Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #11

from Charles Simic, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks. 2008.

--Short poem. Be brief and tell us

--Chance as a tool with which to break up one’s habitual associations. Once they’re broken, use one of the pieces to launch yourself into the unknown.

--Two ways of creating: To uncover what is already there or to make something entirely new. My problem is that I believe in both.

An Interview with Bill Notter

(Bob King)

BK: That’s a great photo on the cover of Holding Everything Down, a rusty gas pump and a beat up shed with a vista of a large plain with low hills in the distance. In one way, it’s quite like the Feininger photo you write about in “Route 66, Arizona, 1953,” where two thirds of it is “a sky piled with springtime clouds / huge and promising like continents.” Did you help select the cover or what did you think of it?

BN: That was one of the first three cover suggestions the designer sent.  It immediately seemed right, both in how the image fits the book and how it works with the cover design.  We wrote back and forth once or twice about fonts, but that was it.  I have boxes full of photographs of old signs and roadside junk, but not a good sense of how to integrate an image with the other elements of design.  I decided to let the press do their work instead of trying to get too involved, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the result.  I’m really impressed with everyone at Southern Illinois University Press and Crab Orchard Review.  They have all been great to work with before and after publication

BK:A lot of the poems are about other people, a guy who hauls off dead cattle, a ranch wife, farmer, concrete worker, mechanic, beautician and the like. What attracted, or attracts, you to the lives of others as a subject for poetry, rather than, let’s say, the imagination of the lyric self?

BN: I like writing persona poems or
focusing on characters partly to distance myself and the subject—to focus on the subject rather than what I think about it.  There’s an almost journalistic stance to it, as if I’m reporting a character’s experience rather than trying to interpret or reflect on “human experience.”     

Also, I think (maybe wrongly) that a
variety of speakers might open the poems up more readily to readers.  I first wrote about “the Dead Guy” from the essentially autobiographical perspective of a farm kid watching him haul off a cow, which didn’t make a very exciting poem.  Then I got the idea to write in the voice of the Dead Guy, and the poem’s possibilities really expanded.  It also helped that I knew someone who had that job at the time.

I think what often drives me to write is a desire to capture experience, but with more emphasis on the outer world as a subject than on my own inner experience.  I suppose a successful poem for me would do both, but not seem like it’s about my thoughts.  Of course, everything any of us writes is in some way autobiographical since it comes through us.  Even in poems that are basically about me and my experience, though, I’ll often try to edit out references to myself the speaker so the experience itself is the poem’s focus. 

The summer after I graduated college, I was back home in Northeast Colorado, fixing tires and trying to keep up my writing.  I drove to Boulder one weekend to see Gary Snyder at a Naropa event, and I remember him talking about trying to write the “I” out of one’s poems.  That practice was involved with Buddhism for him, but the idea of it appealed to me for some reason.  His poem “Milton by Firelight” is a good example—it is narrated from a first-person point of view, but the speaker never says “I.”  Even so, the poem weaves together the particular details of work in the mountains, geological time, and questions about “our” mythologies.  

BK: There’s also a similarity between many of the people in the poems. They’re often doing what they have to do, thinking of the future, perhaps, but mainly surviving with a certain dignity. Is this a matter of where they are, without a lot of alternative possibilities, or is it a matter of the physical work they do, or what?

BN: I think all of what you say can apply.  Some characters are satisfied with what they do—they’re good at it and they aren’t striving for something else.  Others may be trying to convince themselves that they’re satisfied, that they don’t really want something more.  Physical work often doesn’t leave much energy or time for job hunting, and a rural setting can certainly limit the possibilities of upward mobility.  Most of these characters work either for themselves or for one boss.  Their world doesn’t involve a corporate ladder.

I tried to be true to attitudes I observed growing up in a farming community and being around people who did physical work for a living, and I wanted to recognize the dignity of that work.  Most of those people didn’t seem to be aiming for a different occupation or a new position, or at least didn’t talk about it.  On a construction site, I always knew the job would be temporary, and that I needed to be something else—writing.  However, doing physical labor or other demanding work all day didn’t allow me to write very productively.  I was taking notes and writing a poem occasionally, though, and was able to put those experiences into poems when I had the luxury of an MFA program.   

BK: A number of poems are strongly identified by the place in which they occur—Chickasaw Ridge, Medicine Mountain, the Big Horns, West Texas, Clarksville, to name a few. Why do you give landscape, or “place,” this much weight in your poems?

BN: On one level, using a particular place is a way of focusing on the concrete—concrete details capture the place and set up whatever the poem might do beyond the literal and local.  As in fiction, I think the setting has to be right in order to take readers there believably, even though the setting isn’t the point of the story.  Everything happens somewhere, and I like using the details of place to convey an experience.  Actually, landscapes will often trigger poem ideas for me, and then I have to make up characters and action to put into the landscape.

I have always been interested in maps and the names of places, and became conscious of landscapes when my family moved from the woods of Upstate New York to the Colorado plains, an obvious contrast.  The shortgrass plains became what you could call my formative landscape.  After I left for college in the Midwest and then moved to Mississippi, I realized how much that open landscape had affected the way I see the world.  I imagine that characters in my poems, too, are shaped by where they live, and so the details of place matter.

