Sunday, October 14, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Tony Tost

photo by kathryn l. pringle

Tony Tost was born in Springfield, Missouri in 1975 and was raised in Enumclaw, Washington. He received an AA degree from Green River Community College, a BA degree from College of Ozarks, and an MFA from University of Arkansas. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in American modernism and the relation of (new) media and poetics at Duke University. He is the author of two full-length collections, Complex Sleep (Iowa 2007) and Invisible Bride (LSU 2004), and one chapbook, World Jelly (Effing 2005). With Zachary Schomburg, he co-founded and for several years co-edited Octopus Magazine, and in 2005 founded his own online journal called Fascicle. He and his wife Leigh live in Durham, North Carolina and await the birth of their first child in January.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I was insanely lucky. My first book, Invisible Bride, was selected by CD Wright for the Walt Whitman Award, during the last week of my last semester as an MFA student. It was the first time I’d sent out a manuscript to a book contest. So, an insane turn of luck. Right around the same time, I fell in love with Leigh, who I am now married to, and moved from Arkansas to North Carolina with her after we’d been dating for a couple months (she was coming out here to work on a Ph.D.); this was sort of a spur-of-the-moment decision, so I came out here without any sort of plan or contacts, and apparently having an MFA is a pretty big turnoff for employers because I couldn’t even get hired by grocery stores or other retail outfits, even though I’d had about a decade of experience working at fast food places, drugstores, grocery stores, ice cream shops, hotels, etc. Anyway, so while waiting for the book to come out, I worked as a counter of automotive and pedestrian traffic, and then when Invisible Bride actually did come out, I was working at a coffee shop. (After a couple years here, I eventually decided to go back to school myself).

So, my response to the publication of Invisible Bride was a kind of mental vertigo, as one part of me was elated and still shocked to suddenly be someone with a book: not only a book, but one published via the only first book award I truly desired. Another part of me felt bewildered and estranged, as I was also suddenly in a town where I knew no one (yet), and no one knew me as a poet or a creative person like they did in Arkansas (where I felt I knew everyone), and I found myself back in the kind of work I did before and during college (food service), and more depressingly back in the kind of exhausting social relations that reign in a customer-oriented environment.

This pronounced divide between what my expectations were at the time I found out about winning the Whitman (“now I’m suddenly a successful poet”/“everything is going to be different now”) and what the actual experience was at the time of the book’s publication (“I’m anonymous again”/“nothing has changed”) really kind of sucked, but has also been pretty instructive, and now it stands as a strong corrective to any thoughts I might have about finding repose in a privileged social status (within the smallish social space of poetry and poets) as a suddenly institutionally legitimated poet.

It’s probably not coincidental that at about this same time I became obsessed with Charles Olson, who stands as an exemplar of much for me, including the importance of re-imagining social relations and social selves through poetry, as opposed to using poetry as a means of cultivating some kind of social capital.

2 - How long have you lived in Durham, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I’ve lived in Durham, North Carolina for little over a year; before that, I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for three years. I am certain my geographical locale, and my overt reason for currently being at this locale (I’m now a grad student at Duke), guide much of what I do, and I’m sure that the strongest guidance is exerted in a manner I’m not cognizant of, least of all in the act of writing.

Gender and race make a big impact, as does my nationality and sexual orientation, because I’m so often so oblivious of them (as categories of representation) that they are always at the tip of my tongue, without my sanction; or, perhaps, race and gender can seem to be so normal or natural or a given for me that I end up performing a series of variations and explorations on/through them, as themes, when I think I’m just toying with language or poetic conventions. The cloud of unknowing that surrounds also reveals us, I think.

This evening, my guess is it’s like this: that a lot of the interesting impacts of race and gender on the writing of poems will occur indirectly, when the poet thinks he or she is doing something else, because it’s then when these issues or categories will direct the creation of some kind of a creative whole that ends up expressing more than conscious aesthetic intent (at least as I wield it) is able to.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Somehow, I’ve become a kind of serial or sequence poet. It hasn’t been an intentional thing; things sort of accumulate around an impulsion. I usually have a series of threads going at once, and will kind of patch together some of them into a working manuscript while they’re all in-progress, and then I’ll take some things out, or write something new, all the while writing in response to other things I’m writing. And different sequences will end up in dialogue with one another, hopefully resulting in some kind of charged tension between the sequences.

