I met Alan Michael Parker during the spring of 2010. A month or so afterward, we had the chance to put together an interview in which we discussed his work and his attempts to explore the “boundaries between what a reader knows and learns.”
Alan Michael Parker is the author of two novels, including Whale Man (WordFarm, 2011) and Cry Uncle, along with seven collections of poems, Days Like Prose, The Vandals, Love Song with Motor Vehicles, A Peal of Sonnets, Elephants & Butterflies, Ten Days (with painter Herb Jackson), and Long Division (forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2012). He served as Editor of The Imaginary Poets, and co-editor of two other volumes of scholarship. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Pleiades, and The Yale Review, among other magazines, and are forthcoming widely, including in The Best American Poetry, 2011 as well as the new Pushcart Prize anthology; his prose has appeared in journals including The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker.
Alan Michael Parker has received numerous awards and fellowships, including two Pushcart Prizes, the Fineline Prize from the Mid-American Review, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. As an undergraduate, he was invited to join the graduate poetry workshop at Washington University, where he studied with Donald Finkel, Howard Nemerov, and Mona Van Duyn. As a graduate student in the School of the Arts at Columbia University, where he received his M.F.A. in Writing, Alan Michael Parker studied with Carolyn Forche, Richard Howard, Denis Johnson, Stanley Kunitz, William Matthews, and Nobel Laureates Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz.
Since 1998, Alan Michael Parker has taught at Davidson College, where he is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing; he is also a Core Faculty Member in the Queens University low-residency M.F.A. program. He lives in Davidson, NC, with his partner, the artist Felicia van Bork.
CW: I first encountered your work with Elephants and Butterflies. Soon after, I had the opportunity to hear you speak about this collection during your visit to UNT. During that discussion you revealed what seems an important element to the title poem, an element I more than likely would not have detected otherwise, that the historian mentioned in the poem, Arripitus, along with his “History,” is entirely fictional. It is a passing reference to something that did not previously exist. Arripitus is, like the poem, a thing of your imagination, a construction.
One thing this does within the poem, it seems, is to highlight the fictional aspects of poetry in a subtle way, as many readers would have no reason to doubt the existence of this historian. It serves, for those of us who are somehow in on it, to point out an interesting difference between the expectations commonly brought to a piece of a poetry versus those brought to a work of prose fiction. Namely, we often expect a poem to be somehow more “real” or personal, and we less easily recognize the role of fiction in poetry. We expect fiction to lie to us, but rarely is poetry read with that expectation, unless we are guided to the idea by the poem itself. It seems to me, this poem is essentially tied to your earlier work with The Imaginary Poets. Both are engaging with the fictional aspects of poetry, as well as focusing our attention on the idea of what we expect when we pick up a book of poetry. I suppose the first question that came to me after realizing all of this is, what do you expect from a piece of poetry? A collection? Not that the expectation is always the same, but what is your understanding of what poetry can or should do? What is the fundamental difference, if there is any, between poetry and fiction? Is it merely structural? Aesthetic? Are there certain things better achieved through one medium over the other? In your mind, what are the boundaries, if any, between the two mediums?
AMP: Those are great questions. My sense is that we suffer from an inheritance: the assumptions that inform the appearance of the “lyric I” in a poem are borne of Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and perhaps especially, the American Confessional poets. I try to write within and against these assumptions, and to explore the boundaries between what a reader knows and learns. But calling into question genre, and elements of fictionality, is only one approach; others break down narrative, or aim elliptically. I don’t believe I’ve got the answer, just some approaches that suit my inclinations.
I expect a collection of poems to teach me how to read, just as I do a novel or a collection of short stories; perception seems always at risk, in good art, and I’m interested in the ways that sentences organize perception as opposed to lines. In that sense, then, I think that my expectations of the two genres differ.
