Saturday, August 22, 2015

Interview with Drew Dillhunt

Note: This interview was conducted by email in August, 2015.]

Your father, CX Dillhunt, is also a poet. Would you tell us about your early exposure to poetry, some of the poets and/or poems that influenced you as a child?
     Yeah, poetry was just a regular fixture of our household. The exposure began pretty much from day one, which is funny because in some ways I ended up mildly rebelling against poetry, and then coming back to it. For a long time I considered myself a singer-songwriter, not a poet. Poetry was my dad’s thing and music was mine. But poetry has a way of sneaking up on you and taking over.
     When I was studying at Goddard College, lots of other poets were talking about how their parents were so disappointed and worried about how they would ever get a real job. Meanwhile, at this same time, I was getting box after box of poetry books in the mail from my father. Needless to say he was pretty excited.
     I recently came across a copy of Chrysalis, a student literary magazine from the University of Illinois that my father was the poetry editor of while working on his masters in educational administration. I pulled it out and read my father’s poem, then flipped to the back and discovered that I was listed as one of the donors supporting the magazine. The issue was from 1976, when I was a one-year-old. So that may be the earliest instance of exposure I can cite.
     My father certainly read poetry to me, took me to readings, and encouraged me to create my own poetry from the moment I could hold a writing implement. Even so, poetry was always more about learning to be in the world—an ongoing practice—than something that needed to be learned or taught.
     There’s a family story about me sitting at the picnic table in the backyard, coloring and drawing with a friend. His father was a chemist. Both of us held up our drawings, and our parents asked us what they were. My friend, Ben, said, “It’s a molecule.” Then I said, “It’s a poem.”

Several of the poems in Leaf is All are persona poems in the voice of your father. How collaborative a process was this? Did you look at journals and poems of his for raw material or draw from family stories or what? And did you invite him to critique the poems in terms of getting the details right?
     My father was very much involved, though it was more of an oral history interview than a poetic collaboration. The seven-part poem “Numerology” developed out of a series of persona poems I began writing in a poetry workshop with Frank X Walker at the University of Minnesota on conjuring authentic voices in historical poetry (that my father and I attended together).
     The first poem in the series, which I eventually cut from the manuscript, was a poem called “Locket”—a persona poem written in the voice of a heart-shaped locket my father gave my mother on Valentine’s Day, 1976. That quickly led to another poem written in the voice of my father, following a short interview with him one night, about purchasing the locket. While neither of those poems made it into the final version of Leaf is All, they were the precursors to “Numerology.”
     That fall, I spent many hours on the phone—usually while walking around Seattle—interviewing my mother and father about their memories of a car accident that happened just prior to their wedding in 1970, and stopping frequently to take notes. The accident resulted in my mother being hospitalized for several months in Chilton, Wisconsin, the town nearest to the site of the accident. My father ended up renting an apartment and getting a job at an aluminum factory in the area and my parents were married in the hospital room.
     It was a story I had heard many, many times growing up, but as I began to delve into family histories, I realized I didn’t really know any of the details. And I also realized that my father, who writes his life through poetry, hadn’t yet written any poems, that I knew of, about those particular events. In terms of the poetic process, I used the details I collected to begin writing the poems. In some cases, the words in the poem are direct quotes from my father; in other cases, they’re words I imagined him saying or thinking. But certainly all of the details in these poems came directly from my parents’ memories.
     Both of my parents have read the poem, in various iterations, and have offered insights—factual corrections or additional details. However, I think all three of us understood from the outset—though we never talked about it explicitly—that the voice of poem was a conjuring of my father’s voice. So the poetic decisions are very much all mine (although, of course, much of my poetics has been learned from my father).
     I think the research and writing of this poem ended up offering all three of us an opportunity to dig into the details of a story that is part of our family mythology, and to talk about it in the kind of exacting detail that there’s rarely an opportunity for. This process of collecting and arranging the poetry of my parents’ story was an extraordinary experience.
     My role as the poet in this poem was fundamentally curatorial, but as with any good curator, my own perspective is the foundation of the arrangement of words and ideas I chose to present. In becoming my father, he also of course became me.

