I admire this book (Love’s Labors) so much, I don’t know where to start. I can’t quite believe it’s your first collection of poetry. Really? So I am guessing it took you a long time to write?
Wow, thanks! That’s quite a compliment. I did spend several years working on the collection: the earliest poems included in the book, some of the Smyrna poems, were drafted in the spring of 2007, and I was still writing new poems in 2010. After that I revised for three years before sending the manuscript to CavanKerry. I was in graduate school most of that time, and an earlier version of the book served as the creative portion of my dissertation, which I completed in 2012.
I wonder if you could say a few words about the evolution of Love’s Labors, and how you developed this rhythm—rotating poems about the birth of your children with other themes: your father, your faith, and the locals. The whole book reads like one long poem.
Initially I envisioned an entire collection of Smyrna poems, some of which dealt with themes of faith and doubt from the beginning. But when my wife became pregnant with our first child, all my creative impulses were magnetically drawn to issues of fatherhood and family, and I wrote poems on these topics throughout the pregnancy. For a while I was dismayed by this, convinced I was writing two different manuscripts that might never be finished or would only work as chapbooks. And then I also had poems that fit in neither sequence. But a mentor of mine, William Wenthe, wisely suggested the poems were more closely related than I had believed. He was right, and once I saw the connections, I was able to conceive of the manuscript as a cohesive whole. At that point the challenge became finding an appropriate structure for the book.
I considered sequestering the Smyrna poems, the pregnancy poems, and the “miscellaneous” in separate sections, but that obscured all the resonances between them. Instead I tried grouping poems that shared some thematic resonance. At one point I had something like eight or nine different sections, which was a bit too disjointed. Thinking in terms of narrative helped me find the book’s final structure, which has five sections; this final arrangement highlights common themes between poems and also opens narrative threads that are gradually tied together as the book moves along. Two of the final three poems, “Claudia Blackwood Has Her Doubts” and “Cut,” were the last poems I drafted; by that point I was consciously looking for effective ways to close out the book.
You also weave between the miraculous and the humdrum, between hope and disillusionment. It’s so convincing, especially in a book where faith and childbirth and a father-son relationship are major topics. And what a perfect finale—that last stanza. I am hoping you will post that stanza here?
Certainly. Here’s the final stanza of “Cut,” which is an eight-page poem:
I have only just made peace
with having a father,
and here you are to make me one.
Blood and vernix and milia
cover you—flat-nosed, puffy-eyed,
cone-headed, flushed and wailing
and wet in the nurse’s hands.
Your mother waits for you.
In my left hand a clamp,
scissors in my right. The blades
The title is perfect. At what point did you know the title of the book? How did the title come to you?
The title Love’s Labors came to me very late in the process—shortly before sending the manuscript to CavanKerry. As my dissertation the collection was called But You Are Rich, a phrase taken from the book’s epigraph: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: . . . I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev. 2:8-9). I was never fully satisfied with that title but couldn’t think of anything I liked better for the longest time. Finally I just started making a really long list, like 25-30 possibilities. At some point I began toying with variations on Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labours Lost. Having the word “love” in the title risks sounding sentimental, but hey, so does writing so many poems about having a baby, or about issues of faith. (A poet friend, a former professor of mine, has told me I somehow get away with writing about subjects that usually lead to treacle. I guess that’s a compliment?) But so many of the poems grapple with some variety of love—familial, sexual, divine—and I liked the way “labors” evokes work, working class people, and childbirth. Hitting on Love’s Labors was like a puzzle piece finally snapping into place.
I love the local characters. I especially love the opening stanza of your poem, “Esther Green Plans a Funeral.” I can just hear her talking. I imagine you hear these people in your head when you are writing?
Yeah, writing those persona poems is a mixture of listening and conjuring. Esther was the first of the Smyrna characters I worked with, and once I got into her voice it felt very comfortable. Growing up in Louisiana, of course, I was surrounded by southern women with very strong and distinct voices. So I had that history to draw on.
Sydney Lea wrote a beautiful introduction to the book. Is he one of your mentors?
He’s not, actually, though he’s a poet for whom I have great respect. I did meet Syd when he visited Texas Tech in 2011, where I did my Ph.D., and he was wonderful to talk to, and he gave an excellent reading. What I love about Syd and his poetry is that he’s so adept and comfortable writing in form and meter, but he’s not tendentious about it or strictly bound to it the way some formalists can be.
These poems are so engaging, so intimate and entertaining, I am wondering what the secret is. As if you could tell me. What is your creative process like?
Ha! If there’s a secret, I wish I knew it. Sometimes it seems the process is different for every poem, and that’s not far from the truth, I think. But generally speaking, I carry an idea in my head for a while before I every write anything down. When I finally do start writing, I try to get down a complete draft. Then, over a period of weeks or months, the poem goes through revision after revision. One round of revision may be focused on the narrative, if there is one, then on images, the next on syntax, then line breaks, then sonic effects; eventually these things run together, but learning to focus my attempts at revision in this way has been tremendously helpful to me.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
The most challenging poems to write were “Claudia Blackwood Has Her Doubts” and “Cut.” I was pushing myself to expand the scope of my writing when I wrote these, so they’re both longer poems. The former poem is also a sonnet crown, and there’s something very Sisyphean about that form. Next time I try one it probably won’t be a dramatic monologue in a female voice. Aside from those poems, the biggest challenge was finding the right structure and sequence.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Frost is big for me, though that’s probably not a very fashionable answer these days. Even more unfashionable, but probably responsible for my penchant for persona poems, are Edgar Lee Masters and E.A. Robinson. More recent influences would include B.H. Fairchild, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Natasha Trethewey. Richard Wilbur. Rita Dove’s early book Thomas and Beulah.
I’d like to close with a poem of your choice.
Pfc. Mason Buxton Wets a Hook
All warfare is based on deception.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Whether you’re wiping out a phantom weapons cache
or planting homemade bombs in cardboard boxes,
trash cans, saddlebags—Sun Tzu was right:
the lie lies dead at the heart of war. By it
we live and die. The art’s in choosing lures.
(A shiner? Melon lizard? Chartreuse worm?)
That’s part. But a naked lie won’t nail a bass.
You hide the hook inside. Then drop the bait
between two cypress stumps, jig your rod
at five Mississip, crack open a cold one. Sip.
He bites, you set and reel—then watch the lake explode.