Monday Jul 22

Anderson Eric Anderson is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts and his first full-length collection of poetry, The Parable of the Room Spinning, is now available from Kattywompus Press. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, Artful Dodge, and Prairie Schooner, among others. He is currently a contributing editor at Conte and teaches as an adjunct instructor at various colleges and universities.
Eric Anderson interview, with Adam Tavel
Your new book, The Parable of the Room Spinning, explores a wide array of forms and tones. You have confessional narrative, magic realism, and political invective all spinning together (bad pun intended). How did you reconcile these various aspects of your poetic voice when you were assembling the collection?
I’m sure everybody feels this way, but I struggled with trying to put the poems in a manuscript. Of course, I didn’t think I was struggling at the time, but looking back I can see why I had such a hard time. I think I was trying to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when all I really needed was something to keep out the rain.
The first trap is one of identity; I kept imagining myself as all these different kinds of poets. At first I wanted to be the quirky, funny, nice-guy poet who also has a dark twist. After that, I wrote a lot of Edson/Simic/Tate poems, which I really enjoyed. Then after being in a bunch of workshops—there was one in particular where the instructor was particularly cruel to the students since we started with something like forty people and on the last night there were five of us left—I tried to write more lyrically, that whole every-line-has-to-be-as-good-as-the-best-line crap which I hate to this day. After that, when it became obvious just how shitty the world was becoming post-9/11, I wrote a lot of political poems, which felt good for a while. Then Bush left office and the world remained more or less troublesome and I lost my inspiration for political poems. I don’t know what I’m writing now; I tell myself I’m thinking about how the mind works, but maybe they’re all navel-gazers.
Anyway, the main point is that I tried a manuscript for all of those poetic identities. Now, a few of those poets I was pretending to be wrote some pretty good poems, but none of them wrote a whole book of good poems. Which makes sense, right? Everybody has a good political poem in them; very few of us have sixty good political poems. You can rinse and repeat that with all the other identities, too.
So, I’d get frustrated, and try to organize manuscripts that were divided up into parts: ten prose poems, ten poems about Bush, ten weird poems, ten poems that start funny and end sad. I think those manuscripts all came across as fairly schizophrenic, to borrow your term. A few of them came close at various contests, but I hate that system. I really do. And I’ve been both a victim and a beneficiary, so I feel qualified to say that contests are awful. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to win them all, but I think part of me recognizes how inherently wrong that system is. I decided I wouldn’t enter anymore contests, and I would look for a small press to call home, which was what my friend Stacie Leatherman suggested.
Again, that liberated me to stop worrying so much. This is going to sound really simple and really stupid, but I didn’t put that much thought into it because I felt this pressure to be done with something, finally. Quit worrying, love the bomb. I picked out the poems that I thought were good regardless of their so-called genres and that I still liked enough to want other people to read, which was really useful, because I could automatically exclude poems that were only connective tissue in some larger body of work. Then, I looked for some connections and anti-connections; if two poems seemed to be saying the same thing, I separated them. If they seemed to fit together in a way that wasn’t blatantly obvious, I put them back to back. As a student of literature, you know that a case can be made for just about anything. I also did really basic, practical things, like not putting long poems back to back.
That was it. No big scheme, except in the sense that I had to spend literally a whole decade trying and failing and learning from all those other attempts.
Many of the poems in The Parable of the Room Spinning—I'm thinking of “Revenge,” “Losers,” and “Stained Frances,” among others—are not only set in childhood, but take elementary school as their backdrop. Like the great mystic William Blake, I can't help but feel that you are attracted to this theme of innocence and its inevitable destruction. Do you think such poems blossom from your own childhood, your experiences as a father, your years of teaching, or all of the above?
Nothing has blossomed from my years of teaching but the misery of the adjunct teaching experience.
There’s that quote—Google says it’s from Flannery O’Connor, but that doesn’t seem right to me—about getting all the material you’ll ever need just by surviving childhood, but I hate it when the writing axioms are right. So while my childhood inevitably has something to do with my subject matter, I’m reluctant to say that’s the whole story. My childhood was pretty ordinary, except I did have a speech impediment which I think definitely shaped who I am today; that’s probably the most important thing that ever happened to me, in both good and not-so-good ways.
Being a father has influenced me, too. Every decision seems so monumental then, and you’re just getting a feel for how much kids change, even day by day. That continues, by the way. My kids are seventeen and about to head out into the world on their own. Someday soon, I won’t be relatively sure where they are or what they’re doing. Yikes. Like most writers, I’m a worrier, so that creeps into the writing, too.
I think that many of my poems come from this place of remembering when I was a kid and juxtaposing that memory over the kind of world I would like my children to experience, or juxtaposing who I was then over the person I am today. “Revenge” is a good example of that. I was with my kids and I saw the daughter of the bully from my elementary school and I had this horrible impulse which kind of made me think about these things I’d mostly forgotten about. For whatever reason, it’s that impulse which actually interests me the most. Of course I don’t really want to hurt anyone, right? But then why were such thoughts the first that came into my mind? For that one moment, at least, those thoughts were true.