CW: You are not only a poet, you’ve written novels, short shorts, non-fiction essays and criticism, as well as edited collections (am I missing anything?). I suppose the answer to this is obvious in the case of non-fiction, but as you move from work to work, do you make a conscious decision to write in prose or poetry, or does the idea come first and the form worked out later? Some of your shorter work certainly reads as if it could have been a poem, or still could be, and yet you chose to call it fiction. What is the relevance, if any, in making the distinction?
AMP: You’re right to note the connections between my works across the lines of genre. In fact, my most recent project, The Committee on Town Happiness, a series of prose pieces and diagrams that I’m calling a “novel,” began as prose poetry. Clearly, even just six or so pages along, the works connected in a way that indicated a narrative arc, and thus precipitated re-thinking the project as prose.
As for the differences between the two mediums, the conventional way to determine prose from poetry concerns their fundamental units of meaning, that is, the sentence vs. the line. But I think that more may be made of the structural elements each genre deploys, such as the music-making of poetry or the wholeness of paragraphs as acts of thought. I’m also in agreement with Mikhail Bakhtin here, when he argues the terms used to describe lyric poetry don’t apply to the novel.
CW: After reading about The Imaginary Poets, a collection of bios and work by “made up” poets, which you conceived of and edited, I immediately thought of Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, have you read it?
AMP: I have not read Bolano, but both his 2666 and The Savage Detective are in-hand, for summer reading.
CW: Again and again, in your work, the imagination takes precedence over, or engages on a fundamental level with, the “real” and you are constantly manipulating or re-imagining “fact” or “day to day life” in a way that highlights the act of imaginative engagement with the world. For example, the act of construction or art-making is a recurring theme in your work. In a description of your upcoming novel, Whale Man, you say it is “about a young man who builds a sixty-four foot long and sixteen foot high wooden whale in his dead mother’s front yard. [The book]… has drawings—and precise instructions for how to build a whale, which you can do at home.” It seems that the idea of artistic construction is central to the book. You even invite the reader to engage in the act by providing instructions. This theme of construction or imaginative engagement with the external world is present in your poetry too. For example, in your poem My B & E the narrator’s engagement with the “you” in the poem is through an act of artistic manipulation. Would you be willing to talk about this idea, one’s engagement with construction or the artistic process as a means of interacting with the world and others? How does this relate, if at all, to your efforts as a writer?
AMP: Again, great. I learn by making art—in my case, by writing. As a result, the work of the artist provides me with what I think constitutes metaphors of the highest calling: creative, intellectual, spiritual, procreative, etc. To build a wooden whale in his dead mother’s yard, my protagonist must make of his grief a thing. It’s an act I value the most.
CW: I have heard you talk about a resistance to autobiographical poetry. Not that your poems are not personal, but I’ve heard you speak dismissively of the elements of your everyday life as potentially poetically potent. I think the word you chose was “boring”. So, while this may be your true feelings about representations of your own life, it seems your poetry is still deeply engaged with the idea of “everyday life” or the seemingly mundane: FedEx delivery men, garbage trucks, Toyotas, a first kiss (a kind of poem you yourself dismissed but chose to write, it seems, for that very reason). So, if these are not events from your everyday life, they are certainly recognizable as elements of someone else’s. What is it about using imagined images of everyday life that is more freeing or allows you to engage as a poet with the seemingly mundane aspects of reality? Is there some essential distance provided by the fact that you are imagining someone drinking coffee, rather than viewing the coffee as your coffee, the mug as your mug, the mouth as your mouth? My sense of your answer to this question is related to the line from your poem, Wherein the Flesh Abides, “Every day is like this, and isn’t this.” Am I on the right track?
AMP: I think that you are on the right track—and yes, I think of my daily life as pretty boring. I eat, teach, shop, cook, read, Google, play with my family; nothing’s thrilling enough to be a “plot,” I think. But being and personhood and thinking—now those actions and conditions excite me, and do so as acts of imagination. So I have a different set of priorities from writers who need to dig into their lived lives; I’m interested more in digging into what’s possible. Which isn’t to be dismissive of other kinds of writing, or other aesthetics, but mostly to suggest that I’m otherwise engaged.
