The Country Dog Review
Andrew Kozma

June 27, 2009

John Pursley III: After completing your first book of poems, City of Regret, and winning the Zone 3 First Book Award for Poetry, have you found beginning your newer work more difficult than before, or has your experience been more like riding a bicycle? How has your writing process changed?

Andrew Kozma: Well, I suppose the answer is no, though I feel like writing is always like riding a bicycle, though one that could fall apart underneath you as you're riding—it’s always unstable.  But “no” as an answer is a bit disingenuous since your question implies that I was working on the book consistently until it was published. That’s not the way I work. I’m consistently writing (or trying to), and when I have a manuscript done then I move on to the next . . . although that isn't even accurate. I’m writing poems for a number of projects at a time now, though then I was simply writing poems and if some of them coincided in subject matter, then great. That’s touching on your second question, so I’ll get back to that in a bit.

City of Regret is mostly made up of my MFA thesis and I constructed it around two years into my Ph.D. program. While I was doing that, I was already working on poems that would be in my dissertation and form the core of my second manuscript, as well as working on a small number of poems that were the seed for the third manuscript I’m working on. Beginning new work isn’t more difficult simply because I never stopped creating—if I stop writing, then I begin to feel like a failure as a writer (since I only feel like I’m a writer if I’m actively writing).

As for the change in writing process, what’s happened is that I’m more interested in projects at the moment which, outside of the current manuscript I’m working on, seems to mean poetic series. I’m working on a series called A Natural History, writing collaboratively with the poet Michelle Schmidt, as well as a more free form group of poems based on the titles of John Carpenter movies. The larger manuscript involves Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. I still write what I would term “random” poems, though those are unsatisfying to me in the long term as poems, even if they get positive feedback.

JP: Stop me if I’m wrong here, but doesn’t A Natural History pay homage to Pliny the Elder? I can’t help but notice that in both City of Regret and the new projects you’ve described, you seem very interested in juxtaposing large artistic conceits (Odysseus, St. Jerome, “Sword of Damascus,” etc.) with more contemporary matters, such as the “Last Show at the Slipknot” or the films of John Carpenter. Is this something you do consciously to help create depth of field, or do you find this disparateness in subject matters helps keep the projects you’re working on focused and separate from one another?

AK: Technically you're right, and, yes, this is the question that makes me look like a fool—I say that mostly because many of the inspirations for what I write I have no first degree of contact with, or, as with the A Natural History series and the poem “The Influence of Anxiety” from City of Regret it’s the title that speaks to me most and is the driving force behind the poem. The title angles the poem a certain way but since I’ve never read Pliny I can’t use his books directly, and really my poems aren’t trying to. Well, except in that they are attempts to understand the world that reach as much into imagination and myth as they do fact. With “The Influence of Anxiety,” the poem doesn’t deal at all with Bloom’s book (which, again, I haven’t read) but uses the words of the title to speak to a certain emotional breakdown in a relationship.

With other poems, the influence is more direct. Those written in the John Carpenter series are based off the titles, yes, since I think they’re evocative, but I’ve seen most of his films and so they’re going to bleed somewhat into the poems with details and mood.

Though I don’t think that really answers the question. In truth, I don’t write this way to create a depth of field, though that’s a fortunate side effect, but it is a conscious decision to separate poems, to give me a different starting point that will hopefully result in a different final poem. I suppose in some ways I’m afraid of the poems blending together—it’s still a fear when the subjects are so different—and this is one of the ways I keep my writing mind from always falling into the same track.

JP: I think it’s interesting to use these sort of iconic works as jumping off points, and I’m even more intrigued by the fact that you’re not reading them. It creates a new way of understanding the author and the inferences his audience draws from his work. With that in mind, I’m curious, what are you reading now? Or, what experiences are directly inspiring your current projects?

