Thursday, September 19, 2013

An Arched and Lighted Entrance: An Interview with Greg Pape

Friends of poetry, for this month's post, you're in for a real treat as guest-blogger Drew Pomeroy interviews poet Greg Pape about his most recent collection, Four Swans.  ~Nancy Chen Long

Greg Pape is the author of nine books, including Border Crossings, Black Branches, Storm Pattern (all originally published by University of Pittsburgh Press), Sunflower Facing the Sun (winner of the Edwin Ford Piper Prize – now called the Iowa Prize – and published by University of Iowa Press), American Flamingo (winner of a Crab Orchard Open Competition Award, and published by Southern Illinois University Press), and Four Swans (published by Lynx House Press)

His poems have been published widely in such magazines and literary reviews as The Atlantic, Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Northwest Review, and Poetry. He has received the Discovery / The Nation Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, the Richard Hugo Memorial Poetry Award, and his poems have been featured on NPR and read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac. He teaches at the University of Montana, and in the Brief-Residency MFA program at Spalding University. He served as Poet Laureate of Montana from 2007 to 2009.

DP: Readers of Four Swans (Spokane: Lynx House Press 2013) may know that some of the poems included were originally published in your chapbook Animal Time (Lexington: Accents Publishing 2011). To better understand the process of composing a chapbook before a complete collection, could you speak to which of these works was first in your mind: the chapbook or the book?

GP: Four Swans was a work-in-progress long before the idea for Animal Time came to me. I have always been interested in animals and the ways we human animals interact with other species, how we are connected, or disconnected, with each other, how we share or infringe on each other's habitats, what we give and take from each other. But the idea for the chapbook Animal Time grew out of a lecture I gave at Spalding in which I considered the ways poets have engaged imaginatively with animals. After looking at the work of Whitman and Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, various Chinese and Japanese poets, and others, I looked at my own work and made a gathering of poems in which animals figure prominently. Those poems developed into the chapbook Animal Time.

DP: That deep interest in human and animal coexistence seems to be the heartbeat of Four Swans. I find myself often wondering what animals might think of us or say to us if they could speak. For you, as a poet, how does this very human concern become a poetry of coexistence?

GP:  I like your idea of a poetry of coexistence.  Four Swans, the book, began with the experiences presented in the title poem.  I had just spoken with my mother on the phone.  She was in the hospital in California.  I was worried about her, thinking I needed to get down there and see her.  I drove to the National Wildlife Refuge near my home in the Bitterroot, a place I often go to walk, think, write, a place set aside for people and other creatures to coexist.  There were four swans on Whistler pond close enough to observe without binoculars.  Beautiful creatures, calm, dignified—I describe them and name them in the poem.  They seemed to give me access to something I needed.  I don’t know what they thought of me, but they were aware of my presence and seemed to be untroubled by it.  They were in complete possession of themselves, at home on the ice and the water, feeding, preening, stretching their big wings.  I wondered what it would be like to be one of them.  Then I thought in some way I am one of them.  I guess that’s a poetry of coexistence.

DP: Your poem “Tracks & Traces” (Four Swans 17-18) begins with the speaker expressing a nearly child-like curiosity when he says, “It must be fun to be an otter” (line 6). However, at the end of the poem there is a profound moment of coexistence revealed beneath an uprooted Ponderosa pine, which you describe as “a time of violence / become a place of shelter, part of the story / that houses us all” (50-52). Can you tell us more about the curious and wise speaker of this poem?       

GP:  The speaker of “Tracks & Traces” is a guy like me walking through the woods in winter reading the signs, the tracks left in the snow by animals, trying to discern the stories those tracks tell.  It is something I do often in the winter, a form of walking meditation, a state of concentration and observation much like a hunter’s, except I am after something else besides deer or ducks and geese, some other kind of sustenance.  These winter walks can start off serene and peaceful then turn, as the weather turns, fierce, or you come upon the carcass of an elk with ravens feeding on it, or you step down into a hole at the base of a lovely old Ponderosa pine that’s blown down in the last storm.  It’s hard not to think of the violence as well as the beauty that’s written on the land, and in us.

DP: The presence of Nature in these poems, captured in both the vivid imagery and a beautifully-wrought diction of the land, is a powerful one. What is the importance of the human element that is thinking and living within the powerful Nature of these poems?

GP: I think it’s important to describe and try to articulate all sorts of experiences.  If our poems and other works of art help us live our lives, and that seems to be one of the primary purposes of art, it is by articulating, questioning, and shaping experience, sometimes making sense, providing insights or feelings that can be shared, sometimes just putting something out there we don’t completely understand, adding to the conversation.  If we have learned anything it’s that the human element is not something apart from Nature but something within Nature.

DP: There are four separate but very carefully connected parts to the book Four Swans. How did each of these parts become its own?

GP: When I began organizing the poems, written over several years, into a book, I found there was a kind of narrative arc that traced the infirmity and death of my mother from the first poem, written in winter, to the last poem, written in fall, and the seasons, more or less evident in all the poems, shaped and commented in a strong way on the arc of the book.

DP: The poem “Elegy for Big Red” (Four Swans 38-40) is perhaps the most humorous yet equally heart-breaking poem of the collection. In it the speaker tells the tale of a rooster named Big Red, whom he describes as a “bastard hatched / in Nebraska, shipped to Montana / in a box with dozens of others” (lines 1-3). Why was it important to have this poem in Four Swans?

