2014 Contest: An Interview with Poetry Winner Curtis Rogers
Curtis Rogers received his MFA in poetry from NYU’s creative writing program. His writing has appeared in The Literary Review, Coconut, cream city review, DIAGRAM, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. Currently, he works and lives in Washington, D.C.
Interview by BETHANY STARTIN
Black Warrior Review: Your winning poem, ‘Of Plenty’, demonstrates intense attention to the line: each line break feels specific and purposeful, and each individual line is pleasurable both in itself and in the ways it connects with its surroundings. How would you describe your relationship, both past and present, with the line as a unit?
Curtis Rogers: My relationship with the line as such—in my past and present writing—has been more fitful than linear. In my writing life, I have always been drawn to versatility in the shapes of poems, their rhythms and rhymes, and the semantic flirtations they create. That said, my own poems usually dictate their line-breaking rules through the organic process of getting them on the page. When I first began writing poetry, as I believe many poets do, I mimicked the voices of my then-favorite writers, which led to labored, clunky line breaks. I remember many purposeful, failed attempts to write poems that looked and sounded like they belonged in Ai’s Cruelty, or Stein’s Tender Buttons. But, the more my own voice has strengthened in my writing, the more I’ve found it’s a voice that’s terrified of getting stuck in its ways. I have many poems that follow claustrophobic meter and rhyme constrictions to stanzas and line breaks, and others that adhere to a freer, murkier logic. I think that as technology increasingly questions how important the traditional page really is, we will see the line break, poetic structure, and the presentation of metered verse taking some exciting new forms, and I’d love to be part of that conversation.
BWR: I’m also intrigued by the poem’s focus on place, the constant movement between cities and states, and how these movements inform the language and scenery of the poem as a whole. Where else in your work have you seen a focus on place coming through?
CR: I’ve always had a certain, touristy fascination with the way places, or lack of place, can codify language and experience. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up—with stays in St. Louis, southern Ohio, Long Island, San Francisco, Barbados, and southern Florida. As a result, I’ve never felt particularly “of” a certain place, vernacular, or regional mythos. “Of Plenty” takes a more catalogic approach than any of my other poems in enacting that sense of displacement, and the resulting self-centrality, but those concerns are always on my mind. Often, when I’m writing, I’m consciously marrying settings. The sea foam and sugar cane of Florida and Barbados, as referents, were just as much part of my New York life as MetroCards, and writing a New York poem in my voice would require their co-existence, for instance. Other times, I will zoom in so closely to a scene, or at such a great distance from narrative, that the anchors of landscape are irrelevant, but placement still mounts its flag in those poems, perhaps even more so.
BWR: On the topic of place, can you describe your ideal writing space?
CR: For me, writing often feels necessary but arduous, not unlike physical therapy. If a space doesn’t feel just right, I can’t get any writing done. The most important aspect for me is my surrounding noise. I almost always listen to music when I write, even if I’m outdoors. Usually, I end up listening to a single song on repeat exclusively when working on a particular poem, and then the same song when editing it in the future. I prefer to have another layer of noise in the background, too—a movie or TV show, conversations on the train, etc. For a long time, my favorite place to write was the fountain’s edge at Columbus Circle. Since I’ve left New York, it’s been my couch. They both meet the same needs, in different ways. Ideally, I’d write all of my poems in hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities, and completely remove myself from the distractions and fillings of my everyday life. For now, though, my couch seems to work.
BWR: I loved the sonic aspects of the poem – ‘A tiny soporose tinctured softness’ is perfect! How does the sonic nature of your work come through/develop during your writing process?
