The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Interviews Shane Book

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The Rumpus Poetry Book Club talks with Shane Book about his poetry collection, Ceiling of Sticks.

This is an edited transcript of the poetry book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.

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Sarah: Is Book your real name?

Shane Book: Yeah, that’s my real name. As a kid it was not the best because it rhymed with stuff and, you know, sounded weird.

Thelma: Actually, could you give us a brief bio? You’re from all over the world, right?

Shane Book: I was born in Peru to a white Canadian father and a black Trinidadian mother. I grew up and was educated in many countries, but more in Canada, Ghana, and the U.S.

Stephen Elliott: Telaina, one of our members, couldn’t make it tonight. But she had a question she wanted to ask you. She says, “I would love to ask a general question about writing in form as a contemporary author—how you go about it. Does the content call for the form or do you decide on a form and then the content?

Shane Book: It depends on the poem. I think the content dictates if I am going to use a form like in, for example, “Stark Room” which is a Pantoum. I wanted to use a repetition that would be haunting as the poem is itself haunted by a memory, and by a figure who has gone and left the speaker alone.

Camille: What made you decide to write the sestina?

Shane Book: I’m glad you asked that question, Camille, because as you typed I was typing this: Whereas in the poem “Santa Cruz,” which is a sestina, I wanted to try to write one that I thought was successful in using the form not as a hindrance but as a generating engine. I think the forms in the book are dictated by, at bottom, my curiosity with how to produce surprising music with a constraint that does not constrain. Perhaps it also has to do with my conviction that poets need to play the whole keyboard rather than just the few octaves.

CC: At the end of the poem “A Curl of Water” a sound is filling in the spaces where things have been lost. What is that sound? I don’t know what it is, but I don’t find it comforting at all… it’s really sad.

Shane Book: I’m sorry you find it sad! My mom said that after her first read through, but then as she read it again she said the poems changed, which is how I constructed them, to change on rereading. I suppose one could say the sound is a certain metaphysical silence, angular and constant, behind everyday life.

Thelma: “Curl of Water” rolled so smoothly into me despite its various parts that I wondered if you composed it in one sitting. Love that poem.

Shane Book: Thanks. I have a soft spot for that poem. It was hard to write and it took a long, long time. I wrote a draft in about a week. Then revised for three weeks. Then put it away for like a year or two, and then rewrote it. It felt like some sort of weird short story.

I was consciously building an architecture to try to hold all these disparate strands together.

Matthew Z: So would you say that often your choices about the form of a poem is instinctive, and comes from the music of the poem that you start to hear as you are writing it?

Shane Book: I think my decisions on formal tactics are driven by a sense of, “Okay, I am going to challenge myself with something I’ve never done,” and part of that challenge is finding a form that produces auditory and intellectual effects beyond what free verse can do. Also, as will be evident in my next book, I tend to have a wildly divergent interest in all kinds of poetry from classical to avant garde—though this is not clear in Ceiling of Sticks.

Stephen Elliott: I’ve been reading more poetry recently and I’m reminded that poetry is like jazz. Just because you like bebop doesn’t mean you like swing.

Shane Book: That’s a great analogy. I kind of view this first book as bebopish, certainly influenced in places by people who write in a jazz tradition like Yusef Komunyakaa and in the next book the music is more like free jazz.

Katelyn: A lot of your poems seem to come out of events that actually happened—do you consider yourself more a reporter or more an inventor?

Shane Book: I think of myself as both a reporter and an inventor. In these poems at times what seems like it happened is fictional… or at least imagined. For example, in a poem called “San Fernando, Trinidad, 1954” I wrote about something that happened to my mother. I had the poems up taped on my kitchen walls and my mom came to visit me in San Francisco where I was living then and she looked at the poem. I was nervous because it was just from my mind, and really only contained an event at the end that she’d told me about. When she was done reading she said, it’s so weird but that’s exactly how that happened. I felt a little chill in my spine then.

Stephen Elliott: You’re working on a film right now, right? Is that having any impact on your work?

Shane Book: Yes. Mixing genres affects how one writes and sees. An example would be the last month I spent in California (just flew out of there yesterday) to edit a feature length documentary with my coconspirator on the project. While editing, I started jotting down things people said in interviews we were watching and also recording what my friend who was also editing with me said and started layering these different speech registers in a way that I had not ever tried before. The technique and approach to the material was totally influenced by my cutting together a film from disparate footage.

So I am working on a bunch of films. Film has definitely spurred me to write poems. This past month in California, while editing a feature length documentary I wrote 54 poems, a whole manuscript. The method was totally influenced by my editing in nonlinear software. Also, I have adapted the poem “Dust” into a film that is being finished now and it is a poetic, lyrical film, so it is influenced by my poetics. Steve, Camille, how does editing effect your writing?

Stephen Elliott: Editing is everything for me. I edit compulsively. Even my Daily Rumpus emails, I’ll often sit rereading for an hour or two before sending them out.

Camille: Editing my work or anyone’s makes me a more discerning reader.

Gabrielle: I agree with that. Teaching does that as well.

Stephen Elliott: In prose you find the tension in the editing process. You find everything in the editing process. Getting the words on the page, for me, is meaningless separate from editing.

