|J. M. Spalding: What are you reading right
Neal Bowers: At the moment, I'm reading (and re-reading) Sharon
Bryan's 1996 collection of poems, Flying Blind. By fits and starts, I'm trying to
finish a novel titled The Hoax, written by Sophie Masson, an Australian writer. And
I'm on deadline to read an as yet unpublished nonfiction manuscript for a press that asked
me to evaluate it.
That's the particular answer to the question. The broader answer is that I have never
been a voracious reader of books. Most of my time is spent with journals like Poetry,
Sewanee Review, Hudson Review, and Shenandoah.
The conversation I hate most at a social gathering is the one that addresses the latest
"hot" book that everyone has read or that at least one person in the group
insists is a "must" read. It's usually something identifiable by type, and the
narrower and more unusual the type the betterlike a novel by a dyslexic Venezuelan
who overcame adversity and learned to paint with one hand while word processing with the
other, thereby producing novel art. To me, this is tiresome stuff. I'd be much happier
returning to Faulkner
How do you avoid rhetoric in your poems that address the
I almost never consciously address political issues. I mean, I'm not on record with any
observations about the Lewinsky business, for instance. The last poem I wrote for
distinctly political purposes was an anti-Gulf War piece that was published in a little
anthology in California that didn't actually make it into print before our desert exercise
in murder was over. Actually, I don't think I'm opposed to political rhetoric, as long as
its original. It's just that most of it has been masticated to pulp.
You've had a relationship with Poetry and Shenandoah
for some years now. What is it about those magazines that does it for you?
I am on record in a number of places with the opinion that Poetry is the best
poetry journal on the planet. Feeling that way, I naturally like to publish there. Also, I
think Joe Parisi is the ideal editor. He's not a poet himself but knows poetry inside out.
These unique qualities permit him to avoid being corralled by one camp or another, which
results in a wonderfully eclectic journal. You find people on facing pages in almost every
issue of poetry who wouldn't be able to stand one another face to face in a room. To my
mind, that's exceptional editing.
Shenandoah is similarly eclectic in editorial taste. I was drawn to the journal during
Dabney Stuart's days as editor and remain attached to it under Rod Smith's stewardship.
It's one of those journals that gets read. I never fail to hear from peopleusually
from non-poetswhen I have something published there. Like Poetry, Shenandoah is
a journal that matters and that people read. I can't think of better reasons to want my
work to appear on its pages.
Could you talk a little bit about some other magazines
For a great many years, I've done my best to subscribe to many magazines and to vary my
subscriptions (spreading the monetary support as much as possible). Among the journals
that I simply cannot give up are Sewanee Review and Hudson Review. George
Core and Fred Morgan (and now that Hudson has entered its 51st year, Paula Deitz) are
consummate editors. They are among that rare breed that is committed to literature. They
are unafraid to define and defend their standards (in an age when standards have largely
been discredited and thrown away). I also love Free Lunch, Ron Offen's little
magazine, because of its avant garde flavor and because of Offen's open-mindedness.
What are your feelings about "Tenth year elegy"
taking into consideration the time that has passed since (perhaps giving you a more
"mature" reflection, though I use mature very loosely) and the ordeal with the
Honestly, that poem and "RSVP" are tainted beyond purification. They have the
stench of David Jones about them. For a long time, I thought I would put them away and try
not to think about them. But when I was putting Out of the South together, I
realized that the best way to reclaim what was mine was to bring it out into the open. So
both those poems appear in the manuscript, where they rightfully should.
In an unexpected and bizarre way, Jones has invaded not just my poetry but also my
private past. Almost every thought of my father evokes thoughts of Jones. That's the thing
for which I can never forgive Jones.
Getting to the ordeal of your work being plagiarized. Is
it still something you think of much?
I think of it more than I would like, simply because people ask about it all the time.
Of course, this is the price I pay for publishing a book about the case. Still, I'm glad I
wrote Words for the Taking. It was the right thing to do.
In the book "Words for the taking" Did you want
to be somewhat objective about describing Jones/Summer?
No, I don't think I had any interest in being objective at all. I wanted simply to
chronicle my (and my wife's) pursuit of the man and to tell, as honestly as I could, how
we felt at various points along the way. While I considered myself bound by the facts of
the case, because I was writing nonfiction, I did not feel I had to disguise my point of
view. To do so would have been false.
When did you first start writing?
