Books In Conversation
CRAIG MORGAN TEICHER with Mandy Keifetz
Craig Morgan Teicher and I are of a tribe. We live a block and a half apart, take our coffee and cake at the same local grocery. Our kids play in the same South Brooklyn playground and we take many of our meals and beers at the same slightly-less-divey-than-it-used-to-be bar. We arranged to meet there, but somehow did not. In fact, we have never met. There is something sweet and mysterious about it and when one is interviewing a poet, it is well to have something sweet and mysterious to use as a compass.
His latest collection of poetry To Keep Love Blurry is available from BOA.
Mandy Keifetz (Rail): Your website tagline is “author of sad books.” Do you think of your work as sad? To me, it is as fierce and funny as it is sad.
Craig Morgan Teicher: Well, I think of humor as an expression of sadness. Performance is an expression of the need to be acknowledged, and I think of poetry and comedy as very similar kinds of performance, and I enjoy them both when there’s a good deal of deeply felt sadness in the mix. I did improv comedy when I was in college, and those were the years I also began taking poetry very seriously, and I’ve never really been able to tease the two apart. All of that said, I think of this new book as very sad, full of portrayals of lived experiences that, often, I’ve exaggerated a bit to wring more feeling out of them. It’s about a lot of sad things that have happened. If some of that sadness comes out as funny, I guess that says something about how I manage sadness.
Rail: One meets so many wonderful old friends in To Keep Love Blurry: Ovid and Lowell and James Tate; Yeats and Auden and Seamus Heaney; James L. White and Donald Justice and especially, explicitly, W.G. Sebald. Want to tell us about that? Or at least what you’re reading now so we can triangulate where your fourth book may take us?
Teicher: I don’t think of reading and writing as separate practices. I can’t write unless I’m in the midst of reading something that has its hooks in me. Lots of my writing begins very concretely with things I’m reading, not so much with wanting to respond to them, but with the desire to have written them. While writing these poems, I found myself wanting to know what Lowell’s poems would have sounded like if I had written them, what Sebald would have said if he were me. It’s a way of loving writers and reading and of straining to be a bit bigger than just my own mind in poetry. The ability to reach toward others’ styles and concerns is one of the reasons poetry has been, and continues to be, so sustaining to me. It’s a conversation in which all the other books are on the other end of it.
Right now, I’m reading a lot of Jorie Graham, who I recently heard speak, and who said something to the effect of “a new music is a new mind,” meaning that one knows one is wading into a new book of one’s own poems when some new kind of music in the language begins to emerge. I feel very far from a new music right now.
Rail: Your mother’s shade stalks these pages. This is your third major collection since her death; why is she appearing now, do you think?
Teicher: Well, my first book was very much concerned with my mother too, and she’s hiding in the trees behind the fables in Cradle Book. But she comes to the forefront here, I’d think, because this book also charts the beginning of my experience as a parent, which, at some level, ends my experience as a child (though of course that never ends). It’s odd—I never thought I’d end up letting my writing follow my life this closely, but that’s been the most fascinating course so far. It was when she died, when I was 14, that I began writing in the first place. The need to talk to or about her has always been the source of my writing (I suppose that’s another reason I think of it as sad).
Rail: To Keep Love Blurry is an intensely intimate book, one which engenders squirmingly personal responses in the reader. I think that is a tribute to its success as a collection of poems, and of course we can’t know how much straight-up autobiography is in there (nor should we; I find that question meaningless) but I am wondering how the people you write about—most often your family—feel about seeing those emotions and indeed topics out there in the world.
Teicher: My wife, the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, also has an intensely intimate book coming out at the same time as mine—we sort of coordinated the publications. Her book, called Our Andromeda, deals with some of the same issues as mine—our family lineages, and, most centrally, our son—though in different ways. She and I have a very good understanding about the difference between poetry and reality, and in poems we’re free to say what we want. As far as my dad goes, I’m going to try to keep him from reading the book. I may not tell him about it. If you see him, please don’t say anything.
Rail: I didn’t go back and check because doing so would’ve made me feel like too much of a prosody geek, but I had the impression that you are using way more tercets than you used to. Do you think this is true? And too, I have seen you say that you taught yourself to rhyme for this work. Could you talk about these processes?
Teicher: I came to feel that the best way to manage the material I was dealing with, or the way I could surprise myself the most, was through formal writing. So, I began writing sonnets, lots of them. The sonnet functions as a little one-room house, and the room is only ever so big, so you have to focus to fit anything in there. Then, adding the necessity to rhyme forced me to say all kinds of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. If you limit the sounds, and therefore words, you can work with, you’re backing your mind into a corner. Poetry is how your mind gets you out. There are more tercets, in part, because there is more terza rima, which I sort of got a crush on, and there are (I’m embarrassed to say) four villanelles in this book, and those require tercets, and then there’s that long poem, which is in tercets just because it is, or for the reason lots of long poems end up in tercets, because they’re following Dante into one hell or another.
Rail: I know you have a beautiful boilerplate rant about prose poems. It’d be my great honor and pleasure if you would unleash it here for the pleasure of the Rail readership.
Teicher: Basically, I think of prose and poetry as different substances, based on a notion given to me by Richard Howard, who was my teacher and is a dear friend. He says, “Verse reverses, prose proceeds,” which I take to mean that when you get to the end of a poem, the next natural move is to re-read it, because the way it ends should change the way it begins: A poem’s ending should send a lightning bolt back up through the poem, recasting it. So poetry is circular, a snake eating its tail; it’s about itself, or it’s about how to say what needs to be said, not about actually saying it, so one never quite gets out of a poem. Prose poems, to my way of thinking, should be made of prose that reverses or poetry that proceeds. Prose poetry borrows traits from prose—narrative, for instance, and characters sometimes—but should operate like poetry, forcing the reader back up through the body of the piece. The other major way poetry differs from prose is through form: Poetry is visual, arranged a certain way on the page, meant to be looked at the way one looks at a painting, actively. In a prose poem, the form is the self-conscious absence of form—readers are meant to notice that the form isn’t there. The lack of form is a kind of poetic information. In prose, paragraphs are just paragraphs; their beginnings and endings aren’t visual, or informative, like stanzas are. If stanzas are rooms, paragraphs are water, taking the shape of their container.
Rail: You are a poet, a critic, editor, and teacher; and the Director of Digital Operations and poetry review editor of Publishers Weekly in addition to being a husband and father. That may be an extreme case, but I think much of the Rail readership is engaged in an allied juggling act. How do you manage it?
Teicher: I’m the kind of writer who can’t write if I have too much time on my hands. I need to write in the crannies between other kinds of pressures. I often write in 20 minutes sessions. And my psyche begins to rot if I don’t write for many days in a row—I start hating everybody. So, while I teach and love teaching, I happen to be well-suited to being a nine-to-fiver. My full time job at Publishers Weekly creates a lot of the kind of pressure I need to write against. I think for some people, this kind of job would kill writing altogether.
I’m amazed I manage to get anything done with my kids around, but life is certainly a hell of a lot better now that they’re here than it was before they came along. I’d rather have a juggling act for a life than a game of solitaire (which, by the way, I don’t know how to play).