AK: The current project, partially funded by a Houston Arts Alliance Fellowship, is to finish my manuscript based on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. As you might suspect from my previous answers, “based on” is a loose term for me. There are poems that are directly taken from scenes in his non-fiction account, but there are at least an equal number of others that use the mood and environment in his book for poems that are, subject-wise, seemingly about something different altogether.

I’ve read two of his three volume series and plan on tackling the last next month. Other things I'm reading are a biography of Christopher Marlowe, Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct (after reviewing a book by John McWhorter and finding linguistics, at least when written by him, really engaging), and I just recently finished the book Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin.

For the Solzhenitsyn manuscript, the experiences I’m drawing from are the time I’ve spent in Poland (about half a year over five years all told) and my dismay at the state of the country immediately after 9/11, how it seemed like the U.S. might be heading down a track towards totalitarianism.

JP: This is the last question I’ll ask you about this, but earlier in this interview you mentioned working on a collaboration with Michelle Schmidt, and it almost seems like the way you are approaching your current manuscript is in a sense a sort of collaboration with classical works/authors. Could you talk a little about your instinct toward collaboration in what is often a very solitary pursuit?

AK: In general, I don’t think of myself as a collaborator. I’m really private with my work—in terms of a sense of ownership—and so don’t like giving up control to others.  With classical authors, I feel that it’s more like adding layers to what I’m writing, and that the conjunction of the two works will provide a resonance.

With Michelle and with other writers (for example, I’m working on several collaborative fiction projects at the moment) what I’m interested in is responses. I don’t want to work on writing a single poem together. For example, the way that Michelle and I are working is that I’m writing poems that she’s writing the second part of: “A Natural History parts I & II” is one poem, and the next is “A Natural History parts II & III.” Although we bounce off each other, the collaboration is all in how the works speak to each other and come together as a perceived whole rather than fine-tuning a single-piece we claim joint ownership of.

Writing is solitary, but that’s the joy of it.  The sort of collaboration I look for allows that solitariness in composition, but creates a small community in terms of working towards a larger finished work.

JP: In my own work, I often find my poems lean toward a sort of essayistic voice, particularly when I’m working on a longer series. Because you work in so many genres (poetry, prose, drama, reviews), do you find your voice in these genres develops compartmentally? Or, do you see writing more as one voice expressed in a multitude of ways?

AK: When I’ve tried to explain this before—as much to myself as anyone else—I have talked about writing as compartmentalized, not so much in terms of voice but in what they do for me and how they interact with the reader. In theater, because it is undeniably real on stage, I’m interested in the surreal in order to make reality seem less so to those watching. In fiction, because it’s a completely created medium, I’m interested in making the fantastic seem everyday.  In poetry, well, that’s the hardest to tackle.

Of course, none of that answers the central question about voice. Yes, I do think my voice in each genre develops on its own, even if there’s a lot of crossover. For example, in theater I consciously work toward humor, whereas I find funny really hard to tackle in poetry. Not impossible, but I’m just unsure about it. Probably because I can’t hear feedback if a joke goes over well (or the silence if it goes badly). As a poet, I consciously and most obviously (to me, at least) try different things with form. To a lesser degree, but more important in my own mind, I try to do the same with voice. I tend to have a hard time with a consistent voice in poetry, whether it be narrative or essayistic, so that’s one of the things I’m working on—not necessarily because I want to write that way but because it bothers me that I can't if I want to.

JP: Speaking of performance, I imagine with the publication of City of Regret you’ve done a fair share of readings. How do you translate your poetry to an audience who’s listening in a group rather than to a solitary reader? Does reading your poems aloud change your experience of them?

AK: With a solitary reader I have no real impact on how they take in the poem. When I read a poem, I tend to get lost in the images first and it takes several reads for me to focus on the actual action of the poem. It took me a long time to realize this about my own reading style (and I’m sure how I read influences how I write). Some people might skim first, or read until distracted then skip to another poem, or whatever, all of it meaning that I can only put the words on the page and hope for a reading close to what I imagined.