All of that said, not all of the poems are autobiographical. “Stained Francis” is mostly made up, for instance, and “Losers” is probably an amalgamation of my experience and other people’s experiences. I like what David Sedaris says about his writing being true enough. And calling something non-autobiographical is really just the ultimate excuse; even if those things didn’t happen to me, they all had to have come from my experience somehow. In a purely logical way, it seems worse that I made them up. We all remember moments where we felt like we were some combination of loser/weirdo/outcast combined with heartless/bully/thug. But hopefully these are the things that make empathy possible, and empathy might be the only thing which makes the loss of innocence, or what Blake might have called the acquisition of experience, bearable. At least that’s how I’ve always thought of Blake, as suggesting that innocence isn’t necessarily a virtue and experience isn’t inherently sinful, but that the real word exists somewhere between the two. I grew up mostly hating poetry, but in high school one of my teachers gave us “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” and we read them side by side and had a very real discussion about them. Man, I loved that tiger, and that question behind both poems; how can one god create two such things? More than that, what are we supposed to do with those things and that knowledge?
While I hesitate to call The Parable of the Room Spinning a witty collection, it certainly has moments of levity (“About These Rumors I'm an Ugly Bum,” “Bird Shit”) and gallows humor (“The Problem with Bullets,” “O Beautiful, for Gracious”). What role do you see humor playing in your work?
Humor is a great way to convince the reader that they want to read all the way to the end of the poem. It’s inviting, and seems to suggest that nothing bad will happen. With my poems, this often turns out to be a terrible lie, and that’s a process I’ve struggled with. For a while, every poem did the same thing: here’s a punch line, now let’s spend twenty lines describing all the ways it isn’t really funny. That started to smack of a particular kind of gimmickry, and I was lucky enough to have a teacher point that out to me.
I think the humor actually began as a reflex. For whatever reason, I felt very anti-poetry as a teenager, and I think to this day I’m still afraid someone will find out about the poems and laugh at me. So I think trying to be funny was my way of laughing first. That way, I could stand up and say: hey, maybe you caught me writing poetry, but at least they’re funny poems! I wonder how often our subject matter comes from the attempt to justify what we’re creating?
At some point, I began to feel very anti-Billy Collins for some reason. I don’t really have anything against him, and some of his poems I like quite a bit, but I started to wonder if he ever felt trapped by the need to be clever and make people laugh. He read in the Cleveland area a couple of times and several friends who went to see him said that it was like going to see a stand-up comedian. As if that’s a good thing? I mean, the connections are all there, and I’ve always felt comedians like George Carlin or Steven Wright were writing something eerily similar to poetry, but why would that be a good thing for Collins? I can see how it’s a good thing for the audience. I’d done a few readings, and people laughed in the right places. (This is what Mick Foley would call a “cheap pop”: people at poetry events are generally so relieved that you aren’t reading about child abuse or death that they’ll laugh at anything). But then when I wrote I could feel myself fishing for gags. That idea made me uncomfortable, so I started looking for other things to do, too, and different ways to structure poems. Finding Philip Larkin helped immensely. He’s like a Jaguar to Billy Collins’ Ford Escort; when you talk about handling, Larkin can go from comedy to tragedy almost on a line-by-line basis. Of course, Larkin adding all that comedy and tragedy usually ends up in melancholy, but so it goes. I also like O’Hara. He’s great at that interplay between the honest admission that we’re all fallible and the awareness that that fallibility is often funny in some dark way.
You've mentioned that selecting a title for your collection proved particularly troublesome. How did you ultimately decide upon The Parable of the Room Spinning?
That title was a punt. I tried a lot of other things and none of them worked, or they all seemed like they were meant for something else. I had one that I thought was perfect but everybody else seemed to hate, which made me want to use it even more. The one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be the guy that couldn’t come up with a title for his own book and had to resort to stealing a title from his poems. Sigh. In the end, though, I think Sammy Greenspan at Kattywompus suggested it, and I liked how it worked with the cover art, which is one of my own prints. The poem has a brain in it, and the print has a brain, and there’s some gears, and gears spin.
One of the things that most impresses me is that you are a triple threat, working in three of the four major literary genres (poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction). Does this ever lead to moments of schizophrenia, though? Do you know instinctively or intuitively that an early draft is, say, a prose-poem rather than a short story? And if so, how?
Usually when an idea comes to me, it arrives with some sense of what it wants to be. I wish I could say I played around with ideas a lot. When I was studying at Cleveland Sate, we had a visiting writer (I can’t remember who) who claimed that she tried every idea in all four major genres: drama, fiction, memoir, poetry. That was the only way she could tell what things were supposed to be. That sounds like something out of Dante to me.
Usually the thing announces itself. If it fails spectacularly and by some miracle I’m still interested, I might try a different genre, but mostly I’m a quitter. I don’t want to suffer, so I move on to something else. Sometimes I’ll go back and steal from myself, or scavenge for parts, whatever metaphor seems to work at the time, but usually I know what I want them to be, and then they either are that thing or they aren’t.