CR: I’m glad you prefaced this question with that line! A short while before I wrote the first draft of this poem, I had been reading Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation over and over. (When it comes to sonically pleasing phrasing, he’s a master.) There’s a poem in his collection that obsessively echoes “soporose” about a half dozen times in its ending, and I remember having that word stuck in my head for a few weeks before it found its way into “Of Plenty.” In a similar fashion, I often find that echoes and obsessive sound steer much of my poems. I never begin a poem with an ending in mind, or anything more than a few images or lines and, usually, a title. I think it’s important for my poems to dictate, through what works and doesn’t, their forms and arcs. If I hit a block, I’ll create long word lists inspired by what I’ve written for the poem so far, through symbolic and aural associations, as well as recent earworms like “soporose,” and hope that it will show me where the poem is trying to go. I love the way that noise and rhythm, pleasing and displeasing, can tell stories that narrative alone cannot. Once I have what I feel is a solid first draft, and once I’ve forced a few friends to give me feedback on the draft, I’ll comb through the poem to smooth over sonic rough patches, but I think the creative force of organic connections and improvisation can’t be matched by tail-end nitpicking.
BWR: You received your MFA from the NYU creative writing program; how did(/does?) the experience of living and writing in NYC inform your poetry? And where else do you want to live?
CR: I moved very shortly after graduating from NYU to Washington, DC, where I currently live and work. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to live in NYC. It’s daunting to consider how much my experience there—which was indistinguishable from my NYU MFA experience—left its mark on my poetry. I often think of a friend calling New York “boot camp for artists.” It’s a city of plumbless opportunity for creative inspiration and growth, but you have to learn to think on your feet, especially as a younger artist, to stay ahead of the city’s sometimes unforgiving pace. More than anything, I think New York shaped my poetry by instilling it with that sort of unflappable energy. Under the demands of the MFA, I was drafting poems at a greater pace than ever, and I had a much more intimate feedback system than I was used to—I was living with poets, working with poets, going to school with poets. At the same time, I was scrambling to make rent and maintain my health and sanity. I had to cut fat as much as possible, as quickly as possible, from all parts of my life, including poetry. I had to learn to view my personal style without sentiment, to be open to change, and to grow my appreciation for the strengths of writers around me. Of course, New York also offered experiences to me at the time, in my early twenties, that my poetry will always be thankful for. I had many early morning subway rides from all over the city to my 168th street apartment. As for where else I’d like to live—that list is very long. My partner has spent quite a bit of time studying cities and cultures in the Middle East and Africa. Sometimes I fantasize about spending a few years with him in Cape Town or Beirut. More realistically, I’ll go anywhere there’s a good opportunity. I’ve never been much of a planner, in my poems and out of them.
BWR: What lesser-known book (or chapbook) of poetry have you loved most in the past year?
CR: This might be cheating a little, but the book that comes to mind is a copy of Bill Knott’s Collected Sonnets that he had self-published, which I first stumbled across a few years ago. You can find similar self-published books of his online, if not the same edition. After Bill Knott passed away this last Spring, I returned to my copy of his sonnets, and it found a semi-permanent place on my nightstand for several months through re-readings. He’s a fiercely clever poet, and a relentless one. In his intro to the collection he notes, “Remember that a Collected is not a Complete.” I’m drawn to that curmudgeon-edged tenacity, and to his complete willingness to celebrate his shortcomings, while maintaining a vulnerable sincerity. As for books printed in the past year, one of my favorites is the meatgirl whatever by Kristin Hatch. While I can’t be sure how “lesser-known” it is, especially as a National Poetry Series winner, I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t familiar. It’s a collection that revels in animalistic mess, while maintaining blade-sharp poise. I love any poet who takes risks, and Hatch doesn’t just take them, she owns them completely.
BWR: Could you tell us a bit about what you’re working on right now?
CR: Right now, I’m most excited by a chapbook manuscript that I’ve been writing with my friend and fellow poet Jeffery Berg, which we’re in the final stage of polishing after years of work. Called Nite Drive, it draws inspiration from cult classic cinema, mixtapes, New York, the South, and—naturally—long drives at night. Collaboration is perhaps the best method for getting outside of one’s comfort zone as a poet, and following this project to completion has forced me to break interesting new ground with my writing. Beyond Nite Drive, I’ve been in the process of starting a number of other collaborative projects lately, too, including a new poetry journal and possibly multimedia projects with video and music. And, of course, I’m always drafting new poems.