In front of an audience, though, I’m the one who is fully responsible for capturing attention and keeping it. I had a student in my first creative writing class who was an amazing reader. She was a good poet, too, but the class would always be wowed by her reading and so their critical faculties were short-circuited. In giving a reading, that’s my goal.

Of course, as you say, reading aloud changes my experience of the poems because I’m finally seeing them through another person’s eye. Reading them aloud is like reading them again after having forgotten what it was I wrote; not just because of the audience reaction, but because of the very fact of presenting it to others, others who generally don’t know who I am or care. In terms of actual performance, I hold as an ideal my friend, Jericho Brown, whose readings are amazing, his oratory style hypnotic. Also, one time he had plants in the audience who stood up and recited portions of a poem that had a built in chorus.

JP: It’s interesting that mention Jericho Brown. I’ve always thought of my good friend, the poet, Abraham Smith as my gold standard for how to perform a poem, and though I’ve never heard Jericho read, their approaches sound somewhat similar. I can’t bring myself to be that emotive in front of an audience, though I know when I write I am always conscious of the relationship between sound and sense. Maybe that’s a buried lyricism in otherwise essayistic poetry. I’m not doing a very good job of making this into a question, but I guess I’m asking about your relationship to the oral aspects of your poetry as you write? Do you edit for sound as well as meaning?  

AK: I’m pretty much the same way: though I respect and envy how much Jericho does with his voice and his practiced presence, I would feel awkward and silly if I tried to do the same, probably because I know that I’d be trying to be something I see myself as not being, naturally. On the other hand, I’m sure that Jericho worked towards perfecting his style, and so why should I feel strange about doing the same?

I’m very aware of sound in poetry. I write with something of a double-consciousness, aiming for both the page and the ear at the same time. As I imagine most poets do, I read the poem aloud as I’m working on it and especially when I’m done with it, just to get used to the feel of it on the tongue. Although the approach varies from poem to poem. When writing a sonnet or some other form with rhymes, I’m more aware of the sound within the line in addition to the end rhymes. With the A Natural History series I decided to write it in iambic tetrameter, but without rhymes, so I'm not as sure of the sound as I would be with a rhyming poem. But I think sound and image often, for me, take precedence over meaning, so that the poems become directed by the sound/image—in writing, they tell me where to go next.

I love reading poems aloud, though, and it may change how I view a poem. Some I don’t like as much overall, but I love the way they feel to the ear when I read them, and so I’ll choose them for a reading even though I don’t think they’re my best work.

JP: Aside from the obvious bringing about of world peace, making beaucoup bucks, and becoming the voice of a generation, what pushes you to continue with writing?

AK: Mostly, the feeling that if I’m not writing then I’m not doing anything useful with my life. (Obviously, “useful” will have a different meaning here for some people) It’s really the only thing I want to do, even if I don’t do enough of it. When I was younger I sort of pushed myself into the habit of writing, and now it’s somewhat of a compulsion—I’ve heard writers talk about that being why they started, this urge to get something out, but for me that urge wasn’t there until I artificially created it. Which means I’m some sort of android. Which is why I don’t like the beach.

John Pursley III is the author of three chapbooks, Supposing, for Instance, Here in the Space-Time Continuum (Apprentice House Press 2009), A Conventional Weather (New Michigan Press 2007) and When, by the Titanic (Portlandia Press 2006). If You Have Ghosts, his first full-length, was the Editor’s Prize Selection for the 2009 Zone 3 Poetry Prize and will be released in early 2010. He teaches writing and literature at Clemson University.

Andrew Kozma received his M.F.A. from the University of Florida and my Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston.  His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoland Poetry, Subtropics, AGNI Online, Comstock Review, Quiddity, and a non-fiction piece has been published by The Iowa Review.  His first book of poems, City of Regret, won the Zone 3 First Book Award and was released in 2007.