GP: Swans, roosters, people, the beautiful as well as the good the bad and the ugly are all part of the tapestry.  “Elegy for Big Red” is both a lament and a celebration, and maybe a warning.  My relationship with Big Red was complex.  We seemed to bring out the worst in each other.  But when I found him headless in the chicken coop one morning I realized what a beautiful creature he was, and how petty and self-indulgent I had been toward him at times, and how much I respected him and would miss him.

DP: In the poem “Big Lost River Breakdown” (Four Swans 57-60) you write “under the cottonwoods, the smoke / sweetening the summer air dawn to dusk / makes us recall Dreamland” (lines 35-37). Some readers may initially see this Dreamland as an imaginary place of the poet to be further explored in the next stanza, but as a former native of Alabama, my mind (and taste buds) went straight to the plate of Dreamland barbecue you later describe. Do you find yourself thinking and writing about a place, like Montana or Alabama, when you are surrounded by it, or do you tend to write about a place when you are away from it, wondering about it, longing for it?

GP: I think I was writing in my journal in Arco, Nevada sitting at a picnic table when I smelled that barbeque smoke, so I was there, fully present, and certainly hungry.  But that smell took me immediately to Dreamland, which as you know is the name of a great barbeque place outside Tuscaloosa.  So the answer to your question is both.  By writing about one place you make associations with other places, and depending on your aims or needs, you follow your pencil.  In this case to Dreamland.

DP: While nearly all of these poems occur in a natural world, Parts III and IV contain many poems about people, specifically family and friends. Can you describe the necessity of these more human poems in Four Swans

GP: I think all the poems occur in the natural world.  There are poems in Parts III and IV that are elegies, poems that remember the lives and mourn the deaths of friends and family, but they are mixed in with sketches of particular places and people—life and death side by side of necessity.

DP: Several poems in Four Swans present a speaker looking through a window, either out onto the natural world or into some other world. What do these windows reveal, or hide, from the human element of the poem?

GP: I like to write outdoors, and I do as much as I can, even sometimes in winter.  But when I’m writing indoors I often keep in touch with the outdoors by gazing out the window.  Emerson said, “the health of the eyes demands a horizon,” and I believe that is true literally, as well as metaphorically.  A window lets light in, and lets one see out.  It is both an entrance and an exit.  I’m never completely comfortable in those rooms without windows.

DP: There is this consistent presence of faith, hope, and patience in Four Swans. This is especially true of those poems at the end of the book. Do you see these elements as an extension of yourself in the poetry, or is it a result of the Nature, the possibility of regrowth, in which many of these poems exist?

GP: Where does one find faith, hope, and patience?  More good names for swans.  Certainly we need those to get through tough times.  I think we discover and develop those things in all sorts of ways.  We learn from each other, from literature, from religion, from rivers and swans and ponderosa pines.

DP: The final poem of the book, “White Church in Wiborg” (Four Swans 82-83), presents a speaker looking into the window of a church and imagining a scene taking place inside. In that scene is a captured moment of human, perhaps family, history. The speaker leaves this imagined moment and follows another down the wagon-rutted mule path all the way to Cumberland Falls, where one can “watch the Moonbow / rise above the river, like an arched and lighted entrance / through earthly air that made those who saw it lean closer” (33-35). Why did you choose to end the book with a sense of entry into another world? Should we be anticipating anything? Another book perhaps?  

GP: My mother’s stories of her childhood in Kentucky had always fascinated me.  She was born in Wiborg in McCreary County, one of eleven children.  Her father and mother were both born in the southern mountains, descendants of the first European settlers.  They made their living from the land as hunters, gatherers, subsistence farmers, and later as coal miners.  She had a hard life.  Her stories of childhood were vivid and memorable, and sometimes scary, but not without love for her early home place.  After she died I took her ashes to Kentucky and searched for, and found, the small family graveyard near where she was born, and placed her ashes and monument there.  The white church in Wiborg was established by her grandfather.  I was lucky to be able to visit it and make it part of the setting of the last poem (it has since burned down).  The other setting of that poem, Cumberland Falls, where one can see the Moonbow, is a place of great beauty and natural wonder, and for me a place of intimate connection to my family’s past, to my life before I was born.  And to witness the Moonbow with others, I’ve felt a sense of awe and kinship, an entrance, not necessarily to another world, but a deeper sense of this one. If all goes well, there will definitely be another book.

Greg Pape on-line:

"American Flamingo," The Atlantic

"Cemetery in Kentucky," Poetry Daily

"Fog," The Atlantic

interview: Alabama Writers' Forum Executive Director Jeanie Thompson interviews poets Greg Pape and Frank X. Walker about their literary work (audio)

poems featured on The Writer's Almanac

on the Montana Poet Laureate Program website: Nine poems from two of his books

reading selections of his poetry at Montana State University (MSU) Library (video)

review of American Flamingo at Valparaiso Poetry Review

review of Four Swans at Two Poets blog

Drew Pomeroy grew up on the banks of the Alabama River in the small historic town of Selma, Alabama. He is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Spalding University where he has had the pleasure of working with Greg Pape. He currently lives in Louisville with a shaggy shelter dog named Molly. Drew is also a proud and active member of the Brewhouse Poets – a group of thirsty writers living and working in Kentuckiana.