Sometimes I suspect it’s too overtly pursued, but I try to cultivate a poetics of internal consequence: meaning, if I write something and publish it, I want my future writing to have to face up to it, to some degree, even if it’s in such an oblique manner only me and my shadow will know.

A poem will begin anywhere for me: with a line, with a concept, with some itchy text in my psyche, with some emotionally-tinged hum. The big central sequence of my current manuscript, a sequence called “1001 Sentences,” began with the idea of writing a piece with that title and with an opening sentence that reads “I have to write a thousand more sentences.”

I want to write a long poem or sequence called “Poem for the 4th of July,” which would be a sincere attempt to write a patriotic poem that is aesthetically compelling, but after a number of false starts, it’s clear to me I don’t have the proper entry to it yet.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

When I was in Fayetteville, Arkansas doing my MFA, I gave just a handful of readings, but I would always try to write a big, ambitious poem right beforehand (often, the night before), as the kind of capper for the reading. One of the stronger pieces in Invisible Bride, called “A Halo Best Described as Oceanic,” was a product of this approach.

I only give readings once or twice a year, and if I get a chance to read for more than 10 minutes, I usually try to approach it as a chance to re-invent myself to myself as a poet, either by revising old material or writing something new, or by simply constructing an unexpected set list. Other times, I just read whatever I’ve written the most recently and that I’m most excited about.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I have sets and sets of theoretical interests, which sometimes get addressed directly in my writing, though I suspect these interests or concerns pull my writing most strongly when they get manifested in the logic of image, or phrasing, or relation—as opposed to direct utterance—within the poem.

I suppose the major question for me is this: How can I create a consequential poetic experience?
And so if I were to diagram the varying circles that pass through the coordinates of “create” “consequential” “poetic” and “experience,” those circles would encompass the majority of my concerns.

Another way to answer your question is to say I’m really, really, really interested in the creation and expression of values, and the senses of scale that attend to such creation and expression.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

The titles of both of my books were changed at the suggestion of editors/judges. Invisible Bride was called Unawares when CD Wright selected it; her only suggestion was to change the title (which I had anyway, by that point). Complex Sleep was accepted by Iowa under the title Amplifier for Hercules, and was actually twice as long as its eventual 100+ page length. The change in scale and tenor necessitated a change in title. Iowa’s decision to not run Amplifier for Hercules in its original, behemoth conception was really painful at the time, but I’ve come now to consider it a wise decision, as I’ve now got material together for a third book, called Consequence, which I think will be several large steps up from what I’ve done so far. On the more micro level, Ben Doyle (my saintly editor at Iowa) had a number of excellent suggestions on the line and detail level that I’ve happily and gratefully incorporated.

7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Well, I don’t think it’s had any effect on book-making in terms of the actual writing; like anyone, I get immersed enough in trying to write something compelling that that trumps any sort of publishing savvy I may have acquired. But the idea of finding a publisher who would do right by a manuscript of mine seems a little less impossible than it did five years ago, but I also know that my good luck on that account could end at any point.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?


9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I do not subscribe to the kind of knowingness or correctness or narrowing of experience that advice lends itself to. Information and even instruction can be valuable, but advice has this air of self-congratulation that makes me want to punch things.

That said, the language of advice can make for interesting poetic material, especially when dramatized aphoristically. A favorite line from Complex Sleep is such a number:

One can only know so many things (stay away from Little Rock girls).

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

No writing routine, really. Did you know that William, Henry and Alice James’ father, Henry Sr., composed each of his books on religion and Swedenborg at a table in the middle of the house, within the bustle of his large family? That sounds like a routine I would like to follow.

I would like the boundary between my writing life and my family life to be as slight as pragmatically possible.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Inspiration is a great word. I’ll turn to Nietzsche, John Dewey, Gertrude Stein, Olson, John Ashbery, Frank Stanford, Pascal, among many others, for inspiration.