Shane Book: Amen. I grew up on hip-hop so I am such a user of sampling. Especially in the work after this book. I think there’s a recognition of the strangeness of certain propertied conventions in the age of the internet. How can one NOT sample, with the data flow of bombarding us first worlders?

Thelma: In the wild, life is richest and most vibrant where zones overlap in the “ecotone.” I think language is most exciting when it’s coming from several places at once.

Stephen Elliott: I think most of writing, for me, is about making connections.

CC: I always thought of writing as a really solitary process, but I’m not a writer. Many of you seem to be saying that’s not true and the story about ‘San Fernando’ also suggests I’m wrong… I’m glad for that!
Stephen Elliott: I need a lot of alone time. But then I really need human contact after that. It’s solitary, but that’s only part of the day. I think that solitary time drives me at least to be more social. Like, writing is often the urge to communicate and be alone at the same time.

Shane Book: Writing can be lonely actually, but then it is also social when performed or when getting a chance to talk to other readers, like right now.

Jesse Nathan: In your poem “The Beach” there are all these mini-riffs on a particular sound or syllable that span a few lines each, or sometimes the whole thing. There’s “go/pillow/over” and there’s “men/head/red” and “green/three/trees” and “wall/vaulted/jungle” and on and so on through the poem… How conscious of this sonic binding are you as you write?

Matthew Z: Sonic binding, right on. Piggybacking onto that, I wonder Shane, if you use a sound as a way to move forward in the poem, sometimes, so that things can veer in different directions than if you were just thinking about the content/meaning of what you had just written? That’s what the poems sometimes feel like to me, in a really good way.

Shane Book: I read a surprising amount of contemporary poetry that seems to not take the ear into account very much. It is not a judgment, just an observation.

Jesse Nathan: You’re right. So what separates that stuff from lineated prose? Lineated prose is harder for me to get into, I think. I just find myself wishing the lines hadn’t been broken at weird places. The enjambment starts to feel like a stunt to cover the proseness of it. Obviously there are amazing prose poems out there, and amazing poems with no apparent sense of music… But isn’t what makes poetry poetry the sonic aspect?

Shane Book: Yes. It is a main ingredient.

Jesse Nathan: Sometimes reading poetry feels to me that it has more in common with experiencing music, or looking at a painting, than it does to reading prose.

Shane Book: Totally agree. Also poetry seems to me to have much to do with photography.

Matthew Z: I think maybe one main thing poetry and music have in common is that one moment in a musical composition/poem can lead to the next not primarily on the basis of logic. This is what distinguishes poetry from other forms of writing.

Thelma: But most songs on the page pale compared to the better poems. They need the guitars, saxes, whatever.

Matthew Z: I think other forms of writing—essays, stories, newspaper articles—each have their own ways of moving. Poems can move like all these things, but they also at least always threaten to move differently. And it’s that possibility that makes the piece of writing poetry, and not something else.

Shane Book: That’s a great way to think about poems.

Valerie: I’m curious how long it took you to get “Ceiling of Sticks” published? Did you send it out for a number of years, to many contests, revise it between sending it out, and so on?

Shane Book: I waited an awfully long time to send the book out. There were many reasons for doing so. A chief reason was that I was working on four books at the same time and I kept dipping into each one and hopping back into another. And these manuscripts are so different from each other. It’s like different people wrote them. I sent the manuscript out starting in September 2008 and was lucky enough to win the contest in the spring of 2009. So it took like six or eight months or something.

Valerie: Wow, that’s impressive! I’ve been sending mine out/revising it for 2 years!

Shane Book: Thank you, but the oldest poem in the book is like 10 years old so it looks like a fast publishing time, but I did bide my time working on things.

Jim Withington: It’s incredibly cool to hear the details of sending these manuscripts out, because otherwise so much of that process just seems mystical, y’know? You’ve got a lot of fellowships under your belt, too. How much time do you spend applying for things instead of writing/filming?

Shane Book: You know, I was just complaining to someone the other day that at times I feel more like a bureaucrat than an artist due to the amount of paperwork involved. Not that I’m complaining about the opportunities out there, but you could really spend all your time trying to bag some cash and not make any work. I should be more on top of applying for things. I try to set aside one full day a week to tend to the applications and stuff but probably don’t manage it. The usual thing is, I just put everything else on hold for a week and bang out applications and then return to regular programming.

CC: I have an unrelated question. You said earlier that is “paced in a way that demands more attention than people are used to giving.” I don’t get it. I understand that it should stand up to rereading and rereading, which to me means it should have serious opportunities for discovery, and maybe demand a lot of attention in that way. But I do see pacing in poetry as a challenge—is intentional?

Shane Book: I meant that poetry is compressed to such an extent that it has a pacing that is much denser than other media. It is also not linear and requires active reception by the reader as opposed to media that require more passivity, like film.

Stephen Elliott: When we do our events there’s a huge difference between what the audience is giving to the comedian and what they’re giving to the poet.

Matthew Z: I like the silence I get back from the audience more than whatever I would get back if I were a comedian. Which I guess explains why I am a poet and not a comedian. That, and the fact that I’m not funny enough.

Shane Book: I totally know the silent moment feeling. It’s like something has changed in the air or something. Love it!

Jesse Nathan: I need to learn to love that silence. I’m always mistaking it for having passed gas or something.

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This interview was edited by Rumpus volunteer editor and Poetry Book Club member Jesse Nathan.

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