Al Maginnes Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand and Ken Robidoux
In “Poem that Wants To Be A Postcard To Chris Buckley,” you wrote about eavesdropping and indicate that this can have an effect on one’s life, even if the effect is only a ripple. I love this weird intersection of lives – and I love your lines from “Creative Writing”: “…mostly we are walk-ons, / extras in stories others tell....” What have you heard while eavesdropping that caught your attention? Have you heard anything outrageous, funny, haunting, shocking…? Also, have you ever assigned your students to eavesdrop? (I did once, and we had a great time writing stories from phrases we overheard.)
To answer your last question first (and thanks for your questions, by the way) I’ve never assigned my students to eavesdrop. I have suggested it and have even named some places around town where they might be able to eavesdrop without being too obvious. I’m kind of a nosy guy, so I do eavesdrop, often without planning to. In recent years I’ve become something of an Ipod addict, so I might be missing some good stuff.
One of my favorite lines I ever heard in a public place—I wasn’t eavesdropping—was in a bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas that I’d never been to before. I was sitting at the bar with my beer and the bartender who was probably about 40 came in and announced to everyone within earshot, “Grandma flew to Las Vegas and got married.” Another time on a bus I listened to a couple in the seat behind me breaking up. They were so matter of fact about it that I was pretty sure this was a routine they went through every few weeks. I’m always telling my students that if they just open their ears and imaginations, they will never run out of things to write about and they won’t have to recycle stories about zombies and vampires and all the pre-made garbage that many of them seem to think are the only things worth writing about.
In “Soundtrack” you wrote, “Forty years have passed / in the space of an afternoon.” I’ve been thinking recently about how quickly time flies by. Certain hours and days may seem to last forever, then I blink and I’ve lost a month or a year or more. Have you found a way to slow it all down? Would you want to?
I’ve become more aware of time’s passing since adopting my daughter when I was 49 and she was 14 months old. She’s almost 6 now, and I find myself wondering every day how it passed so quickly. There’s a line in a song by James McMurtry, one of my favorite songwriters: “It’s a damn short movie, how’d we ever get here?” (I’m probably misquoting a bit). I try not to let time’s passage bother me too much; you have to have a certain amount of optimism to become a parent in one’s 40’s or 50’s. But it is disconcerting sometimes to realize how long I’ve been writing or how long I’ve been at my current job or how long my marriage has lasted when all those things seem so recently in the past.
Like anyone, I’d like to slow down the good stuff—the lovemaking, the times when the writing is going well (which is about as close as I come to losing any sense of time at all), time with people I love. One thing I do feel acutely in recent years is how little time I get with friends who live a long distance from me—perhaps a couple of meals at AWP or hooking up for a reading at one another’s schools—and even with friends who live much closer. One side effect of having a small and active child is the increasing amount of time that gets spent on her activities.
I’ve been a Buddhist—although not a very good one—for several years and I meditate three or four times a week (I should do it every day), and that does help to make me a bit more aware of the present because every time I open my eyes, I realize that I haven’t been sitting nearly as long as I think I have. That does help make me more aware of how time passes.
The composition and content of your poems makes me think of how life is, to some extent at least, a bunch of stuff (experiences, people, things, places, etc.) lumped together along with the story we write to make sense of it all. We make connections among the stuff and find patterns in the stuff; we interpret how the lumped-together stuff works together. To what extent do you think we write our own lives in this way?
I once heard Robert Morgan say, “There’s nothing natural about writing,” and I think this is what he was alluding to. As writers we all witness those moments that we know would make a terrific poem or story or novel. But then something completely mundane diverts our attention and we’re back to worrying about work and getting to the grocery store and trying to remember if we picked up the dry cleaning. So when we write, we’re often trying to string those more illuminated moments together. But the act of writing, I think, also spotlights our lives so that something that seemed perfectly ordinary at the time—an encounter in a convenience store, a homeless guy asking for a dollar—becomes fodder for the writing as well.
And as I always tell my students, don’t be afraid to lie. Sometimes our lives just aren’t enough and we need our imaginations as well. But to get back to your question, part of what writers do is discover patterns. When I’m writing and it’s going pretty well, those connections come easily; when it’s not going so well, I have to strain after them. Probably anyone reading my poems would have a tough time figuring out what I do with my time on any given day—sometimes I wonder myself—but they would probably get some taste for my what loves and enthusiasms are, as well as some of my dislikes.
As I understand it, you’ve been teaching 5-and-5 at a community college for quite some time now. Has this affected your writing and/or your writing career?
I’ve been teaching full time since 1990 and all of that time, except for the occasional guest stint at a four year school, has been spent at two year schools, first at a small private church-affiliated school, and since 1993 at Wake Tech, where I will probably be until I retire. When I got my first full time job, I made some rules to make sure that the job did not overwhelm my writing; I vowed never to grade more than two hours a day for instance. Needless to say, all of those rules fell by the wayside, but I have managed to keep the poems coming.
