The Colorado Poet, #23, Summer 2013

Interview: Seth Brady Tucker

Mormon boy, 2012, (Elixir Press)

Bob King: Seth, you’ve published widely but  Mormon Boy, which won the Elixir Press Editor’s Prize,is your first full-length volume. It’s in four titled sections: “Falling In Love During Wartime,” “Those Stains Will Never Come Out,” “Mormon Boy,” and “The Best Man In All The World.” What was your process in “putting a book together,” as they say?

Seth Brady Tucker: Robert Frost famously said, “if there are X number of poems in a book, the book itself is the final poem.” I honestly don’t think there is a better way of thinking about compiling a poetry manuscript.  As I was putting together “Mormon Boy,” I was thinking specifically how the four sections would need to be ordered and arranged so that a reader would get a sense of the four sections as “poems” which together would form the final poem in series.  Ultimately, I worked on this poetry collection off and on for four years, and had it come close in poetry contests a number of times, but it wasn’t until I began to think about the narrative persona of the Mormon Boy and how it should be reflected in each poem (and throughout the manuscript), that it finally won a prize and was published.  So, I owe it all to Robert Frost.  Who doesn’t?

BK: You use a short-line form in some of the poems: “The well-dressed Hispanic / man has his hot coffee / and is heading back to work.” But in many you use a much longer line, either conversational (“I am missing eleven months, nine days, and give or take, fourteen minutes from my life. / A good portion of 1990 is lost, and a large piece of 1991 has disappeared. People talk / ”) or piled up with invention: “This is not some carnival dream, some abysmal side-show, some rotten / place for the forlorn and envious; it is not some sad story to be pulled / out like a deck of cards at a martyr’s tea party, or a fifth grade excuse / to use the potty, to carve bad words on the stall door, to get caught.” Is there a chronology here, that you were writing shorter-lines and then changed, or is it a matter of the individual poem?

I am a firm believer in the maxim that each poem dictates its own form.

SBT: I am a firm believer in the maxim that each poem dictates its own form.  I tend to hear the poem as I am writing it, and the speed of the line, be it a function of voice, rhythm, music, cadence, etcetera, becomes the driving force behind line lengths. I try not to concern myself with consistency of form or frame or structure, so I doubt that I will ever be known as a poet who does this that or the other—we live in a time when there are no limits to poetic invention, so I try not to restrict myself.  After all, what use is writing in the 21st century if we aren’t going to use every technique, skill, or form that has been discovered for us?  Pound and Eliot and Plath and Ginsberg and Whitman and Bishop and Olds and Doty and Roethke and Dickey and Harper and Dickinson and Williams and all the rest did the hard work of discovery and invention for us, so why not learn from, and mimic, and honor them with our own interpretation of that hard work?

BK: Were you influenced by other poets in working with the longer line, and not necessarily end-stopped? What are its advantages and/or dangers for you? I want to quote another example for our readers, your characteristically detail-rich sound and energy in a poem where police catch you and a girl making out: “As always, the flashing blue and reds catch me off guard, as if I were new to this teenage fumble and clutch, and our / zippers and buckles betray our shaking hands, our blue jeans / / grow thick and oily, loath to swallow our legs again…”

SBT: I think I was most influenced by Charles Wright’s long lines with their lyric intensity, Philip Levine’s narrative voice, Robert Penn Warren’s general brilliance, the insanity of May Swenson’s line breaks, etc., but as far as my own writing is concerned, I think I was most influenced by simply reading poetry, studying the craft, and experimenting with the near limitless potential that knowledge engendered.  As poets, we aren’t even confined to the blank page anymore—if I want to write an epic poem that is just one single line stretching out forever on a webpage, I can.  The freedom of that is incredibly humbling and daunting and liberating.  Some say that poetry is dying or dead, but I disagree—I think we are living in a rich and exhilarating time for poetry.  As far as my poem, “Making Out in Cars With Bucket Seats and Other Tales of Woe” is concerned, I think the biggest “danger” is how the poem can be read on the page, versus how it is read in front of the microphone.  When I read the poem for an audience, the fact that it is based on a nonce form is often lost to the humor and pathos of the poem.  However, when a reader has time to examine those line breaks, and gets to see the formal repetition of images and words and rhymes, the poem suddenly seems less an entertainment, and more of a study of craft.  But that’s nothing new—I would have the same problem if the lines were short and choppy and slow and the narrative voice suddenly had no energy or pacing for the poem.

