Monday, May 16, 2011

Justin Evans Talks about His New Book "Town for Trees"

During National Poetry Month, I was lucky not only to be able to be one of the first to read Justin Evans' Town for Trees, but to also interview him via e-mail.  What follows is the second of a two part interview; the first part, which focuses on background and more general writing issues, is here.  This second part focuses more specifically about Town for Trees.  Be sure to go here to order your very own copy.  You can read my review here and Sandy Longhorn reviewed the book here.  Justin blogs here, where you can find all sorts of information and links.

I've put my questions in bold type. Justin's answers follow.

1. These poems have magnificent landscapes as backdrop and even as main characters, in a way. Did you purposefully write the landscape as a character? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of poets who write about landscapes and nature?

Thank you for saying so. Yes, I wanted the town and the landscape to be as important as any other character in the book. It was important to me because I identify so much of who I am as a person, as a human being with Springville, Utah.

It was my dear friend and mentor, Dave Lee, who first made it clear that I was allowed to use landscape in such a way. His book, My Town, had just come out when I arrived at Southern Utah University. That book is narrative, and centered on people, but there are also some amazing connections to the landscape. Not being a narrative poet, I started writing lyric poems about the people I knew and also the places I knew.

I don't know how much of an established tradition there is for poets who write about landscape. First, there is a strong argument to be made that American poets are, for the most part rooted in place as a theme. Certainly you have Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams who are recognized as focusing on place, but I would be a fool to try and insinuate myself into their company. I prefer to name poets like Dave, William Kloefkorn, Ted Kooser, Gary Short, and others. And while I am not anywhere near them in talent, I feel much more comfortable aligning myself with them. Finally, I think there is a lot stronger tradition amongst prose writers who seem to decide on place as a theme. I think with this book, there is a part of me who is trying to respond in kind to the American tradition of identifying with a specific geographic location.

2. Do you think you'd have written the same poems if you had never left the area?

Absolutely not. There is no doubt in my head these poems would not have been written if had never left Springville. I think I would never have started to contextualize Springville in the elegiac tradition without having left it and felt some kind of yearning to return. In my absence, or more correctly Springville's absence from me, I began to idealize the town, the people, the surrounding landscape. Whenever I returned there was always something lacking, as is natural, and that reality began to seed in my mind. It was only a matter of time until the poems started to form from that dissatisfaction.

3. Are you describing a town that still exists? The poems had a sort of tone of elegy about them. I wondered if you were writing about what you see as lost.

Yes and no. The town of Springville, Utah, is quite real, and I am certain if a stranger was to arrive they would see a small town and think it to be quite charming. On the other hand, the town I wrote about is lost in the past, and you would have to have had some prior experience with Springville to be able to match the poems in my book to the real town.

Next, as I implied in my previous answer, you are correct. The book is an elegy of sorts. Structurally speaking, I take my lead from John Milton's "Lycidas," which is elegy and pastoral in nature. I think it only natural that on some level we look back, trying to recapture what has been lost, and failing that, accept there are some things beyond our control.

4. As I was reading your poems, I was thinking of the current younger generation and wondering what kind of poems they'd write in our modern age, when towns (in terms of buildings) are so homogenized--you can find a Super Wal-Mart even in small communities of 6,000 people.

I think the homogeny of suburbia and commercial architecture is mostly fashion and in the end, not something to really be worried about. In thirty years, Wal-Marts will look entirely different. I also think poets find a way to contextualize their surroundings, whether they be rural like mine were, or urban, or even ticky-tacky suburbs. I just hope their poems are good---the subject matter is of less importance to me.

5. I also thought of younger/future poets in our age of global climate upheaval (I was reading in the aftermath of the terrible tornadoes) and wondering if climate change will affect the landscape/nature poems they will write. Any comments? Has global climate change affected the poems that you've been writing as you've gotten older?

As environment becomes more important, there will of course be more poems about that. What is of greater importance is that the poems be genuine, honest. If anything is to be said on this matter, it should be that craft can be learned and honed, but it takes a lot more work to learn how to be honest with yourself and the reader, and a dishonest poem will always fail. By dishonest, I mean a poem which is written by a poet trying to figure out what somebody wants to hear as opposed to writing what needs to be written. I know because I have written far too many of them. No matter the subject, a poet's allegiance should always be to the poem.

As for my own poems, I doubt I will ever really write many poems about global warming. I tend to look back with my poems, trying to avoid current events. Still, I may in the future if I feel compelled enough.

6. On your blog, you've talked about the narrative arc of this book. Obviously, it's not a narrative arc like you'd find in a novel. Any comments about how you put the book together?

I will revert to my blog to answer some of this:

First, a narrative arc is more than a hook upon which to hang your poems. Poetry at its very center must remain, as my friend and mentor Dave Lee has said, a participation sport. It is not, as the Moderns would suggest, art for art’s sake. The audience is not superfluous. Poetry must be shared, and in that sharing, a story is the poet’s best bet.

There must be a reason all of these poems are in one place. To accomplish a successful narrative arc, I advocate the hidden narrative--- the story only the poet knows. Yes, I think the best way to use the narrative arc is to use it during the writing of poems for a manuscript and then destroy it, revealing only that information the poet deems absolutely necessary. My narrative is just for me.  I think this for several specific reasons.

