, as far as I'm concerned. But I do believe that a poem is bankrupt if it doesn't hold emotional content, and that addressing that emotional content requires a kind of distanced, writerly calm. If a poem is an act of therapy, it can't possibly achieve this.
9L: (Here's a curve ball...) It's late. You're heading home from the bar. You're in Houston, so it's unbearably steamy out, Right? Between the drink and the heat you're feeling a bit kooky. As you pass the tattoo parlor, you get an overwhelming itch to have your favorite line of poetry (or prose) laid out in 55-point Helvetica across your chest. What's the line? Why? Or have you already beaten me to the punch and laid down the ink?
SB: Funny you should mention this because I just got my first tattoo a couple weeks ago (hence the earlier analogy). It's a black-and-white adaptation of an illustration by William Blake.
You know, it's hard for me to isolate individual lines of poetry that I find meaningful or important all by themselves. When you take a powerful line or two or three and excise them from their original context, they usually feel over-the-top or hollow or both. I love the ending to "Archaic Torso of Apollo" for instance: "You must change your life." But all by itself, it just sounds like something my Mom told me in high school when I was smoking too much pot. The same goes for so many great lines: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" sounds like something the eponymous villain of The Mummy might growl at Brendan Fraser just before a 10-minute undead fight scene. And Robert Hass has this fantastic poem called "The World as Will and Representation," which ends, "We get our first moral idea / About the world—about justice and power, / Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.” That final "from somewhere" sounds flat and unimaginative when read out of context like this, but it brings the house down when preceded by the full poem (which you'll have to find for yourself).
But certain chunks of certain poems do live with me constantly, and over time I learn to respect and respond to different aspects of them. The one that springs to mind right now are these lines from Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats":
For poetry makes nothing happen, it survives:
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth
There was a time when these lines made me furious: "poetry makes nothing happen"—what a terrible, ignorant thing for a poet of Auden's stature to say! I wanted to believe that the right poem could rally the Masses to action and spark the Revolution. I still sort of want to believe that. But over time I came to feel that Auden is actually making a case for poetry's important social function here, which is to provide an opposing value system to counterbalance the kind that "executives" do "want to tamper" with. Which is to say nothing of the intense lyric beauty of some of these lines: "ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in." It kills me every time.
9L: Alrighty, last question: You just finished up your MFA, what’s next? Book? Travel? Panhandling? Sean, is there life after grad school? I sure hope so.
SB: I'm very fortunate to have been awarded the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, so for the next year I'll be hammering my MFA thesis into a book, writing new poems, and teaching undergraduate creative writing. After that, though, who knows? I may apply for other fellowships. I may apply to Ph.D. programs in creative writing. For the past couple years I've been the managing editor of Gulf Coast, so I may move to New York or Chicago to further my career in literary publishing or, in the absence of that, nonprofit management. For the moment, though, I'm focused on writing, revising, and making the best of the rare and coveted opportunity I've been given in Madison.
Sean Bishop's poem "Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane" is featured in the current issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 1), which is available now in our webstore.
Have a great weekend!