12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Complex Sleep is tuned closer to Can’s Future Days, while Invisible Bride was tuned more to Guided by Voices’ Alien Lanes. I’d guess Consequence is tuned somewhere between Judee Sill’s Heart Food and Warren Zevon’s Warren Zevon.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Books come from books because reading is one mode of experiencing the world that, like other modes, filters the wholeness of experience that writing itself attempts to express. But if that’s the only mode of experience that writing comes from, or confronts, then I think the writer is closing his or herself from a whole hell of a lot.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Some prose texts that I swear by: Olson’sHuman Universe,” Call Me Ishmael and The Special View of History; Stein’s Lectures in America; Dewey’s Art as Experience; Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato; Andre Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture & Speech; Guy Davenport’s Geography of the Imagination; William James’ Essays in Radical Empiricism; Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution and Matter & Memory; Robert Creeley’s A Quick Graph; Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson; Benjamin Friedlander’s Simulcast; Joseph Mali’s Mythistory; Toronto Research Group’s Rational Geomancy; Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse; Joan Richardson’s A Natural History of Pragmatism; Martin Jay’s Songs of Experience; Alfred North Whitehead’s Process & Reality; Goethe’s botanical writings; Edna Sarah Beardsley’s The Word: a Philosophy of Words; Laura Riding’s Anarchy Is Not Enough, Rasula & McCaffery’s Imagining Language; Nijinsky’s diary; Keats’ letters; William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain and Spring & All; Frank Lentricchia’s Modernist Quartet.

Also, prose by: Aby Warburg; Blake; Jerome Rothenberg; Walter Benjamin; Rosmarie Waldrop; Edward Dahlberg; Robert Duncan; Lyn Hejinian; Coleridge; H.D.; Anne Carson; David Rosenberg; D.H. Lawrence.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

In the next ten years I’d like to write a long narrative work, a meaty in-depth work on country music, a collection of short lyrical poems, and an exhaustively researched critical project on various projections and representations of immediacy in American poetics.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

If I were to rewind a little bit and not have writing as an option, I probably would pursue some sort of career in sports management and tried to become one of those hot shot young GMs in baseball.

Alternately, I think I would enjoy and also be really good at writing for a sitcom.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing and reading with any kind of seriousness came pretty late for me. While at Green River Community College I took one creative writing class, which was so-so, and some literature classes, most of which were also so-so. In the interim between community college and going to College of the Ozarks to get a B.A., I worked at a grocery store and somehow started reading Franz Kafka and got pretty obsessed, and began trying to write noir-surreal screen plays in the evening.

When registering for classes at College of the Ozarks, you would go from table to table in a large gymnasium and talk to various professors about what classes were offered. Once I enrolled there, I had a vague sense of wanting to go to law school, but in wandering around the gym I ended up talking to Bradford Crain, a very gregarious and gifted teacher, and sort of decided to become an English major on the spot. In one semester I read Moby Dick, King Lear, Wallace Stevens and WB Yeats all in a short amount of time, and that’s what ultimately converted me, the notion of possibly writing something as strange and beautiful as these works I’d read. I also started reading around a lot on my own and was seduced by WS Merwin, James Wright, Charles Wright, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop and others.

I also was really into Flannery O’Connor for a while as an undergrad, one story in particular: “Enoch and the Gorilla,” which was in her The Complete Stories but was also an episode in Wiseblood. I thought the final image of that story was haunting, comic and beautiful, of a dimwitted man who stole a gorilla suit and was now in the woods, having buried his own clothes, wearing the suit and practicing shaking hands with the empty air. I always thought that that was a shining example of the perfect ending to a story, but recently I went back and re-read the story for the first time in ten or so years and was shocked to discover that that’s not actually where the story ends but rather is just where that particular page end: the story itself spills over for another paragraph or two on the next page. I guess I just assumed it was the end of the story because it was at the bottom of the page and was a perfect ending! So, Flannery O’Connor and the arbitrariness of page layout also helped make me a writer.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I’ve read that I haven’t name-dropped yet is Robert D. Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, which is, along with Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein bio, the most affecting and inspiring biography I’ve ever read. A great recent book of poetry is Camille Guthrie’s In Captivity.

I’m probably drawn more to movies than films. I like sort of macho movies with some sort of psychological underpinning, so in the last few years, I’d count the following as my favorites: Eastern Promises, Casino Royale, The Departed, Batman Begins and the Bourne movies. I also think a great warts-and-all work is David Milch’s John from Cincinnati that ran for just one season recently on HBO.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Preparing to become a father in January; studying for my prelims in the spring; Consequence.

12 or 20 questions archive

1 comment:

hoffmeister said...

Tony Tost is an impressive poet. The period is emphatic here. I own invisible bride and have read bits of complex sleep in my local portland coffee shop/book store. Whether its a warren zevon reference next to a ray monk reference (two great choices) or just a comment on baseball, the words are right. My comments? Easily enough: Amplifiers for Hercules was awesome!