BK: I notice that landscape, images of nature, are often side by side with machinery, often trucks and cars (the subject of “First Love” is a Pontiac eight). Is that just because highways and trucks are “there” or do you see them as a contrast—or a similarity—between the nature of places, let’s call it, and the man-made?

BN: Some of the machinery is there as part of the subject matter.  In farming and other kinds of physical work, you’re working with equipment (or animals) all day.  I grew up around tractors, balers, honey wagons, choppers, and the like.  But the cars my uncles and our hired hands drove really stuck in my imagination—Nova, Road Runner, Corvette, Trans Am, Charger, GTO.  Fixing up cars, drag racing, and then traveling became my obsessions for quite a while, and that shows in the book.  There is a tension between vehicles and nature, but that’s more from my changing interests in subject matter than an intentional contrast.  I suppose an irony that comes from that tension is that it’s impossible for most of us to experience what we call wilderness without relying on machines to get us there.

Highways were how I first experienced many of the landscapes I write about, first by driving all day, jotting down notes, taking photographs, and sleeping where it got dark, and later by driving to trailheads and exploring on foot.  I also grew up in a town with one stoplight at the intersection of two highways, so maybe highways took on more prominence in my imagination.

BK: These poems are free verse, some with shorter or longer lines than others. I feel four accents in some, five in others. What’s your concept of “the line” in your work?

BN: I do find myself counting accents in a line (but not usually the stressed and unstressed pattern of a set meter) to give the poem structure.  Four-stress lines make me more concise, and five can be conversational without getting too wordy.  I try to make each line a complete piece that also builds toward the next line and the whole poem.  For a philosophy of the line, I’ll paraphrase my teacher Miller Williams, who said a line should be a unit of sound, sense, and syntax.  That’s the ideal I work around in deciding what makes a finished line.  

BK: Although your diction is conversational there’s also a use of sound value. I’m thinking, in a poem like “Wheat Harvest,” of both natural description (“The darkness quiets July’s dry wind, / and carries the smell of grain in from the plains”) and, again, machinery as the next stanza starts “Air from the impact gun blows hot, / busting truck tires hot from the road/ on these blazing days at the shop.”). Does this just happen for you, part of your ear for language, or are you consciously trying for sound value as well?

BN: It’s some of both.  I’ll see how the line comes out when I first write it down, and then I’ll tinker with sounds in revision.  Sometimes slant rhymes or other sound echoes will show up in a first draft, and I’ll try to develop a pattern from that.  I like to use the vocabulary of a subject, the names of things and the specific verbs.  “Wheat Harvest” is good for rich sound words, because the work itself is noisy.  “Widowmaker” is probably my favorite word in that poem.  I can still visualize that wheel, a rusty old two-piece thing from a 1940s truck.  The two halves were somehow held together by the pressure of the tube as it was inflated, and the wheel had to be aired up in a steel safety cage in case it exploded.

As I’ve traveled and moved around, I have tried to learn the names of the local landscape, the plants, animals, and geology.  I also pay attention to the way people talk, their speech patterns and colloquialisms.  Especially in persona poems, sound value will come from trying to make language accurate to the speaker and, at the same time, work as poetry.

BK: A standard question I can’t resist here is ‘how you write,’ if I may use that phrase. I mean anything having to do with amount of time, revision, personal writing habits, that kind of thing.

BN: I usually carry a poem idea or a voice around in my head for quite a while before writing a draft.  Then I’ll finally write down what I have in a notebook—often with the feeling that the idea wasn’t that good and with no sense of how to end the poem.  After going back to the draft on paper a few times, I will type it up and print copies, and then revise those copies until I feel like they’re ready.

I don’t have a set writing schedule, but when I “go write” I’ll usually read from a few books or journals first.  That usually triggers writing, either something new or revisions to an existing draft.  It’s best for me to get away to a coffee shop or library, someplace where I can’t surf the internet until my brain is numb.  My wife is a poet, too, and we have a four-year-old.  For the last four years, we have been trading writing time whenever we can, during the summer, spring and winter breaks, and weekends.   Those two or three hour sessions are quite productive, because I can give writing my uninterrupted focus.   

BK: This book won the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award, judged by Ricardo Pau-Llosa. Were you expecting that? Hoping for it? Not thinking about it at all during the process?

BN: I was completely surprised, especially since I almost didn’t enter the contest that year.  I had been polishing and sending the manuscript out for about four years, and was starting to wonder if it would ever be published.  The Crab Orchard First Book Award was the first contest I had sent to, and they picked the manuscript as a semifinalist three or four times.  That encouragement was enough to make me enter again.
I am really grateful to Ricardo Pau-Llosa for selecting my manuscript and for the support he has shown since Holding Everything Down came out.  It was a pleasure to discover his work—he is an accomplished poet as well as a widely published critic and collector of Latin American art. 

BK: And now, your second book. My own first book was published when I was, and am, so old that I just delighted in it until someone asked me if I was working on a second book, which floored me. What’s your attitude or expectation of a second book?

BN: That question actually makes me feel like an author.  I just hope books as we know them, at least poetry books, still exist by the time I get another manuscript together.

Holding Everything Down is basically my best poems put together as a collection.  I tried to organize the poems in some logical way, but they were written separately, without any thought of a unifying theme.  I am working on some poems around a particular theme now, with the intention of using them in my next book.  I can’t imagine the whole book being focused on one topic, though.  I’m interested in too many different subjects.