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.