One of the things I find most fun is not knowing what something is. Not just in writing, but just walking around in the world. I like that feeling of curiosity and discovery because usually some kind of answer presents itself. Before you know what the thing is, the possibilities are endless. Not knowing helps me to push the boundaries. Especially with prose, I like to see how far I can go before it turns into my version of poetry, whatever that is.
Initially in trying to answer this question, I thought, “Well, it’s all prose to me.” But working my way through this now, it seems like it’s all poetry. So, maybe the best answer is that I’m always confused? Or maybe it’s all just writing, you know? Let somebody else figure out what it is.
Kelly Link said one time that she thought of everything as science fiction, because that’s what she grew up reading. For me, everything is a horror story; I grew up on monster movies. I see everything through that filter. When Kelly said that, a light came on for me. Some writers might think of all writing being of a particular genre for them as a terrible trap, but for me that realization liberated me. It gave me a way to say: well, if everything is a version of this one thing, then I don’t have to worry about what it is. I can just write and have fun. As if writing is any fun!
Years ago you served as an editor forWhiskey Island Magazine, and for the past year you have been a contributing poetry editor at Conte (along with yours truly). As a reader and editor, what qualities do you seek out and/or admire in a poem? What subjects, fads, or gimmicks most frustrate you?
To be honest, I don’t know what I look for in a poem. I guess the biggest thing is that the poem has to surprise me in some way. I don’t mean it has to have a trick ending. (If there’s anything that makes me want to run screaming from the room it’s those poems where the last line springs some kind of trap on me: oh, the speaker’s a ghost! Oh, the speaker’s a dog! Oh, the speaker’s a different gender!) Something in the poem should be unusual enough to make me think about my own experiences differently. On the surface, that seems like a tall order, but I’m really easy to please. I just want to feel like I’ve come into contact with an interesting mind. I don’t really care about language. Making a big deal about language in poetry is a little bit like getting excited by the fact that baseball players are using baseballs to play their game. They’ll probably kick me out of the poetry club for saying so, but any good language in my poetry is mostly accidental. I think there’s a great Richard Hugo essay where he says something like every third or fourth word should sound similar. That’s just the way it is, he says. I often find the language of poetry the least interesting part, because so much of that just seems like word games to me unless the language is in service to the idea.
I guess for better or worse I look for poems that feel they begin with some small random thing and that through some process intrinsic to that artist’s vision, the small thing becomes larger. The poem about the bird on the branch becomes a poem about the apron your mother wore when you were little becomes the poem about soldiers in the Middle East becomes the poem about how maybe the world is/isn’t always an awful place. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world; I just want to feel like only that person at that moment could have written that poem. And then by extension, in my own place and my own time, only I could read that poem and feel however it is I’m going to feel.
There aren’t any subjects that frustrate me, but I do believe you have to approach some subjects warily. The biggest thing I took away from my time at Whiskey Island was just how many people are writing poems about cancer, or breaking up, or family issues. Those are certainly worthy subjects, but so many other people write about those things. If what you’re looking for is a way to impress an editor (and certainly that’s probably the last thing a poet should be trying to do), you have to really bring something to those poems in order to make them stand out.
As for gimmicks, I don’t know if this qualifies, but I don’t like to be stage-directed in poems. Look at the ocean. Walk across the sand. Drown in the waves. I’m sure I do this in my own poems, but that’s obviously completely different.
It’s easy to be happy; just learn to love
            sadness. For instance, whenever I’m in line
                        at Giant Eagle and read the news about
celebrity divorces, I think acting will be easier
            with all that raw material, and when the baby
                        catches his fingers between the cart and conveyer
I know all that wailing leads to kisses
            on tear-stained cheeks from the young mother
                        in her bandana and pajamas. I don’t know why
there’s no sun up in the sky, Billie Holliday, but
            only empathy outlasts pain. Ask the clerk
                        as he scans hunks of meat into plastic
bags, his bored appraisal turning like another item
            rolling down the belt towards the grand
                        collision of clearanced food stuff collecting
in the bin. There must be for him some joy
            at the shift’s end, if only at the pleasure
                        of leaving, though it’s harder to spin
something positive for those animals, cursed
            with deliciousness; I’ve never eaten a rabbit
                        but if you were food for every claw and fang
you’d get good at fucking, too. As always, I save my best
            empathy for myself, trapped in line
                        with the baby and now the mother
crying, too, the ancient arrival of the old
            woman who bumps my heels with her cart,
                        the clerk yawning at me, the world
going so silent and still for a moment
            I think he wants to swallow me whole.
                        No escape. Having nowhere to go
is just like being dead, and I am
            unto the void, I am unto Death
                        as I watch the conveyor grind on
and on, black tongue, metal teeth, dark mouth.
Tank Man