In high school, I had a minor reputation as a limerick man. The poems typically
incorporated names of my classmates, usually in some semi-obscene context. They made
people laugh, which was my first experience with the power of language. A few words
arranged in the right way could actually make people react. That was an amazing revelation
for a 17-year-old.
What were you trying to do?
In those limerick days, I was heady with the power to embarrass the subject of my poem.
It was my adolescent way of affecting people and grappling with the larger issue of
How much do you defend your work in the midst of a
One thing you can count on if you publish anything is that someone will come along and
pick at it. I've been lucky, though, because 90 percent of the reviews and commentaries
dealing with my work have been kind, even downright generous. The few reviewers who have
sunk their teeth into me have been fairly easy to forget. I give them their space and
their right to be as nasty as they like. My work will ultimately stand or fall on its own
What about when you first started writing?
Maybe I should point out that I don't like to be criticized and that I don't take
criticism well at all. In fact, any negative remark makes me mad. It's just that I've
trained myself over nearly 30 years of publishing to let the snarly remarks go. Why brood
on the one weed in an otherwise lovely field?
You said in your book that your wife is your greatest
critic... I wonder, since she is so much a part of your life, how does she remain
objective, or does she?
I have no idea how she does it, but I'm grateful to her beyond expression. She is
absolutely, utterly (maybe even ruthlessly) honest. When she doesn't understand something
I've written or thinks it's not as good as it could be, she tells me so. She doesn't give
a hang for my sensitive ego and lets me mope around as long as I like. Almost without
exception, I come to understand her reservations and criticisms. If I have an edge over
most other writers it is Nancy and her honest critique of every word I write.
You write a great deal about your father... could you
quote a few lines from something of yours that you think sums up how you feel about him
This is a tough request. Maybe I should begin by saying that my father was a very quiet
man, a man of the rural south. For him, words came hard, but when they came they mattered.
His sudden death nearly 20 years ago was one of my life's formative events. Although we
had a very good father/son relationship, I never felt that I knew him privately, because
he was not given to extensive conversations about himself. In some respects, I suppose my
poems are often attempts at conversation with him, even now, after all these years.
The best I can do to illustrate what I mean is to offer these few lines from "Out
of the South," the title poem of my newest collection (as yet unpublished):
Whether a dream portends anything
depends upon the need for dreaming.
Mine comes as I curl on limestone
and is formed by the wash of the river
giving the sensation of motion,
though I can feel the steady rock
cold under my hip and shoulder
as I go under, and longer,
a numb, dead presence
standing on my shadow
while I stand at an open door
to see my father typing.
He doesn't notice me, even when
I move into the room to look
over his shoulder at the empty page
he tries furiously to fill with letters
the way a child pretends to type
or play piano on the edge of a table,
his hands lifted high
and falling like sparrow hawks,
the keys clattering and jamming
and dropping back into their slots,
everything he has to say colliding
at the brink of expression.
Neal, you haven't written much prose in the past, how did
you get interested in writing a novel?
After finishing the nonfiction book telling the story of the plagiarism case, I was in
a narrative mode, I guess. Anyhow, it just seemed natural to keep on writing in
paragraphs; and I was lucky enough to hit on a plot-line that intrigued me.
I think every writer probably wants to write at least one novel, even if it turns out
bad and resides forever in a storage box in the attic. Mine is circulating among editors
at the moment, so its fate is yet undetermined. Whatever happens, though, I'm glad I wrote
it. The experience taught me a great deal and probably will have a long-term effect on my
How did you begin the actual writing?
I started with 30 pages of really bad stuffhighly autobiographical,
self-indulgent maundering disguised as fiction. Breaking free of such an awful beginning
was hard as hell. In fact, the entire first draft (about 65,000 words) was so crippled by
my inability to revise the beginning to any good effect that I spent another year revising
and re-writing whole slabs of the manuscript. When I finished, I told myself I would never
try another novel; but within six months I was off and running with a new manuscript.
There's something addictive about having characters whose lives aren't entirely under my
conscious control. Looking in on them daily is a kind of deific voyeurism. They do the
most astonishing things, just like real people.
Changing the subject, an increasing number of poets are
getting tired of workshops, yet continue to conduct or (as Billy Collins put it)
"insinuate" them. How does one accommodate their skepticism about the value of
the experience, in this case, you?
