Steve Kistulentz's first book of poems The Luckless Age was selected by Nick Flynn as the winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award and was published by Red Hen Press this February. His poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The Antioch Review, Barn Owl Review, Black Warrior Review, Caesura, New England Review, New Letters, Quarterly West and many others. Individual poems have also won recognition from such noted poets as former Poet Laureate of the United States Mark Strand, who selected "The David Lee Roth Fuck Poem…" for the 2008 edition of the Best New Poets anthology, and by Mark Doty, who included the John Mackay Shaw award-winning poem "Bargain" in the ninth volume of its Helen Burns Anthology: New Voices from the Academy of American Poets. He currently is an assistant professor of English at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he teaches courses in creative writing, literature, and popular culture.
What I did
I did in the dark,
nightclub bathroom door
held shut by my bulk,
a 20-dollar descent
into the uproar
of mad stupidity.
At least I used
a fresh needle,
and before I went
sick, drew the plunger
back, pressed it down
four times, filling
and emptying, and
filling again with blood.
I used a needle
only once, the night
before I married.
That ought to be enough
to convince anyone
in omens. Let’s resist
moralizing here, just
say it was wrong,
a subtle offense.
They call it fixing;
you do it because
you are broken;
and you hope
it will help,
and still later
you talk about it, this
one thing no one saw.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Despite the relative darkness of the subject, this poem came from wordplay. I was thinking about the slang that surrounds heroin, a subject the book returns to in the poem "Wild Gift." At a friend’s funeral, I’d overheard someone say, "I didn’t know he was back on the horse," and I’d obsessed over that phrase for maybe three months, knowing that in conversation, the speaker had meant exactly this: despite pretentions to the contrary, our dead friend had never really kicked drugs. But even in that phrase, there is this hint of hope, this peculiarly American urge to confront and defeat failure.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
The version in the book is probably draft three. The first two contained slightly longer lines, and a joke: "A subtle offense/ like men wearing black socks/ with sandals at the shore." I’m grateful for whatever voice told me to cut that. It might have worked in some version of the poem itself, but that moment of levity was contrary to the movement of the whole first section of the book.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Barbara Hamby pointed me to an answer that Picasso gave. "Inspiration exists, but it must find us working." When I am not working on any particular project, I find myself combing through favorite books, my journals and notebooks, magazines, anything, just looking for words that trigger some secret association. The myth of inspiration causes otherwise ordinary people to believe that they too can write a novel or a collection of poems, if they only had the time. Which of course they can; it’s the great and saving illusion of democracy and graduate school. And while I do not necessarily want to be the voice that extinguishes someone’s faith, I think it is important to demystify process. I don’t get inspired; I work. When I write, what I am putting on paper is the sum total of all the reading, thinking, ruminating and previous writing that I’ve ever attempted. Said another way, I find my inspiration in the act of working. It may not produce results today, but it lays a foundation for tomorrow’s work.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique? Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I remember going through a phase where I was reading poets who were mostly absorbed in their own reporting of these little domestic scenes; I’d been deep in to C.K. Williams at the time. I envied the scope of those long lines but mostly I envied the kind of voice that could say to the reader something like, "The only time I ever fell in love with someone else’s wife…" I had to learn how to be that fearless, and though I might seem comfortable with the public aspects of the writing life, it’s an acquired skill. To me, it’s a shame that Williams often channels that ambition into poems about infidelity and the bourgeois limits of conventional morality. So perhaps Williams was an influence in that I was responding negatively to the people who populate his poems and their relative affluence in the world. "Fixing" is like the antimatter to the poems in a book like Flesh and Blood.