How did you evolve the idea of incorporating patent language into poems? How much did you dicker with it? And please say a little bit, in layman’s terms, about those patent numbers your friend the statistician drew up toward the book’s end.
     The concept of using patent language arose while I was writing the plastics series that also appears in the manuscript. The idea there was to use each of the seven categories of recyclable plastics as a launchpad for discussing the effects plastic is having on the ecosystems of our planet and our bodies. I expected the poems to be quite negative, but I quickly found myself exploring my feelings about, memories of, and attachments to plastic as a material—which were much more positive than I’d expected, or even wanted to admit. The poems quickly morphed from a purely objective documentation of the material’s impact on biological systems to incorporate an exploration of my own personal responses to the materials. For me, these responses and triggers were a rough way of beginning understand the depth to which this rather new material—for better or worse—has shaped not only the biological systems on our planet, but also our ways of thinking and connecting with one another.
     As I began to explore these responses, the Mold-A-Rama machine, which molds a plastic toy while you watch, kept resurfacing. I have vivid memories from my childhood of putting quarters into those machines at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI, and holding a nearly molten plastic gorilla in a napkin while it cooled. I began doing some research on the machine, and quickly discovered that there are lots of other folks out there with fond memories of the machines. On the very first collector’s site I investigated I came across not only the patent language but also an original copy of the owner’s manual. I couldn’t resist.
     In terms of how much I dickered with the language, I used an objectivist approach roughly modeled on the way Charles Reznikoff handled legal excerpts in his book Testimony. While I didn’t modify the language or rewrite it in any way, I did very much read through the patent and identify the language that I found to be the most resonant, for whatever reason. I established, and abided by, to the best of my knowledge, the following three rules for myself as I worked to trim the language, for poetic effect, to a single page:
1) Language may be cut, but not reordered,
2) Sections may be cut, but not reordered,
3) No new language may be inserted; excepting names, dates, and numbers, which may be replaced, but not reordered.
Once I’d narrowed down the patent to the language that resonated for me, I reread my newly trimmed excerpts, responded to them poetically, and tagged these onto the relevant language as footnotes.
     Initially, I’d made up the additional patent numbers that appear in the last section of the poem next to the names of three generations of my family—the original patent didn’t have enough numbers cited for the number of family members I wanted to list (so I bent rule number three a bit here, and probably elsewhere as well).
     I’d always thought of these numbers roughly as population numbers. When Seattle poet Kary Wayson read the manuscript she asked me if the numbers were real. When I explained that they weren’t she told me they should be, and I couldn’t resist the challenge.
     My friend, statistician Chris Shuck, helped me to estimate, with ridiculous precision (and questionable accuracy), world population figures for the date of birth of each of the family members I’d inserted into the patent language. I certainly didn’t expect how staggering I would find it to see world population growth lined up with the birth dates of my family members. It’s about as personal as a scientific model can be.

I am fascinated by the many ways your poems explore generation. Even the book’s title stems from a book of Goethe’s, The Metamorphosis of Plants.
     I didn’t set out to write a book focusing on generation—in fact, I think my original intention was closer to “concept album.” The series of poems entitled “Leaf is All” are actually among the youngest poems in the collection. I really only came to the conclusion that this was the thrust of the book when I was in the midst of the final revision (of many) last year—which is also when the title was changed from Materials Science to Leaf is All.
     It was reading Goethe’s book, and poem, entitled The Metamorphosis of Plants that really cemented my understanding of my own poems. So it felt right to use a modified Goethe quote to title my book. And of course there are also hints of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Williams’ Spring and All nested in that title, both of which have heavily influenced my poetry. Those are also two poets my father names among the writers that taught him poetry—so there’s the idea of generation all over again.

Monday, February 2, 2015

We have a winner!

I'm happy to announce that this year's winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize is Drew Dillhunt of Seattle. His manuscript Leaf Is All will be published this fall. It was a great pleasure to read through the many fine submissions we received this year. If you sent one, thank you!

Monday, December 15, 2014

In which the editor is interviewed

The fine folks at Late Night Library, "where literature never sleeps," were kind to offer me some space to talk about Bear Star and the book biz, which of course gave me yet another opportunity to rant about Amazon as well. You can read my interview here.

In other news, I am about halfway through screening this year's pile of manuscripts, if a mostly online trove can be called a pile. Although the number of contest entries is down a bit from previous years I'm finding stronger work overall. And with the storms sweeping through California this year it's pretty much pure pleasure to simply sit by the woodstove and read poetry. Thanks to everyone who submitted. I hope to pass the finalists on to my stalwart judges by early January and be able to announce a winner by month's end, early February by the latest.

By the way, I realize not everyone likes to submit manuscripts online, but it's much more convenient for those of us who live in rural areas where one's mailbox is out on the main road. Submittable saves me a lot of time and paper and I've been very happy with their service, which also spares me from having to deal with submissions like this one, which didn't even contain any poetry and was out of geographic range to boot. But hey, I'm sure I needed that info sheet on lice.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Attention, people in the Missoula vicinity: Melissa Mylchreest will be reading from Waking the Bones this Saturday evening, September 13, 7 pm, at Shakespeare & Company, along with poet Chris Dombrowski. You won't want to miss this! There's a nice little review of her book here in the Montana Independent:

And here's an interview with Melissa conducted a few months ago as we were preparing the book.