During my years in school, I took only two workshops, one at the M.A. level and one
during my Ph.D. program. Although the instructors did their best, I got very little from
either class, simply because I don't need to socialize the process of writing. I work best
alone, away from other people. As the years pass, I grow more insistent in this regard and
spend less and less time in the company of other writers.
Of course, some people need that feeling of support. It's kind of like Alcoholics
Anonymous "Hi, my name is Victor, and I'm a poet." If the workshop does
any good at all, it's in the area of "community" (a word I use with caution,
because it is mis-used by many people when talking about the larger population of writers,
where there are enclaves and cliques but no embracing community).
I tell my students up-front that the best thing they can expect from the workshop is a
supportive environment where honesty coupled with civility may help them see their work in
fresh ways. I do my best to lower expectations that I have anything profound to divulge or
that just being in the workshop will transform anyone.
With the race to attain tenure, the goal seems to be to
rack up as many publications as possible. Are academic institutions placing too much value
on a poet's list of publications these days?
The academy has been the refuge of the arts and also their ruin. I say this as a poet
who came in through the back door, bearing a literary Ph.D., hired originally to teach
technical writing. Almost everything produced by academics is exclusive, meant only for
the insiders who weigh and evaluate bibliographies. To the extent that universities have
become incestuous, breeding their own writers who will win awards administered by
universities and publish books at university presses and then end up teaching in a
workshop where the cycle begins again, poetry has been severely damaged.
Almost daily, I suffer the knowledge that I am part of a system I find seriously
flawed. Being inside, though, gives me the chance to do some small good (I hope). With
every class, I teach the value (even the downright need) of resistance. My best advice to
any aspiring poet is to go away and write.
You mentioned two things to me recently. You mentioned
"standards" and "fundamental values" and briefly, how the academic
world seems confused about them. Could you expand on that?
Well, I'm bound to generalize when I answer this question; so hold onto any exceptions
that come to mind. Even here in the hinterlands, at the Iowa State University of Science
and Technology, my colleagues in the humanities seem confused about the world around them.
They sometimes speak of it as a "text" and expound upon how the "text"
is invented in the act of reading. In other words, no objective world exists, which
eliminates the possibility for what some of them refer to as "foundationalism"
(a pompous substitute for "values"). They argue that history is subjective,
resist any attempt to label something good or bad (including works of art), and happily
engage in what they used to refer to as the "deconstruction" of the curriculum.
The results of this solipsistic view of the universe have long been showing up in our
students, who complain about not knowing how one thing relates to another. They have no
overview of literature because we have collectively decided overviews are subjective and
therefore invalid. When they read a plainly bad poem or story in a canon-expanding
anthology, they are discouraged from passing judgment on it. Everything is good in its own
way, or bad. Take your choice. The instructor smiles in his sphinx-like way.
Right now, we are struggling with decreasing enrollments in our literature courses at
both the undergraduate and graduate levels. While various remedies are being proposed, I'm
unaware of anyone who has said, "Let's first revise our own philosophies." Such
a substantial change will take time.
What is an M.F.A. worth, in your opinion?
Because I teach in a program that offers the M.A. with an emphasis in Creative Writing,
I'm biased, of course. The relative absence of literature from most M.F.A. programs
deprives them of substance, of a foundation. Having a "studio" program in which
students come to class when they have something to show and saunter off when they don't
isn't my idea of the discipline of writing. Again, I'm generalizing, and can think of
exceptions to my own blanket condemnation. Some M.F.A. programs are better than others,
but I'm happy to be teaching in none of them.
When asked how fiction and poetry differ, Ruth Stone said
"Prose and stories are more objective. Poems are emotional opinion." Having
written one novel and having begun another how does this hold true for you... or does it?
I'm not sure I understand what Stone means by "emotional opinion." If, by
"objective," she means to say that prose depends more on the intellect and less
on emotion, I disagree. And if she means that poetry is largely void of intellect
well, I can't accept that, either.
I think the writing process is remarkably constant across genre boundaries. For me, the
process is primary. I do my best to make myself available to language, to follow whatever
comes. Things work essentially the same in prose as in poetry, at least for me. To know
too much in advance about what I'm doing and where the writing is going would bore me into
silence. There's no point in writing if I can't surprise myself by winding up somewhere I
never expected to go and couldn't have gone if I hadn't sat down to write. Of course, the
harder work of revision comes in after the fact of composition.