I can’t complain or claim that my productivity has suffered as a result of teaching so many classes. I do think that perhaps if I had a smaller load I might have produced more prose. One of my early ambitions was to publish novels as well as poetry, and that hasn’t happened yet. I enjoy writing reviews as well, but every time I agree to take one on, I feel like it’s taking me away from poems. I have wondered sometimes if I am a bit further below the radar than I might have been because I teach at a two year school. I don’t get a lot of invitations to read, come to conferences and that sort of thing. But those things have nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the business of writing, which is the part of this thing I’ve never been good at and don’t have much patience for. But maybe my workload is the universe’s way of making sure I don’t commit too much bad writing. I’m not sure the world is standing on its hind legs waiting for what might happen if I had two hundred fewer papers to grade every semester.
There are, inevitably it seems, bad reviewers who write bad reviews. I recently read the beginning of a review (I couldn’t get through it) of one of your books by a reviewer who I immediately labeled a “tool.” This is the same reviewer who, when reviewing one of C.K. Williams’s books, began by categorizing American poets into three main categories that, I suppose, he made up. He then critiqued the book based on the categories its poems fell into and how much the tool reviewer liked those categories. His mode of review is, it seems to me, to pick up a book, decide what he wants it to be, then trash it when it’s not that. How do you deal with it when one of these reviewers gets a hold of your books? And what advice do you have for other, particularly new, writers dealing with tooly reviewers?
I know the review you mean. My initial response when I read that review was to email the guy and explain all the ways he’d gotten it wrong, but I reluctantly refrained. A friend who saw the review read several of the guy’s reviews and told me this deciding a book should be a certain thing based on its title or the jacket copy or his preconceptions about the poet seemed to be his MO. At any rate, it doesn’t seem like a very effective way of writing about poetry or anything else.
I’ve been lucky in that the majority of reviews I’ve gotten over the years have been pretty good ones. The biggest danger with a know-nothing review like the one you asked about is that it might keep someone from reading the book. I know writers who claim never to read their reviews, but I doubt I will ever get there. My best advice for dealing with these people is ignoring them.
If you could choose any superpower for yourself, what would you pick, and why? Also, if you naturally had a superpower (you came with one that you didn’t get to pick), what would it be, and why do you think so?
Flight, of course. Like any kid who grew up in the 60s, I expected to be vacationing on the moon and Mars by now and flying to work with my jet pack. I loved comic books as a kid and never saw the point of being a superhero if you couldn’t fly.
If I had a superpower I didn’t pick, it would probably be my already too-developed ability to spot grammatical errors even when I’m not looking for them. Or perhaps my ability to remember the words of really bad songs.
Maybe no one would agree, but I found hope
waiting in those late afternoons of the early 70’s
when I came blinking out of the theater
into the cellophane dusks of spring, clouds purpled
and swollen, bruises dark and about to vanish.
Later I would read that despair hung black
and ragged as the smoke of burned houses above
the streets of cities I’d never seen, remaining banners
of an undeclared war. But while children who once believed
the gospel of flowers inscribed their veins
with bathtub meth, the soft rock anthem that scored
whatever movie I’d just seen gentled the swaying trees
into a syncopation that let all I saw soak in the burnish
and glare that was the nearly-preserving amber
of day lapping into memory. A whole life, one holding
shapes and possibilities I had not reckoned, was driving
in my direction, would come to the curb soon, motor huffing
impatient to be on its way, like the trains throttling
through town after midnight, pulling my dreams in their wake.
They would pause occasionally at the station’s platform
to let a few passengers, a few bags of this or that get on
or off, huge machines trembling with their insistence
on motion. It would take a while to accept
that we walk through most of life like a spring afternoon,
seeing too little, remembering almost nothing, memorizing
a few names, a street sign, one face or another
for no clear reason. It was the formlessness of the life
to come that offered me hope, that let me, one afternoon,
lift an unironic peace sign to the long-haired passengers
of a van blasting strange music, probably a handful
of the town’s errant young, home from college to do laundry
and argue politics before filling a cooler with food
and driving back for mid-terms. I heard laugher, saw
forked fingers flash back at me, all the proof I needed
that my life would embrace me.
Forty years have passed
in the space of an afternoon. I kept walking until
I entered again the life actors in movies could abandon
as easily as changing shirts, the life of sons too young
for the deeper freedoms of cars and loud music, reckless speed
and grief. The old songs still play in car dashboards,
someone is watching one of those movies for the first
or fifteenth time. Dark still rolls from under low branches,
unwinds from the cool furrows of hedges. The clouds exhale
day’s splendor and vanish. And a few crazy seeds,
errant grains of hope rise in me, unbidden,
to tell me this life, like any other, can either change
or remain as it is. And somehow I must learn
how to love the two alternatives equally.
Poem That Wants To Be A Postcard To Chris Buckley
This is no weather for walking.
Cold webs of drizzle stitch
the blusters of early morning,
but the dog, caught in the failures
of an aging body, whines
to go out at 3 am, at 5.
