Thomas Reiter Interview, with Monica Mankin
Having read several of your poems, it’s clear that you are a skilled narrative poet. What draws you toward the narrative poem? I mean, why poetry to tell these stories instead of, well, stories? Also, the two poems appearing with Connotation Press this month take the form of first-person narrative, but you have other poems, such as “Just Now,” “Cross Here,” and “Water Wheel,” which appeared previously with Connotation Press, that employ third-person narrative. Can you tell us about the challenges of writing from both perspectives?
I’ve had a strong interest in narrative poetry, which later led me to the dramatic monologue, since high school when I cast the whole of Treasure Island into blank verse during a year’s-worth of study halls. Why haven’t I written short stories out of the materials of narration? No easy answer there, except that a compulsion toward poetry seems to have claimed me. I have on occasion done a piece of short fiction as a companion to a narrative poem in process, just to see if any fictive devices might be transferable. As to some poems employing first-person narration and others third-person, that’s how they worked themselves out. Sometimes you find out what your poem is—what it wants to be—by trying out the various ways of telling it. Especially in a narrative involving different characters as possible tellers of the tale, each with a unique standpoint. In “Pin-setting,” for instance, I tried out the perspectives of the bowling alley manager and the school librarian before settling on the more autobiographical collective first-person narration. So for me the process of composing narrative poems generates immediate questions: What point of view should I use? Should the text privilege a central or a peripheral character? How should I manage the matrix of personal, social, historical and possible ecological materials without overburdening the narration? In short, how to bear witness?
How much of the voice in your poems is you versus a narrative persona?
The self that speaks in a poem can have many sources in literal experience and in the imagination’s leaping and bounding about with autobiographical data. It’s clear in practice, I think, that the author’s self in a narrative shades into, but is not necessarily identical to, his or her “actual self.” That’s true of first-person narration, and likely it’s an even more valid generalization about a poem in which the author dons an assumed identity, a true “persona poem.” Don’t even the most grounded sensory experiences, once they register, strain at the boundaries of “reality,” their provenance, and in time get themselves taken into story?
Mostly you seem drawn toward what poet Ellen Bryant Voigt calls the parsed line, which depends upon the natural patterns of speech; but, at times, you opt for what she calls the annotated line, which is broken specifically at the discretion of the writer regardless of speech patterns. And all the while you pay careful attention to the music of the line, its beats, while never forsaking sentence structure. Can you tell us a bit about your understanding of the relationship between the sentence and the line?
The relationship between the sentence and the line, and the components of the sentence and the line, is the poet’s control over the reader’s attention. Lining a poem is a problem-solving activity, with each decision affecting those before and after. Lines exist in a dynamic field. I think it’s important for a poet not to do lineation on cruise control, but, mixing metaphors, to demand each line pay its rent organic to the whole poem. Line endings are in a way the artist’s negative space—separation and engagement. In my own practice, and especially if I’m working on a narrative poem, lines tend to extend themselves substantially so as to foreground individual phrases and their weight of description and figuration. But with each line I try out different endings, ranging from hard enjambment to terminal punctuation. Each posture affects tone, focus, and the play of emphasis. I’m reminded of a passage from “The Sayings of the Fathers” in The Talmud: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete this task; neither are you free to desist from it.” It is applicable to all aspects of writing, actually.
Which writers do you turn to for inspiration?
I read widely—anthologies, individual collections, journals—with an interest both in poets new to me and familiar, though increasingly the reading of texts seems to be akin to code breaking. (Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofishtikashun takes on that issue with insight, balance, and wit.) How a poet handles matters like perspective, tense, organization, locus, tone, prosody, and imagery—that’s useful to learn. So I lower my bucket into Frost, Jarrell, Heaney, Bishop, Kumin and (increasingly) Carol Ann Duffy, among any number of others. And of course what’s to be found in writers other than poets can be a triggering encounter. For example, I wrote a poem on the Buffalo Creek Flood in West Virginia in 1972, in which 125 men, women, and children were killed when a dam of mine waste collapsed, the impetus for the poem coming from the sociological study Everything in Its Path by Kai T. Erikson. And several poems have spun off from materials in Women’s Diaries of the Westward Movement by Lillian Schlissel.
Pin-Setting: Key City Lanes, 1958
Dead wood, we called them, three in each hand
loaded from the pit floor into the tray
a lever then lowered to the pin deck. We were
the summer crew, Beano, Hans and I,
eighteen and too fast and reliable to fire.
No one could touch us. The more
our backs ached, working two lanes,
the more we sang, picking ourselves up
with the stars who taught us just enough
about love to lose it. Only once or twice
our renditions reached the foul line.
Anyone trying to pick up a split
got Buddy Holly’s “Well that’ll be the day.”
A gutter ball brought on Jerry Lee’s
“Goodness gracious great balls of fire.”
The night Virtus our boss appeared back there,
his face lit like the UV lamp fighting ringworm
in rental shoes, he cried, “No jukebox
anymore. No Rebel without a Cause.”
Our school librarian Long Tall Sally—
with both hands she thrust the rack’s lightest ball
at arms’-length, so all we did was set
“A wop bop a loo mop a lop bam boom”
to her approach, we told him. Little Richard
at the Key City Lanes. Virtus sighed
and drew from his wallet an old photo:
boys and girls placing pins on the spots
by hand, an arrow penciled above a boy
wearing sweater and tie. “How it used to be,
not a song among them.” But how could we change
when we had nothing but music to say
that the point was time itself, the needle
moving across a 45 at a school dance,
a shift of pin-setting? No one could touch us.
That summer after our last frame,
after mopping up beer and ashes, we left
with five-spots and singles folded and bristling
from our fists, like dice players in B movies.
In perfect harmony the Spaniels’
“Goodnight Sweetheart, well, I really must go”
broke from our throats, and we called back
“Top of the charts” as we stepped
into the night air that promised to be ours forever.
for Quentin Beck
Watching Ken Burns’s documentary The War
last night I thought of you among those
American pilots scrambling to their fighters
at an English air base. And I found you
again behind the counter at the “Q”
—Pool, Billiards, Snooker, Ladies Night—
Saturday mornings fifty years ago.
Everyone called you Mr. Q.
Hanging from wires above your head,
the Spitfires you built from balsa wood
blocks and sheets, not kits. We’d ask
about insignias, airspeed, armament,
and the Flying Fortresses you escorted.
English women donated pots and pans
that were melted down to patch the Spitfires,
we learned. Always only a sentence or two, then
“Your time’s running,” handing us a cue ball.
We thought we’d go on forever saying
“Shoot hard and sleep on the sidewalk,”
the advice you once heard Minnesota Fats give
at an exhibition match. But then eminent domain
brought down the “Q.” The last Saturday,
after we handed back the cue ball to stop
the clock, you gave us those fighters.
“I can always make more of them.”
Mr. Q, holding what you’d done to scale,
the Merlin engine, the ring-and-bead gun sight,
I asked how it felt to fly through clouds.
There’s always snow and hail in the high clouds,
you answered, rising and falling like waves.
“I flew through that while you hustlers
were unfolding cut snowflakes in kindergarten.”
Mr. Q, did you ever think you were going to die?
The only answer we got was this:
in a dogfight over the Channel once
a Messerschmitt surprised you. As he closed
from behind, you saw rainbow rings
surrounding both your shadows on a cloud deck.
“That’s called a glory,” you said.