BK:  When I started Mormon Boy and hit the first poems—“The Road to Baghdad,” “Dead Man,” “Regrets Number 191: The Bosnian”—I thought the whole book would be on your war experiences. They’re certainly vivid and well-handled, but the book continues on to give a rich sense of your life before and after, including places from Switzerland to San Francisco to Wyoming, your growing up, and poems on your wife and daughter. How do experiences and places make themselves into poems for you?

SBT: All of my poetry and fiction are inspired by and created from the launchpad of personal experience, but very rarely are they directly representative of personal experience.  Some of the poems are personal experience, and some are informed by personal experience.  I am more concerned with capital “T” Truth than I am with little “t” truth, so if my personal experience is informing my poetry, that will always take a back seat if the larger truth of what I am trying to say demands that I change the order of events, or even demands a new invention of those events.  The war poems are just a small part of what happens to the invention that is the Mormon Boy—my hope is (and was) that the reader would experience all of these places and experiences through the eyes of the Mormon Boy narrator, so of course, not all could be directly “true” in every sense of the word.  Otherwise, I think this collection would run the very real danger of simply being a confessional from a poet with a mildly interesting life—I believe that all poetry should endeavor to go beyond what is at stake for the poet, and instead try to build a stake in the poetry for the reader, to make a poem that is “mine” into a poem that is “ours.” 

I believe that all poetry should endeavor to go beyond what is at stake for the poet, and instead try to build a stake in the poetry for the reader, to make a poem that is “mine” into a poem that is “ours.”.

BK: There are a few references to the Church of Latter Day Saints but nothing particularly chronicles your faith or what’s become of it. You do say in your acknowledgements that most of your large Mormon family might find the book distasteful and you add “I am truly sorry for those images I cannot ignore, and for their demand on the profane. I tried to edit out as many of the really bad words as I could.”  Do you feel there were constraints on your growth as a writer or individual due to religion? I speak as a brought-up Baptist Boy, myself.

In the end, my hope was simply that the eponymous persona of the Mormon boy would resonate behind every poem, that every poem would be informed by the mystery of the Mormon boy, especially in the poems of war.

SBT: In the end, my hope was simply that the eponymous persona of the Mormon boy would resonate behind every poem, that every poem would be informed by the mystery of the Mormon boy, especially in the poems of war.  Of course, I am the Mormon boy in most ways, and there was definitely a fear that this book would be misread or misinterpreted by my family or the Mormon community, but thankfully, I haven’t seen much of that.  This might be because these are personal narratives, and not actual investigations of what it means to be Mormon.  I’m not sure.  But my parents seemed to like the book, were also a bit confused—mostly because they thought poetry needed to rhyme.

BK: What’s a concern and/or a joy of yours regarding this book? Or what do you see in your poetic future?

SBT: My future?  Wow.  I’m not sure—I will keep writing, to be sure, but will I dry up and fade away?  That’s certainly possible, and is probably a possibility for anyone who decides to sit down and write poetry as an occupation.  Here’s what I hope happens:  I hope that I continue to love writing poetry, and that someone decides the poetry I write is worth publishing.  I hope my second book, “We Deserve the Gods We Ask For,” gets picked up by a publisher that will love it enough to treat it right.  I hope that my students will respond to my enthusiasm and love for writing, and that they will be published and have fulfilling writing and teaching careers, and that they will think of me fondly and with gratitude.  Ultimately, I will continue to do what I do, which is write my fiction and poetry, teach students to love literature with all I have, and hope someone out there appreciates the effort.  However, if you are taking orders, I’d like to put my name out there for a Pulitzer or NBA though—do you have any pull in that regard?

BK: (Smiling) No. No, I don’t.