A while back I participated in a workshop where our workshop leader had mentioned that as writers/poets our idea(s) of a line will change over time. What do you feel defines a line or how do you approach a line in your work?
When I first started writing I was very conscious of the line, worrying about, thinking and re-thinking about where to break it and what it meant for the poem. Now I don’t think about it very much; I break lines instinctively, proceeding by what feels right. I break lines depending on the effect I want in the poem—and by effect I mean by the speed I want from the line and the pacing at different points of the poem. There’s also a visual component to it: I think about the shape of the poem on the page in terms of how it relates to what the poem is singing/saying/thinking/not saying. My idea of the line changes poem to poem and is dependent on the poem’s demands.
Maybe to push this idea of a line further, how did your approach to writing Ceiling of Sticks differ from your approach to writing Congotronic?
I seem to remember one reviewer saying that the unit of the poems in Ceiling of Sticks was the sentence. That’s probably fair. The poems in Ceiling of Sticks work from memories and photographs, within a documentary impulse. They explore pivotal, sometimes dramatic moments, in a wide-ranging number of places in the world. Some work from family history but I don’t think of it as a book concerned with “the self.” Throughout, the poems are concerned with people who aren’t often seen in poems, people typically lost to history. Often explicitly narrative, there’s a certain formalism in that book—the sestina, the pantoum, blank verse, syllabics all appear here. Some of the poems are homages to other poets in terms of style—and are directly influenced by those poets.
In Congotronic I wanted to write relying more heavily on sound, the sound of words, language. As a result some of the poems proceed word-to-word, line-to-line on the basis of sound. Different kinds of music directly influenced the book, from free jazz to hip hop, as did ideas and texts from Western philosophy and the texts and history of North American slavery and West African mythology.
I wanted the reader or hearer of poems in the book to have an experience in language; many of the poems are written as immersive linguistic events. The poems in Congotronic don’t use a smoothly rendered, plain style to tell stories. They don’t refer to places outside of themselves as much as the poems in Ceiling Sticks do. Words in Congotronic are objects, with texture, size and so on. When writing Congotronic I tried to surprise myself line-to-line, word-to-word. I also wanted to incorporate different linguistic registers within the same poem—so there’s an element of collage or at least poems sometimes feel collaged (even if they’re not). In a couple of the poems I wondered what would happen if I tried to fuse language from very different sources, e.g. interviews with people who had been slaves spliced together with bits from the diary of someone who owned a slave plantation. The poems in Congotronic are meant to be heard out loud as much as read silently. Recently, after my readings, audience members have approached me to say they now suddenly “understand” or “get” the poems; they say that after hearing them they’re able to feel something that wasn't evident when just silently reading the poem to themselves.
I’ve read some interviews where you talk about poems feeling different from one another and as I read Congotronic it felt like the poems spoke well to each other and were connected yet each poem contained its own autonomous space. What techniques did you employ to achieve this?
I wanted each poem to be a community in language. So that’s the autonomy part. The poems were written over many years and selected from a large body of work, poems I discarded because they didn't fit together well. The actual order was finalized by my excellent editor, who ordered the manuscript in a way I never could have. I’m terrible at devising an order for my own books.
Some of the poems have recurring images and are grouped together on that basis—e.g. there are some that mention the sea and they appear in proximity to one another. Others have the thematic recurrence of a character like Sundiata or Ol’ Trawler. Others employ a specific speaking voice (or voices) that seems to speak to other poems around it, conversationally.
I recall thinking that I wanted the autonomy to be there so that a person could read the book in any order they chose. I don't tend to read poetry books from front to back—I just dip in and out in no particular order. And I wanted the book to work that way but also work in a way that a person could start at the beginning and read linearly. I will say that while my editor ordered the poems so that a person can read the book either way, he started with more “approachable” poems in the front part and was careful to provide points of “rest” where the wildness and volume decreases—they’re like rest points on a highway—for anyone proceeding from front to back. That’s one advantage of having different kinds of poems within one book: you get to employ varieties of intensity, mood, speed, procedure, strategy, and so on.
“New” and “Contemporary” seem to be common descriptors that folks use when discussing your work. Do you have any thoughts on why people feel this way about your poems?
I can’t speak about why other people feel some type of way about the poems. What I can say is I wanted to write a book that could feel contemporary now and stay that way so that hopefully the book’s “newness” could persist into the unpredictable future. It’s up to others to determine if I succeeded in this aim.
You have poems of varied lengths, when do you know a poem is finished?
