The Rumpus Interview with Carl Adamshick

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Carl Adamshick is the author of Curses and Wishes, winner of the 2010 Walt Whitman Award, selected by Marvin Bell. He is a cofounder of Tavern Books. His poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, The Harvard Review, The Missouri Review, American Poet, and Narrative magazine.The first thing you notice about the one-bedroom bungalow on Couch Street are the books. Because they seem to cast their own light, pulsing with potential energy in their immaculate rows, and because, well, there’s not much else to look at. Five wooden cabinets with glass doors in the main room house hundreds of first-edition volumes of poetry. A few months ago my publisher took me to Carl’s, describing it as a “most respectable bachelor pad.” When I saw the books, when I realized what they were, I felt a pang of jealousy, and the overwhelming desire to touch each one. I spent the next hour surveying the titles, oblivious to my hosts, then thumbed the stack of books on the wooden table awaiting a treatment of Mylar. A stereo in the corner pumped slow jam LPs, and then (at my request) Anne Sexton’s throaty performance of “Her Kind,” from an equally rare LP. There’s a bedroom down the hall, and a shoebox-sized kitchen fit for plating a togo container of chow mein. It takes a giant fucking dork to appreciate the magnitude of what this man curates and protects in his modest apartment. A bounty to inspire nightmares of fire.

Tucked among his heroes are early chapbooks from his poetry family, the Dickman twins and Michael McGriff. The four of them have been close for years, sharing work and a love of poems, alongside their “poetry mom” Dorrianne Laux. When Carl won the Whitman Prize for a first book in 2010, she described him as a poet who “has not joined the ranks of the M.F.A./ Ph.D.’s and has never attended a writer’s conference or residency.” A rare breed indeed, and unique among his pals who’ve been awarded, collectively; a Stegner, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, three Michener Fellowships, the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, three Lannan fellowships, an Alfred Hodder Fellowship, three fellowships to Provincetown, a Honickman Award, a Kate Tufts Discovery award and now, at long last, a Whitman. While his friends were amassing degrees and honors, Carl was working at a print shop in Portland as he had for over a decade, collecting books, and quietly making poems.

Then Curses and Wishes happened and things began to change. He landed a gig teaching at a private school (which he describes as “awesome”) and with McGriff co-founded Tavern Books, a small press dedicated to reviving texts that have fallen out of print or would otherwise have difficulty reaching readers. The first poems of Swedish poet, (and recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature,) Tomas Tranströmer, for example, and the resuscitation of David Wevill’s poems, whose own infamous associations have eclipsed a worthy body of work.

Adamshick rejects the hype surrounding his clique, but it’s difficult to ignore the association. Fortunately or unfortunately his fate has been tangled in an emerging legend: four improbably tall, successful young poets with working class backgrounds, all easy on the eyes and under the wing of a legendary blue-collar fox. Which is why, I suppose, he’s so reserved at first when we sit down to talk. His disinterest in self-promotion is plain, and the interview should be read with his tone in mind; wary, self-depreciating, somewhat amused.

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The Rumpus: Have you ever felt insecure about not going the regular route?

Carl Adamshick: No.

Rumpus: How did you know you didn’t want to?

Adamshick: Well, I didn’t think it was an option. I went to school for a while but I also had to work and at some point it just wasn’t worth it. I could work, go to the library and buy books, and do it on my own.

It’s just taken much longer, I think. If you’re in those writing programs you meet people, you get your name around, you make friends and you’re part of a community, and if you’re not in it … it’s just taken a long time for my book to come out.

Rumpus: How did you come to poetry?

Adamshick: Well, when I turned 21, I hadn’t read a book… ever.

Rumpus: Oh, come on, that’s an exaggeration.

Adamshick: No. I read The Call of the Wild early on, but I never read a book in high school. They were assigned but I didn’t read them. Reading was not part of my life. Then I moved out here and I was feeling kind of dumb, and thought, “I should start reading.”

Rumpus: How old were you when you came out?

Adamshick: I was 21. I was lucky that I picked Portland. There are a lot of book stores, there’s Powell’s, and I lived right by the library. I couldn’t buy books so I just went to the library all the time. I started reading short stories. I read Raymond Carver and that got me to go into the poetry section. It was all over at that point. I haven’t really left that section.

Rumpus: Who were the first poets that grabbed you?

Adamshick: Well, Carver early on, and I still have an affinity with him, I think. He’s…—

Rumpus:—Did you say Keats ?!?

Adamshick: I was just mumbling.

The Rumpus: Oh, you said, “he’s.”

Adamshick: John Haynes I think was pretty influential, somebody that really kept me interested in writing. Linda Beard was somebody early on who I really liked, and I still do like all her poems.

Rumpus: Who do you read when you want to write?

Adamshick: There’s this guy Rutger Kopland, this Danish writer. Even his bad poems are fascinating. He’s inspirational. You read him and think, “I really need to figure out how to be able to do that.”

Rumpus: Tell me about your books.

Adamshick: What about them?

Rumpus: When did you start collecting? Like, “I’m going to start collecting as an aggressive, intentional act.”

Adamshick: I don’t know. It’s an actual collection in the sense they’re all first editions. I don’t know what’s in my brain that makes that important. (Laughs) I remember the first sort of… I don’t know… I can tell the story about the first book I bought that was probably too much money.

Rumpus: Yep. Let’s hear that.