CW: At AWP, Donald Revell talked about the “new poetry” as being essentially “unrecognizable.” Anything else would be a kind of clinging onto the past, rather than moving forward. Archaeology, rather than exploration. I connected his idea to a comment you’ve made in previous interviews, as well as during your talk at UNT. You said, “reinvention is always at the top of my list. If it’s not new for me, it’s not going to be new to you.” Is this a reasonable connection?
AMP: Yes. I think too about Robbe-Grillet and his work toward defining the nouveau roman following WW II. Or the work done by Jorie Graham in The End of Beauty, or Kandinsky’s decomposition of perspective. I think that the true avant-garde often challenges our bedrock assumptions, and as a result must appear unrecognizable.
CW: I feel you often exhibit the impulse toward reinvention, or reinterpretation, making the familiar less-so and then establishing a new context or meaning. For example, in Cars Poetica you spend several lines evoking the simple musicality and aesthetic value of a commonplace word like Toyota. There is a really lovely contradiction happening in that line, “the inanimate Toyota.” In the repetition of Toyota at this moment in the poem, there is nothing inanimate about the word, only the separate physical presence the word signifies. Not only do you draw our attention to the elegant movement of the word, but you fuse it with the emotional content of the poem, by packing more meaning and context in with each repetition. The narrator even calls attention to the fact that he is projecting his emotional life into/onto the machine. The Toyota, in the elegance of the world alone, evokes the potential rejuvenating power of poetry, and ultimately the “inanimate” object, “somehow there and yet disincarnate,” is granted a kind of self-consciously artificial life through the poem. This kind of poetic reanimation causes us to reconsider our relationship to commonplace words, commonplace things. Is that at all your intention? If so, could/would you talk, in a little more depth, about your sense of the importance of that process?
AMP: The reinvigoration of language, the ability to spin a word into another orbit or valence, whether prosodically or otherwise; these acts underscore all I do. In my poems, I’m not someone who needs to generate surprise at the level of plot—I write lyrics that look like narratives, after all—but someone more interested in the explosive quality of a plosive, or the exposé in the exposition. A poem is a symbolic venue: everything there already means more. My word-joy is such that sound performs a necessary condition of poetic success.
CW: Also, a quick question about MFAs. There are so many academic options available out there for aspiring writers, it can be overwhelming. You are on the faculty at two very different kinds of programs, a low-residency program at Queens College, as well as a more traditional program at Davidson. What is your sense of the value of these respective styles of MFA program? Do you see any value in comparing the two? What are the important things to consider when choosing between these different styles of programs, and, if you had to do your MFA over again, what would your approach be? Finally, how much of what is offered through an MFA program, other than the degree – a community of writers, a sense of place and purpose, a literary education, a literary life, time to write – how much of these things can or should be sought elsewhere?
AMP: I loved graduate school, and love teaching graduate students. Frankly, I’m not sure where else one can experience what you detail in your question. Also, since I trust that a literary education need not be about being a writer but more so tuning the mind through language, I believe deeply in the efficacy of such programs, low-residency or residency.
Yes, I would definitely take an M.F.A. again. I might do so when a little older—I was twenty-three when I started, and my “reading years” were scant. There’s no such thing as too much education: the people who read literature are often the people I find to be self-aware, awake, and the most engaged. Also, since learning to read, and to write, is only fostered by continued study, why not go to grad school?
Sure, a workshop can democritize a poem to a fault, or to death; there’s always the possibility that new or original work might be devalued by group-think, or by a strictly New Critical pedagogy. Nevertheless, the job of the real artist includes making better work, and an engaged community of readers offers a writer the chance to do so well.
In terms of low-residency versus residency programs, much depends on the program and the individual student’s needs. My experiences haves been good in both programs.
About the author:
Colin Winnette is a writer and performer living in Chicago, IL. His first novel, REVELATION, is forthcoming with Mutable Sound Press (November 2011). More information and links to more work can be found at colinwinnette.com.