As with line breaks, at this point, knowing when a poem is finished is an instinctive thing, a feeling. Often in revising a piece I will cut the poem’s ending as short as possible. I never want to publish a poem that goes on too long. It’s kind of like having a guest at your house who can’t take a hint that the party’s over.
When I was starting out if I was reading a poem and was struck by a great ending I would read the poem intensely, over and over, examining it to see how the poet did what they did. And I would try to emulate the technique in my next poem.
Thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions. Do you have any advice you’d like to offer poets who have just begun their forays into the publishing world?
Find a publisher who cares about your book and seems really excited by it because you want someone who will support the book once it is out in the world. You want someone who will, for example, send it out to reviewers.
Read the books of the publishers you are sending your manuscript to – before you send it out. Look at your favourite books and see who published them. You want to send your work to places whose publishing lists you like and to places that publish work that seems aesthetically related to your work. It is hard to get a book published; if you really believe in the work, keep sending it out. And no matter what, you must not give up.
3 Poems by Shane Book
Entirely windless, today’s sea; of these waters’ many names
the best seemed “field-of-pearl-leaves,” for it smelled like the air
in the house he built entirely of doors: pink school door,
gold of the burnt hotel, two old church blues, the abandoned
bank’s steel doors singular and immovably wedged over
the family’s heads though as with everything corroding
the sense of themselves slipping away in the heat,
falling through the day’s brightness the way soldiers
once fell upon him walking home with a bucket of natural
water as he had been recalling the town square
before the tannery’s closing: he and his father shopping
on horseback in the noon Praça where they first saw
a man crouched under a black shroud, what his father called
a camera. His father forgot the incident immediately, but
for years the man asked whomever if they remembered
a camera, vegetable stalls, the butcher holding the cleaver,
a horseshoeing shop, purple berries, the long cassava valley haze,
fishnets, a few crab baskets and browning nets
drying by the ice cream shop, seven taverns,
a small, unused ferry terminal, a map on its wall outlining
the island in blue, the names Good Dispatch, Lover’s Bridge
pointed to by a mermaid of skin whiter than anyone
on this island of Angola’s descendants, her red hair.
I have a home in my son’s hand.
The pier is out, the quay closed at noon.
You can sob, so be it, as if dates, as
though you had an oven of dough
everyone wanted. Day, I’m a over it;
out rowing an O.K. used pear,
sailing your barcode, you shop with the pain
you’re out now, avowing.
Our row cake vice squeezing through
sewer hour, I sail mystery O
sewer! Made on that pall of rat veil
A forms a dream navy
in the unclear I don’t miss saying.
Flagelliform # 61
I broke off the dangling shrub and inserted it above my ear.
Bent in at the bellyI sweated, to fitto try to fit.
The dangling shrub was bruised.
It moved a little move and Lady Song-of-Jamestown
said in my hear: Why is broken.
leapt a leafy thwart
into my thinking vessel the aluminum canoe
and in my here said Lady Song-of-Jamestown:
“Why its smelters long ago felled at The-Task-is-Incomplete, a falling
artist felling them name of
who wearscrown of shells partly concealing
a turban of layered light.”
I stared straight ahead, paddling.
My canoe walls hung with barkcloth a giant dentalium
and four figureheads in lignified paste (We watching).
The ivory one called, Tapping-Out-Of-Time.
And the dark muscular one, Below-The-Galleon-Decks.
And the remembered one named, Palm-Thatch-Floor.
And the little one called, Fruit-of-the-Distant-Weep (mothered black, from sleeping).
Lady Song-of-Jamestown mending her fishnets
pulled the water-hook from my hand.
“Lady Song-of-Jamestown, what shovels you?” I shouted
over my shoulder and turning
struck her with my net handle
and broke off the deep brown armor Below-The-Galleon-Decks
and drug and drug…
When at last I got to farthest other shore
I turned to Fruit-of-the-Distant-Weep saying,
“O chilefor what you sleeping? Look
at the ripe groceries on the overhanging branch,” and grabbing
my gray-spined spear reached up
to tap a bag in the cluster of bags
into the canoe and with my blade, halfed it:
toast mollusky iron telescope pipes and the posted reward.
And though silence descended on Tapping-Out-Of-Time
and Palm-Thatch-Floor reeled in some distance,
the Wept-Slept chileflew open and smiled
scooped up fondles of sea moss and threw at my feet.
And inching along the gunwales
I dancedand danced“ pushed walk.”