--The reader wants a narrative, but if the poet gives too much information by exposing said narrative, the reader will be able to predict what is going to happen. Where is the surprise in a collection of poems if the reader knows what is coming? The poet should make the reader feel as if each poem was a natural fit after or during the reading, not reveal everything ahead of time.

--By obliquely attacking the subject of the book, we preserve the impact. Every poet knows the best way to kill a poem is to attack the issue head on. Billy Collins discusses this when talking about his poem, “The Death of the Hat,” which is a poem he wrote while trying to come to terms with the death of his father. If he would have written a straight forward elegy, he would risk making the poem come off as weird, overly sentimental. As it is, he was able to use the disappearance of the hat from popular male culture to discuss weightier issues such as the passing of an era, a simpler time, and at the same time, incorporate memories of his father.

--The poet needs to keep his/her options open. Nothing is worse than one poem saying one thing, and another saying something contradictory. By keeping the narrative hidden from the reader, you can move in and out of the boundaries which confine the short story, getting rid of suspension of disbelief while all the time giving the crowd what it wants---a really great story.

This manuscript started much larger than it ended up being because I believe in over-writing and I had written plenty of poems about Springville. I started cutting and re-arranging the poems and I kept going until I felt I had a pretty good manuscript which followed my beliefs. Then I sent it to another poet who told me to cut even more. Some were easy cuts and others were really frightening, but it's what the book needed. After I made about 90% of the cuts and edits which were suggested to me, the book was ready.

7. I love the cover photo. How did you decide on the cover? Did the press ask you to come up with a cover or did you approach them?

Michael Czarnecki at Foothills Publishing asked me to send any photos I had which I would be willing to have as cover art, and since the book had been accepted by another press and dropped, the cover was something I was already thinking about. I sent him several photographs, and he sent back several proof covers which varied the picture and color of cover stock and fonts. The one he bound as a proof copy was the one both me and my wife immediately liked best.

8. I notice lots of rivers, lots of drowning. I'm still puzzling over the meaning. Any comments?

Some, yes. Springville got its name from all of the springs. The original name of the town was Hobble Creek, and it was named that because the first settlers kept waking to find their horses down at the small creek, hobbles and all. Water is a big part of the town I knew as a child. As for the rest, I'd rather let you draw your own conclusions.

9.  The book isn't in sections, and I wondered what led you to that decision.

The book is a tricky thing. Not my book--just the book in general. I know a lot of poets swear by sections, but the truth is, just as the poet owes devotion to the poem, I owed it to the book to remain true to its character, and without a reason, an actual solid argument for sections, I said to myself the book needs to be presented as a single unit. That isn't to say I hold to that for everything. My second manuscript is broken into four sections---two shorter sections, one at each end, and then two longer sections in the middle. The wonderful thing about poetry books is no two should ever be alike

10. For readers who don't know, could you please talk about your process for finding a publisher for this book and the route from manuscript to book?

I submitted to several contests, but I wanted to actually only submit to presses where I thought me and my book would be a good fit. I think that's the really important thing. I researched presses and found those which fit, and sent my manuscript in and waited. There is a lot of waiting.

After a year and a half or so of submitting my manuscript in what was its final form, I submitted to a press I saw via Facebook, and just like that it was accepted. Unfortunately, money got in the way. The editor asked about an electronic book publishing, but I refused. A short while after that I submitted to Foothills Publishing and my book was picked up again.

11. Now you've published 3 chapbooks and one full-size book. What's your next project? Will the publisher of your current book be interested in it or are you starting from scratch?

I've completed another full length manuscript, based in part on the Telemachy, which is the first four books of Homer's Odyssey. The poems in this current new manuscript of mine are entirely different than what is in my book, Town for the Trees. They are so far out from my usual voice and scope I am still wondering if they are any good at all. I also want to write a book of narrative poems about Springville, telling man of the stories I heard as a child but also create narrative poems about the town being settled.

12. There aren't many books of poems that get published without a contest or a reading fee any more. Any comments on the current state of publishing?

It's difficult, for sure. With the economy the way it is, and trends in electronic and self publishing, there are fewer and fewer options for the poet to do things the way they were done even ten years ago. I am old fashioned. I wanted a real book in my hand, not a digital pdf file, and that's why I waited it out. I have seen a few poets self publish and make a success of it, but I am not that kind of poet. I am still a hold out for the traditional system of submit and fail, submit and fail, submit and fail, until you succeed.

There is good news, however. There are a lot more places publishing. There are a lot more micro presses willing to do what they love, and success may be simply a matter of finding the right fit. By the way, the real secret is editors have always published what they like.


Kathleen said...

Ah! And Hobble Creek is his magazine! Loved reading the rest of this interview, and thanks for doing it, you two! I appreciate the wisdom and patience here!

Jim Murdoch said...

I have a friend who is working on his first collection and I've just sent him a link to this and told him to note Question 6. "There must be a reason all of these poems are in one place." says it all. I couldn't have said it better.

Robby said...

Being a young poet, this is getting me thinking as well. Justin is a great poet. I can't wait to read this.