Q: Though you were raised in Connecticut you now live in Montana. Would you talk about the aspects of these very different places, how they’ve shaped you?
     Sure. I’m a 13th-generation New Englander on my dad’s side - our ancestors arrived in Massachusetts in 1635. I grew up surrounded by the stories and ghosts of generations of family, which I think fundamentally shaped the way I thought not only about history, but about myself. I feel linked and accountable to all of these ancestors, for better or worse. I was steeped in “Yankee” traits: self-sufficiency, quality craftsmanship, hard work, humility. I can be reserved and quiet, which I definitely get from that side. My mom’s side is Italian and Sicilian; from that side I get a love of cooking, and a propensity for hanging around in the kitchen with other women, telling stories. Also, silliness, a fierce loyalty to family, and a fondness for wine.
     But the West had always been calling to me (perhaps because of all those “Go West”-type books that I read as a child), and when I started applying to graduate schools, I only looked beyond the hundredth meridian. I wound up at the environmental writing master’s program at the University of Montana in Missoula in 2006, and, although I had every intention of returning east on the completion of my degree, I stayed put. It took a while for me to learn to love Montana, but now that I’ve been here for eight years, I am infatuated with the place. It has made me understand myself much more completely, and I think I understand the world better for having lived here. I appreciate the independence of people here, and the community. I don’t have to pretend that I’m somebody else here.

Q: At some point you decided to get a second degree, in poetry and nonfiction. Why? 
     I decided to pursue my MFA at the University of Montana mostly on a whim; I was only working part-time, and I thought if I could get a teaching assistantship to cover my tuition, another degree might be worth having. Though both of my advanced degrees are in writing programs, I focused my studies pretty heavily outside of the programs: I took extensive classes in environmental studies, Native American studies, literature, anthropology, archaeology, and history of the American West.

Q: And somewhere along the way you picked up a little Arapaho as well. How did that happen?
     I took a couple of semesters of Arapaho here at the University of Montana. The professor (Arapaho himself) has developed his own version of an immersion language program, and for me it worked really well. I loved learning it, and the very different worldview that is necessary to understand it. For instance, Arapaho contains different verb forms for animate and inanimate objects. This is fine and all, until you realize that so many things are animate in the Arapaho worldview - cars, trains, trees, water. It’s fascinating.

Q: Yes, and speaking of fascinating, you have synesthesia. Please talk a little about how that affects your own worldview.
     I see all letters, words, and numbers as colors. I have a hard time remembering peoples’ names if the color of their name doesn’t seem to be right for them. On the other hand, I often forget names, but can remember the color of the name, which helps me recall. For instance, if I’ve forgotten Joe’s name, I’ll likely remember that it’s sort of blue-green. The word and the color are inextricable from one another, so it’s hard to describe to other people how it actually works, and it’s hard, in some ways, even to be consciously aware of it.  I know I’ve always been this way, though. I remember having alphabet magnets on the fridge when I was a little kid and being a little irritated that they were the wrong colors. Which is weird, thinking that perhaps the letters had colors before I even knew how the letters worked.
     Incidentally, I think synesthesia, at least the kind I have, can be really useful for language acquisition, especially if you’re learning a language orally, without books. That’s how I was learning Arapaho, and I leaned really heavily on color-memory to remember words phonetically. What really threw me off, though, was when I started to explore written Arapaho a little bit - the alphabet is the same, but the sounds are a little different, and I was totally lost! For instance, the verb phrase “to fly by” in my mind sounded like “jebEEohut” but in Arapaho it’s spelled “cebihohut” - the “c” sounds more like a “j”, so I hear the word as blue-green, because that’s the color “j” is. But “c” is yellow in my head, which changes the color of the whole word, and screws things up. Complicated!

Q: What poets do you turn to for inspiration?
     There are a handful of poets I love and read often. Richard Hugo is near the top of the list, and not just because he’s Missoula’s darling. I like the way his gruff, conversational aesthetic takes these unexpected, elegant turns toward grace. I like how he inhabits meter in a roguish way, and talks about the spirit without sounding precious. He’s so completely human - flawed, haunted, crass, hopeful, hopeless, not so broken that he isn’t struck by beauty. Other poets I really appreciate, and I return to again and again include Jim Harrison, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Melissa Kwasny, Merrill Gilfillan, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lucille Clifton, Pamela Alexander, Gary Snyder. And the ancient Chinese rivers-and-mountains poets, like T’ao Ch’ien and Han Shan.
     I’m a big fan of some of the newer generation of American poets, too: Joe Wilkins and Chris Dombrowski are two that I read a lot during the writing of my manuscript, maybe because they write about Montana, too. I just discovered Mary Szybist, following her National Book Award win, and I really like her as well. Mostly I think I carry around memories of specific poems that I’ve read and long since lost track of, and I use those for inspiration. I also glean inspiration from novels - those by Louise Erdrich, Debra Magpie Earling, and Carolyn Chute come to mind - and nonfiction, too: scientific articles, the newspaper, public radio.