What happened to him
            no one knows,
having stood down
            the column of tanks
only to be

            whisked away
by a man on a bike and two
            men in blue overalls:
Public Security
            Bureau.  If you live

in China and Google
            Tiananmen Square, you get
pictures of American
            tourists, smiling, or some
loose information,

            accrued to the bottom
of the screen, a statistic,
            the acreage, a schedule
of events which
            already happened.


Tank Man waves
            back tanks, June 4th
1989.  Half my life
            ago, and now this girl
in her Tank Man

            t-shirt.  Then I was
nineteen. Nineteen
            Eighty Nine—the number,
another summer, Chuck
            D, Public Enemy, and on

the screen Rosie Perez wears
            boxing gloves, her stomach
thrusting in out in,
            our protest with dancing
girl, all bass and tank-

            top, so American.
No tanks to stop in
            the street but a song,
at least, a hook, a chorus,
            something to sing

on the way to work.
            Would you like
to make that
            a value


Only once did they show
            Tank Man’s image on
Chinese television, and then
            to celebrate the great

            of the People’s Army,
the commander not running him
            down, the blue men
jamming their hands under
            Tank Man’s arms, carrying

him out of range of the Western
            cameras bearing down
from the Beijing Hotel, the Bureau
            storming the reporter’s room
but missing the undeveloped

            film stashed in the back
of a toilet, and Tank Man
            yanked along into a cell, a muzzle
thrust against the base of his skull.  
            Have you ever

been carried that way?  
            Your toes just touch
the ground and you’re
            almost walking, almost
not being dragged.


