AMANDA NADELBERG: Your first book, The Lesser Fields, is an entire universe unto itself, and it's filled with some of the most beautiful descriptions of the natural world I've seen—creeks, ponds, fish, trees, honey, horses, hay and duckweed, for instance; it's also full of family units and story (but with story comfortably forgetting a few of its details to make for Better Stories) and directions (read: maps, possibly related to Story) and this amazing and particular myth-making that emerges believable while still strange. Could you talk about these poems and address any of these elements, if they seem familiar to you?
ROB SCHLEGEL: I spent most of my childhood living near the edge of Mr. Maller's twenty acre woods on the eastern slopes of the Oregon coast range. I whacked beehives with sticks and was stung. I wrapped vines around the trunks of trees, not realizing the vines were poison ivy. So its possible that the creeks, ponds, fish and trees in The Lesser Fields are the after-images of those landscapes and animals which helped inform my relationship to language and perception. That said, it took me a few months away from the book to actually see its relatively haunted undercurrents. Seeing them for the first time actually startled me a bit. It was as if I had come across an animal I once knew that was now decomposing.
The final section in the book contains poems that were written after my friend (poet Brandon Shimoda) came to live in my backyard for a spell. So often, Brandon's very presence creates an atmosphere of creative and artistic stimulation. At the time, my wife was away in Mexico for a month, so I basically spent that time (once Brandon left) writing these poems in complete solitude. A lot of the poems were born during that hypnogogic state just before we fall asleep, when the cerebral filters that are generally in place when we're awake, begin to soften and our minds seem more flexible, open, perhaps even, less our own.
AN: In some of your newer poems, there is more city alongside the nature: casinos, towers, theaters (of mollusks!) manmade clouds and commuting and it's striking how it all snuck in so easily, like a cousin to the world in The Lesser Fields, but not that world exactly. How have these new poems evolved? Were there changes in your process, and how do you feel about sonnets?
RS: At the risk of sounding a bit reductive and oversimplistic, I feel that this distinction might stem from reading more and more of the first generation New York School poets (not that Schuyler/Ashbery necessarily avoid the natural world). Once I read O'Hara's THE DAY LADY DIED through Geoffrey G O'Brien's lens in his seminar THE END OF THE POEM, the city suddenly became a place that contained as many (if not more) tensions between my psyche and language as the natural world contained for me in The Lesser Fields. It's likely also the result of actually spending more time in cities, the man-made clouds revealed themselves as I drove from Midwestern city to Midwestern city last fall.
The conversations in Geoffrey's class also got me thinking more and more about form. Many of the sonnets actually began as variations on Hopkin's eleven line curtal sonnets. Since then, I've "sewn" (as a smart friend said) a few of the eleven line sonnets together and then began carving away the excess. Many of the sonnets have been informed by Robert Pogue Harrison's mind-blowingly beautiful book The Dominion of the Dead, as well as some writings of Alberto Giacometti and the two-headed philosopher Deleuze and Guattari.
AN: Do you have socks with lightning bolts on them?
RS: One red pair with white boltz; one green pair with yellow boltz.
AN: One time I saw you read a poem to Lake Erie via skype to some people in a library in a small midwestern city. How did that awesome come about? Do you collaborate often? How do you feel towards the interwebs?
RS: Just after moving to Iowa City, I began to feel some relatively heavy anxiety about living so far from the Oregon that I love. When I lived in Missoula, it was easy to imagine myself still very close to my home state (the state that I used to say, as a highschool kid, I would "fight" for, should it ever need to protection--from what, I had no idea, and still don't). Anyway, I asked a few friends to write poems addressed to Lake Erie that I would read to the lake, and then wait for the lake's response. At its core, this project considered the consequences of departure, arrival, integration and reintegration, as well as explorations of the limited and limiting definitions of “audience” and “reader” in the context of the traditional structures that persist in most reading venues today. Additionally, as a new resident of the Midwest (from the Pacific Northwest, a region that helped sustain me physically, emotionally and artistically) I wanted to explore how voluntary departures and subsequent arrivals felt like minor segmentations of awareness Thus, the delivery of these five texts through my own body and throat was an attempt to move beyond the need to feel as though I was "comfortable" in this new place and toward an appreciation for the fact that these texts (as they were delivered) inhabit/deliver me. To this end I hoped to create some semblance of symmetry around the edges of unease; here and not here, having arrived and arrived nowhere.
AN: At times, there seems to be a more public face in the newer work, but then other times I'm reading, I take it all back, thinking there's a more private logic in the sonnets than in The Lesser Fields, with the act of myth-making in your first book being a generous inclusion for the reader. How do you think about the public vs. private in poetry and/or how do you think of audience if/when you do?
RS: Indeed, I can see what you're saying about the sonnets maybe having a more private logic and I can't help but think that working within the form only allows for a more intense immersion into the psyche--you know--the whole idea that the more structure you have in your life, the more willing you might be to actually wander into those parts of your mind you might not otherwise have the guts to visit. I wonder if those are the private parts of mind? Ultimately, I think many of the sonnets seem to be sitting someplace between the public and private. Perhaps somewhere in the "middle" as Deleuze might say in his Dialogues.
AN: You and your wife, Kisha, started The Catenary Press? Pray tell!
RS: Kisha and I started The Catenary Press when we realized that there weren't very many places for poets to publish serial-work. We wanted to create a venue for that. And so far, the first two publications have nearly sold out. This fall we plan to publish one or two more chapbooks (though we're still trying to figure out which).
AN: What did you have for breakfast?
RS: I am currently living in my sister's basement in Portland. So this morning I ate: Granpola (a homemade granola mix my grandfather invented); yogurt; a few Hood strawberries my sister bought at the Sellwood farmer's market; green-tea in a white cup.
AN: A year ago you moved from Missoula to Iowa City. How you have experienced the changes in terms of landscape, staircases, neighborhood, rainfall, culinary delights and transportation?
RS: Iowa City and the midwest in general, seems like a remarkably comfortable place to live. A friend of mine said that the midwest makes you "own up" to being an American. Which feels about right. That said, the writing community in Iowa City has been tremendously welcoming, and I think this is due, in large part, to the ANTHOLOGY READING SERIES.
AN: Some people really like the summer. What will you do this summer?
RS: I'm reading books for a seminar I'm teaching next year tentatively titled The Post-Modern Post-Trauma: Readings in Contemporary Fiction. So far: L.Davis, Murakami, Dellilo, Millet, McCarthy. I'm also wallowing in the loss of a few good friends who won't be returning to Iowa City next year. The coasts are calling them; they may very well be calling me as well.
Rob Schlegel's The Lesser Fields was selected for the 2009 Colorado Prize for Poetry. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, he has lived in California, Montana and Iowa. He currently teaches at Cornell College and is publisher of The Catenary Press.
Amanda Nadelberg is the author of Bright Brave Phenomena (forthcoming from Coffee House Press) and Isa the Truck Named Isadore (Slope Editions, 2006) as well as a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married (The Song Cave, 2009).