A number of poems in The Luckless Age were also written as part of my effort to be aware of the speed of sound; I’d been playing bass for a friend who is a wonderful singer-songwriter, and he would record these elaborate demos using an old Boss Dr. Rhythm drum machine. At rehearsal, he could tell the rest of us that the click track was, for example, set at 108 beats per minute, which is a pretty moderate tempo for rock and roll. I pretty much always wanted the songs to go faster. Those clipped lines are my effort to distinguish "Fixing" as a much more visceral jab than the rather panoramic lyric narratives that precede it in the book.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
C. Dale Young took this poem for the New England Review and it appeared in the Spring 2003 issue, so it was probably about a year old by the time it came out.
How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
Generally it’s a poem-by-poem decision. I don’t always know when I have succeeded, but I am acutely aware of when I have failed. I have a few trusted readers, and we tend more towards trading larger blocks of poems, a cycle or a whole manuscript. But my relationship with those people is such that we tend to only raise our voices if something is seriously awry. If the poem in question feels particularly risky to me, I might wait a tad longer to send it out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Are you asking why the Library of Congress categorizes poetry as a distinctly non-fiction endeavor? That’s always been a great mystery to me. I am by no means a genre loyalist, and I like to push the limits of what we think of as discrete categories. In this particular poem, the owner of the first-person voice is almost inconsequential. I’m much more interested in a sense of emotional authenticity than I am in whether or not something is literally true. Of all the poems in the book, "Fixing" is the one that people most often assume springs from some sort of impulse to practice a type of documentary or post-confessional poetics. And perhaps it does, but the poet isn’t necessarily the subject of that documentary. Interestingly, in the few poems in my book that do spring from a documentary impulse, I do not feel any obligation at all to the literal truth. My obligation is to a sense of unflinching honesty that convinces the reader to make the investment in the book. Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote that criticism’s goal was to complete the text, but since I am a writer first and scholar second, I have an extraordinarily ambivalent relationship to the practice of biographical literary criticism. To me, trying to map the actual life of an author or a poet on to a text not only defeats the purpose of reading, but it’s a perverse and lazy way to approach a text. Biography informs the text, but it doesn’t complete it.
Is this a narrative poem?
Perhaps. If it is, it contains narrative only in the sense that it is an extended synecdoche and the reader is invited to complete the narrative. Though I return to the subject matter later in the book in a poem called "Wild Gift," and that poem is more a traditional narrative. The original title of "Wild Gift" was "Fixing (Reprise)" but I already had a poem in the book called "Luckless Age (Slight Return)" so I thought maybe I was better off limiting myself to one inside reference to 1960s classic albums per book.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Again, the answer varies. When I was eighteen, I had this horrific summer job raising money for progressive political organizations. One night after work, a few of us went out for beers in the Georgetown section of DC, and my boss, his name was Pete, said to me on the walk home, "You know, no one ever knocks on your door at three in the morning with a twelve-pack once you’re married and 26." And he said it with the most complete air of defeat I’d ever heard. Many years later, as a grad student at Iowa, those 3 a.m. visits and phone calls were a part of the landscape. After one particularly brutal workshop, a guy named Thomas Derr came up to me and quoted a sentence from one of my stories back at me. And he said, "Anybody who can write a sentence like that is going to go a long way." Of course, there might have been beer involved in this discussion, but I took it to mean this: if one person can read this and want to share it with someone in the middle of the night, then maybe I’ve done my job. Also, if you are knocking on the door at 3 a.m., you damn well better not come empty handed.
What is American about this poem?
It’s pretty much all-American I think, with all the contradictions that implies. For all of the contemporary discussions about what America is and isn’t, I think it’s important to remember that we are a nation built on a foundation of shame. When John Winthrop gave his sermon to the members of the Massachusetts Bay company, he wasn’t speaking to victims of persecution or even idealists who saw themselves as the foundation of the American project. Rather, the Puritans were people who believed that the Church of England and the Crown were possessed of a decaying moral authority that would soon be insufficient to govern. Even at the remove of four centuries, we are still shackled to that shrill Puritan voice in our national dialogue. The voice that tells this poem struggles with his own shame, but in his heart, he knows everyone else has such secrets, too.