Q: How did you become interested in geomancy? Did the process of writing the Messenger series lead you to favor a particular figure? If so, which one and why?
     Several months ago I wanted to challenge myself to write a really long poem, and, as I rooted around for ideas, the word “geomancy” kept popping into my head, and it wouldn’t go away.  So I started researching geomancy, and it seemed like as good a framework as any for a long poem: sixteen figures, all related in some regard, but all representing different views of the world. There are a lot of different types of geomantic practices, associated with many different cultures. That’s part of what I thought was so interesting and what made writing the poem really fun: I was able to pull characters and attributes from different cultures. Each figure is also associated with different parts of the body, and with different characteristics (good luck, bad luck, etc.) as well as different elements (earth, air, fire, water). Each section of the poem is more or less the result of my overall impression of the research I did on that figure - so the sections don’t really represent anything other than a character I created out of certain attributes that I found compelling.
     I don’t know that I have a favorite, although, while all the figures are separate, I imagine them all inhabiting the same world, and some of the sections may even represent the same “people” at different stages of their lives. I say this because I kept coming back to these twins - when I realized it, I sort of began to think of the poem as being snapshots of some epic tale in which twins are born, grow up, and carry out some mission while meeting the other figures along the way.

Q:  The writer Rebecca Solnit speaks of “a nature that tells its own stories and colors ours, a nature we are losing without knowing even the extent of that loss” (A Field Guide to Getting Lost). You have a degree in environmental writing. In terms of where you now make your home, can you comment on the ways it’s changed over time, what it’s lost or is in danger of losing?
      There is a lot at stake here in western Montana, a lot to lose, and a lot we have already lost. We’ve fragmented habitat, fouled our water with mining runoff, logged irresponsibly (mostly in the past), polluted our air, left heavy metals in our soils, introduced non-native species of all kinds, mismanaged both predators and game species, drastically altered natural fire regimes, and melted our glaciers. And these are all really lousy, awful things. We’re losing something else too, though. Put succinctly, I’d say we’re losing the ways of life that connect people to the natural landscape. Whether it’s a rancher whose family-run operation is no longer economically viable, or a tribal member whose cultural connection to the landscape has been severed, I see it all over Montana.
     For me, this is a really important part of the equation. I don’t believe in an environmental ethic that excludes people - I believe that in order to fully appreciate - and protect - nature, we need to have a reciprocal, attentive relationship to it, whether through work, spiritual practice, aesthetic appreciation, recreation, whatever. If we want to save a place, we need to save the people of that place, too. And, I think here in Montana, we’re seeing daily evidence that this approach works. Collaborative conservation efforts, divergent viewpoints, people coming to the table and talking, landscapes being protected - things are happening because finally, folks have wised up and realized that this is an environmental story and a human story. It’s not just environmentalists versus hunters, conservationists versus ranchers, it’s Montanans agreeing that this place is special, and being willing to compromise their very human beliefs for the sake of a healthy, sustainable landscape. We’re never going to save the world from ourselves if we don’t start talking to each other first.
     On top of all that, I believe we have a deep and basic connection to the natural world, if only we’d let ourselves remember it. I don’t know if we still can. But I hope so.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Late Night Library



I'm really happy with Late Night Library's recent podcast that featured Josh Booton's debut collection, The Union of Geometry & Ash, as well as an interview with him. LNL's Amanda McConnon and Kristin Maffei are superb analysts whose fast-paced back 'n' forth on the text was a smart delight. I happened to listen while taking a break from AWP in Seattle last week. As they parsed his wonderful poem "Finches" I lay on my rented bed on the tenth floor of the Westin and watched seagulls wheeling amid the skyscrapers. It made the whole day for me, especially considering that book sales this year were rather dismal. I foolishly thought I had chosen a table site that would give people a chance to chat without feeling hemmed in. It turned out to be in Timbuktu. If anyone reading this blog would like to purchase a book--any book--at the special bookfair rate of 50%, send me an email letting me know you saw the note here, and I'll get one off to you ASAP. bethannspencer [at] ye old gmail.com.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Once upon a time, he called it Relentless.com

Please don't TL;DR this one. If you care about the future of books, this is worth your time.
You're welcome.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mmmmmmm!

We're full up here at Bear Star--with all the too much we're still feeding on after Thanksgiving, and with a pile of delectable manuscripts to finish reading over the next several weeks. Thank you to everyone who submitted! We'll let you know as soon as we have a winner. Meanwhile, we simply can't stop laughing at this.