Monday, October 1, 2012

Interview with John Koethe





Colin talks to John Koethe about consciousness, mortality, and the advantages of putting weapons on the cover of your book instead of trees




CGB: I’m sorry to say that every time I read one of your poems I think immediately of asking the same question. So while I’ve no doubt asked you this before, I’ll try at least to put it differently: You often write within a form of iambs or syllabics, still your poems sound (perhaps for that reason) unencumbered or revised, producing overtime, as Edward Hirsch has said, a “sensation of thinking itself.” Is that sensation though the product of your efforts to present a stream-of-consciousness? And if so, how do you go about deciding what of an original line or impulse to include and leave unedited?

JK: It’s fairly direct, though there’s a lot of room for revising and second thoughts. I kind of get into a mental groove in the morning, in the shower or shaving or what not. I write and fiddle with them in the course of a day. I’m writing a little faster now than I used to, but it’s always an incremental process, a mental rhythm being established in my mind that the words seem to flow out of, rather than from some theoretical framework.

Will that groove stem from a first line then?

The first lines I sometimes have trouble with. More often than not I don’t begin a poem with what’s going to be the first line. I’ll start somewhere in the middle and eventually write a “first” line that’s going to work. In the case of my poem “The Constructor,” for example, I thought first of the last line and worked backwards. I sometimes feel that if I have to wait till I have a first line I’ll never get anywhere. I come up with these chunks, and occasionally I’ll look at something and discard a lot of it, but that’s very rare. I do like fairly complex syntax compared to other poets. But I guess I’m hoping that I get drawn into the words.

I ask because there seems to be a lot of emphasis on thinking about and speaking to an audience, for young writers especially, in part, I suspect, because we write so much online, in front of or to other people.

I never write with the reader in mind. The poets I read growing up, like Eliot, Stevens, and Ashbery all write in this internal soliloquy mode. I never thought of writing in a way that’s calculated to draw in an audience. Though a few years ago I was listening to an interview on NPR with Billy Collins, whose poems I often like, and he was describing that he first starts with something that he thinks would hook an audience, and I thought, Oh my god. This is the exact opposite of what I do. In fact, I wrote a poem in Sally’s Hair called “To an Audience” in response to that quote by Collins.

While we’re on the subject of self-awareness, ROTC Kills, as opposed to some of your earlier, more seemingly concentrated work, is full of humorous (by nature of their being a surprise), “fourth wall” breaking references that toe the line between the social and the strictly personal. I’m thinking of your line about the editors of Poetry or the poem in which you find yourself, literally, on YouTube. The language feels, at times, more forward, even blunt in this collection, in a way that seems to implicate the outside world. Was that a conscious choice?

I think that’s right: there is more of the outside world in this book. I wrote a fair amount while I was teaching at Princeton in the spring of 2010, but thought I was at least two or three years away from having a book. But I kept writing and finished these poems in the fall, and they seemed to be looser. I fell into a kind of conversational groove that I liked and allowed me to be perhaps more free-wheeling than I’d been.

At the same time, there are three philosophical prose pieces I’d always shyed away from that I think are dense. “Like Gods,” for instance, sort of grew out of a philosophical reading group. Even though some people think of my work as philosophical, I never did, and had always avoided writing philosophy in my poems. But there are certain philosophical issues I want to address that I don’t know exactly what to say about, conceptually or syntactically, I thought I’d try inserting into poetry. I’m not actively working in philosophy the way I used to be half the year, so now I write all year round, but write more slowly because I don’t feel the urgency to get it all done in six months. Anyway, I think it’s all a result of settling into this writing groove since Princeton. 


Your sentences remain, of course, elaborate, and the syntax beautiful. Is there any struggle in writing and refining what you've written while retaining what you thought of writing? Isn't there a gap between the two? 



I don’t feel a tension there. The logic of my poems is always completely associative. Even in memory poems, which I write a lot of, they're always based on an involuntary, Proustian-like memory, something from a long time ago that starts a recollection. Once you start doing that it's just a stream of mental associations, things in your present experience are included, too. My aim is to just let that process of association range as freely as it wants to, which tends to create a certain coherence. 



Although you seem to contemplate the future in these poems as well as the past. In "Watchful Waiting," a diagnosis of prostate cancer forces you to admit that there's nothing to be done but "wait and see." And in "The Reality of the Past," while declaring your memory of running track in high school a reality of sorts, you point out that "tomorrow is unrealized," as it was when who you are now (in the poem), in Milwaukee at your desk, hadn't "crossed [your]" 17-year-old "mind" but stretched before you like a race "about to begin." Memory, in this collection, is a lens; a point of reference in a way it hasn’t been. Did you feel at all while writing that these poems were--I hate the word "accessible"--but more inviting than in other collections by virtue of their being somewhat hopeful?


I hate that word, too, though there’s not another word that I can think of. I’ve sometimes thought I want poems to be locally clear, line-by-line, but with an elusive character to them overall, so that the poem as a whole is hard to characterize, but line-by-line what’s being said is clear and not difficult to follow. I’m not sure I meant them to be more encouraging, though I think what you say about the future is quite accurate. I’m never interested in nostalgia, though I’m interested in the feeling; the feeling of the passage of time.

But you’re right that in this case there’s also more of an obsession with the notion of the future and the desire to create it. The future seems to have equal billing. There’s also a pervasive theme in the book with mortality, which directs you to the future.

And that line in “Watchful Waiting” about enjoying the confusion of getting lost in New York.

Yes, I love that feeling in New York, though Paris will do, too; any large bustling city.

Let’s talk about the title of the book, which is also indicative, I think, of this book’s language as a whole. How did you decide on ROTC Kills?

I tried that title out on a lot of people and there was a 50/50 split. One reason was that I wrote the title poem in response to an old poster I found my house, and I remember thinking, Gee, this would be a nice book cover. ROTC isn’t even mentioned in the poem, it’s the poster that’s mentioned, so the poem is political, but not in the way that its title would lead you to expect; it's more of a meditation on the passage of time, a memory poem. I thought the title might intrigue a reader, but the poem itself is emblematic of the book as a whole. Anyway, my editor finally came around after much initial resistance, but the head of Harper Perennial wanted me to see if I could change the title. But as soon as my editor showed him the cover he changed his mind. 

The cover is spectacular. Not many books of poetry have blades on them. 

That's right. Some people said don’t use it, but it felt right to me. And I decided I should go with my gut feeling. 

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