If you live
            in the States and Google
Tiananmen Square you get
            images of Tank Man

on posters, on hats, on coffee
            mugs, mouse pads.  Click
here to see available sizes;
            to get expedited
shipping, click here.


Tank Man and I meet
            for breakfast.  He’s drinking
OJ, lots of it, freshly
            pulped.  He gulps and
gulps, frantic for more,

            the way a fish suffocates
in the air.  We don’t have
            this, he says, this is why
I stopped the tanks, this
            freedom.  The juice pours  

through a hole in the back
            of his neck, a neat little
spout, and he’s motioning
            to the waitress, he’s reaching
for my glass.


Of course, he could have
            survived, the men in blue
his good friends
            from the office, the bicycle
borrowed by a brother,

            who heard what was
happening, who said, He’s done
            what? and pedaled as
if climbing invisible stairs, as if
            he could pump his legs until
he flew, and what did

it matter, stopping those tanks?  
            A moment
or two, a few thousand
            dead students in the square,
the soldiers always
            arriving on time.


Cuz the D is for Dangerous
            you can come and get
some of this, and so I believed
            in the church of
Chuck, having heard

            him explain away
hatred, and anti-Semitism, and
            media manipulation,
in medias res, and how
            in America when you get close

to the truth, the Powers that Be
            invent a new truth, and find
in your past some reason you should
            be hated as well,
so there is no truth

            only endless argument.
My fries come extra large with a drink
            the size of my head.


The first Bush called him
            a hero, practically
American, though the second
            Bush might be like
those students in China

            who, when shown the famous
photograph of Tank Man,
            asked if this was something
staged, or Photoshopped,
            or someone’s idea of Art.


Tank Man and I meet
            for breakfast.  He’s brought
his briefcase, beside
            him in the booth, forearm
resting on the handle as he chews.

            I can’t tell what
he’s thinking.  The waitress clears
            our dishes and he opens
the case, brings out

            some brochures from the travel
agency.  See China, the pamphlets
            read, yellow and red letters,
and Beautiful Tiananmen
            Square, the largest
public space in the world,
            and beneath that
a picture of the two of us, my arm
            slung around his shoulder,
the sun bright, our eyes,

shut at the wrong moment.


To be American, Tank Man must die
            and not in some
anonymous cell,
            but right in front of us,
run down in the street.  That’s how

            I thought they’d killed him,
and prefer to think,
            having but one life, brought forth,  
asking not, mission accomplished.
            Worst of all, to have him survive,

a job in an office, some forms
            to file, the bubbling cooler
of water, White-Out, Solitaire,  
            the flinch of memory
so distant it might belong

            to someone else.  Like us,
he shrugs. I was nineteen, crazy,
            they didn’t, thank God,
kill me.  And back to his cubicle,
            left-clicking, right-clicking,

and on ordered streets driving
            home, past the American
Legion, the machines of war
            on display, olive drab and rust
on the front yard, the neighborhood

            kids in full sweat.  They climb
the sides and hull and over each
            other, hand by hand, grappling
up the turret to launch
            themselves from the black-mouth

barrel, then fall, all joy,
            down into the yielding grass,
where they laugh, panting,  
            beneath the steel
loom of the treads.

How the Ghosts Learned to Dance
I must have been seven when my parents took me
            to stand along the wall of mirrors while couples stepped on
                        and off the numbered footsteps, the arrows
            twirling them through lines and loops while the nice
                                                woman in the flowered dress counted
                        one two three, one two three,
                                                and I’d like to pretend
                        I had some childish insight about those stick-on feet, every one
                                    a birthday on the floor so by the end of the tune
                                                my mother and father would have
                                    crumbled to dust,
                                                or just as well
            the numbers could fall away like a birthday’s opposite
                        while my parents stumbled into some sweet
                                                                        and happy toddler dance, but
                                                probably I just stood and listened,
                        one two three, one two three,
                                    to songs I didn’t like and felt bored and wished for some Marvel
                        comics to read, though I hope the memory I have
                                                of how my parents looked at each other, awkward
                                                            from face to floor, is at least as real as their ghosts
                                                I see before me now, spinning half-fast,
                                    half-slow, each step only practice for
                                                the fall and rise again.