Coming in from one of those walks,
I flip on the light, find again
a postcard you sent, uncovered
this afternoon while I searched
Because nothing stays
where I put it or think I put it,
I find your occasional cards
tucked in drawers, falling out of books,
words to scan again as the coffeemaker
brews a bad answer to a night
robbed of sleep.
After pouring coffee,
I open your newest book, the one
you inscribed as though you and I
play the netless oddity
poetry has become equally well.
And breathed again the endless dust,
the eucalyptus and lemon
of your native state, a place
I’ve barely visited but believe
I know because I can read.
my wife and I left a hotel filled
with writers to find some lunch.
While we chewed chips and salsa
in the booth of a Mexican restaurant,
we eavesdropped on a table filled
with writing students. When one said
her friend wanted to date a poet,
my wife whispered, “No, she doesn’t”
so fiercely I thought of the mockingbird
in our yard that dives at me, screaming
an intruder from its nest,
and I wondered
if I should take up essays
or science fiction. At a lake
near my house, a place where
I might have walked the dog when
she was young enough to feel
spring rising in her bones,
someone has placed a camera
so anyone who wishes can go
to a web site and watch two eagles
hatch their young.
I dial in, the screen could be
a postcard, the nest is so still,
the sky so empty. It takes
a special talent to scan
the landscape and love what is not there,
the way we love the unwritten
or half-written poem, the vanished
hangouts of our youth or the way
one girl dreams love for a poet
or her notion of a poet.
I read your poem that pretended
it wanted to be a postcard
to Gerald Stern, who might be
recipient of more epistolary poems
than anyone since God. Last week,
in a store stacked and crowded
by second hand texts, I found
a copy of Lucky Life, a book
I had not read since college,
and I spent an afternoon deep
in the prayed-over landscape
of those poems that struggle
in the margin between the woods
and the road, half-civilized
berms where I spent my boyhood.
Many of Stern’s poems might have fit
on a postcard.
Yours will not.
Neither will this one. I will finish
what there is to write this evening
and spend more nights and weekends
adding, subtracting, weaving
into the chaos of this poem
scraps of news, half-memories of walking
the dog when it could still negotiate
steep switchbacks, the free verse
on the back of a card announcing
the engagement of an unseen girl
and her poet. Then I’ll crease it,
send it to the address stamped
in one corner of your card,
imagine its arrival.
I’m good at that.
We’ve all imagined lives
for one another. We’ve all steered
into curves too fast and made
a lifetime’s worth of promises
to the gods of speed and gravity,
different from the ones offered
to the gods of upright walking
and slow reading.
we ask only to be pulled
to safety one last time.
We’ve all studied the wind, wished
across the great distances it covers
across acres of golden dust
for the strength and faith of birds
on their fledgling flights,
and that those of us watching
be forgiven for a moment
the aging bodies, the books
read and forgotten and the little
read once and saved forever.
As our fins began to grow, the hard
nouns of land softened, the tide-pool
of voices stilled, leaving us prey
swirling in the maw of water’s language.
The small mouths of our gills opened,
and we could dive deep enough to dissolve
cloudy reefs where we once stood.
we chased skimming bands of fish,
slivers of protein, circled
castle-shapes of coral. Jetties of bone
and debris spotted the soft bottom
of the world, testimony to what
did not surface or float.
our sudden appetites bore us,
the less color meant, all scapes
gone black or dim green,
all motion something to devour
which has never held the resistance
of wind or gravel allows
nothing of rest, our lives
the eternal present tense
of bodies never entirely spent
as sound dies
into simple vibration, the blood-memory
of land birth a trace, then less.
a head broke the heaving sky
of our new world and bobbed
in the chopping hills we once called surface,
the hooked angles of words might
return in the glare-blind and bird-cry
of a place once vital
as legs we are losing any use for.
Life isn’t like that, one student says,
objecting to the end
of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” how
it leaves the narrator, eyes closed,
between his wife and her blind friend,
everything suddenly unfinished.
Life is just like that, I counter.
Our existence is badly plotted,
a hegira of things unseen and unfinished.
And let us spend a little time
in the gardens and steep landscapes of plot,
the islands where drama roars, where
outcomes lie uncertain, and we cry
for the plain dirt, the dry sandwiches
of our slow-walking lives.
However many of my childhood stories
end with my moving away, waving
from the back of a station wagon
as my father drove us down a street
whose name I was already forgetting,
nothing ends. We live in murals
like the endless canvas backdrops
that once unreeled to give stage plays
a sense of continuity. For my students,
it’s all shootout and car chase
with occasional interludes of porn.
But mostly we are walk-ons,
extras in stories others tell
to roomfuls of strangers who shake their heads
over some kind act or rudeness
we forgot the moment it happened.
From a train window I watched
a woman stumble in her hurry
across the platform, saw the splash
of coins, lipstick, a phone, hairbrush
and paperback book from her purse.
Her face knotted. I was turning
the empty page of my own face away
when she smiled, refusing,
like Carver’s blind man, the role written
for her. Already composing
the next scene, she kneeled
to gather her things, to gather
the story she would tell and laugh.