Adamshick: It was a Philip Larkin book, and it was $50. I remember just holding it and thinking, “This is irrational, I can get a paperback of this for nothing,” but I really really wanted it. It just seemed more important to have the first edition. I remember thinking, “If I buy it, that’s what I’m going to be doing, I’m going to be buying others like it, and it’s going to be a lifelong thing.” This guy who was helping me— I held the book forever, he must have thought I was an idiot— he was like, “Are you okay?” Not, Can I help you? But, Are you OKAY? I ended up buying it. And then I wanted to get it signed.

Rumpus: It’s the same impulse for people who collect baseball cards.

Adamshick: Yeah, I think any sort of collection. I don’t know what it is.

The Rumpus: I wonder about that. What is that?

Adamshick: I don’t know. It seems really special. You think about a book from the ’20s, the first time it came out … it bridges a gap that a little paperback can’t.

Rumpus: You got that prize money from the Whitman. Which book did you buy?

Adamshick: I bought a Carolyn Forché, I bought a special limited edition of A Country Between Us.

Rumpus: Yeah, she’s something else … This urge to collect, it really makes sense in relation to Tavern Books. When did you start Tavern?

Adamshick: It’s about a year and a half old. We talked about it for a long time. Tavern Books really started out as a book club. Mike (McGriff) and I would talk on the phone for hours about books; books we bought, books we read, and then it escalated, “It’s a shame no-one else has read this.” And, “It’s impossible to get. Nobody else knows! They only made 500 of these books and that was 15 years ago, and the only way you can get them is if you want to spend $300.” Then we were like “God! We should really do something!” Really, they’re book recommendations. We thought, “If people could just read these, they would have a real love for them, like we love them.”

Rumpus: What was your first rescued book?

Adamshick: The first rescued book was Casual Ties by David Wevill. We just called him up, and he said, “Yeah, of course. Nobody bought that book, nobody read that book. Of course I want that.” Writers want their books in print. With poets, what usually happens is, there’s a selection from their early book that gets put in a selected volume and that’s it. A lot of those books should stand on their own. That’s another reason why I collect. Most of these are in their original volume, reading them is significantly different than reading a new and selected. It’s a whole different reading experience.

Rumpus: How many titles do you have?

Adamshick: We’ve published three books, and then we have maybe 12 chapbooks.

Rumpus: That’s a lot for a year and a half. What’s your list looking like for—

Adamshick:—Yeah, yeah, we have WAY too many.

Rumpus: Exciting! And Mike, the co-founder, he’s a part of your crew?

Adamshick: Yeah, I met Mike down in Eugene. Matthew was in the Kidd program (Kidd tutorial) then I was accepted. They have special money for kids to pay for tuition and I was hoping to get it. I didn’t, so I just went down there for one semester.

Rumpus: Were you studying with Dorianne?

Adamshick: No, the Kidd class was taught by a graduate student. I think at the time Peter Ho Davies was the head of it but I never saw him. Dorianne, I never took a class from her. We would go to her house in the evening and read poems … but as much as with Michael and Matthew and Michael, she just seemed to be a friend.

Rumpus: Now she’s all the way over in North Carolina.

Adamshick: Sad. And she just had a birthday, too.

Rumpus: You think of her as a sort of surrogate mother.

Adamshick: Oh yeah. She and Joe (Millar) are definitely the poetry parents.

Rumpus: Did you suspect back then that all you boys would have these big books?

Adamshick: No. I mean we all dreamed about it, obviously, but no. It seems, especially now that we all have books, it seems like it should have never happened.

Rumpus: Why? Because statistically it’s unlikely?

Adamshick: Getting your book published seems impossible in a way, there are so many factors involved, and there are so many people writing well. McGriff won his prize and then Matthew won his prize, Michael’s book came out and then it was like a year and a half or two years, and I thought “This is never going to happen.” I mean, that’s three out of four! That’s pretty good. It just wasn’t looking so good.

Rumpus: Curses and Wishes, was that the manuscript you were sending around those two years?

Adamshick: More or less. I mean, I have other manuscripts, but that was just two years. I was sending poems out for ten, easily.

Rumpus: You mean full manuscripts?

Adamshick: Easily.

Rumpus: No shit.

Adamshick: I wasn’t very good at it. I think the other guys were a little more focused and they would send to more places. I would send to like two or three. I sent to the Whitman probably five times. Never heard anything, and then you know…

Rumpus: What do you think happened this time?

Adamshick: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know how it works. The right people read it. I guess that never happened before.

Rumpus: But now there’s a momentum, right?

Adamshick: I guess, yeah. The big wheel’s turning. It seems there are more opportunities now.

Rumpus: And another book. You probably have it ready to go right?

Adamshick: Yeah. I’ve been writing poems for a long time so I have hundreds and hundreds of poems. Not all of them get put into a book, but, yeah. That’s the good thing about not publishing a book when you’re in your mid-twenties.

Rumpus: I was moved by your book, but I was really attached to this poem about— I’m feeling like an asshole. I don’t know the name of it off the top— but it deals with war and violence.

Adamshick: Oh yeah, about selective service?

Rumpus: It’s fucking beautiful.

Adamshick: I think that’s the poem that took me the longest. For me it was a pretty important poem. I really wanted to get it right. I think what happens in that poem is personal. My recognition of signing that and what it meant and what I felt. I think it’s an outrage really.

You get these 18 year olds and tell them they have to sign up and fight and if they don’t they’ll go to prison, or they’ll be fined $500,000. It’s crazy.

Rumpus: Well, you don’t pull your punches. I think it would have been easy to. There’s some pretty stunning imagery, violent, no holds barred imagery.

Adamshick: I’ve read that poem and… people seem to ask very serious questions. It’s very sustained. And it’s ruthless. It just keeps going and digging and nagging. I think that’s why it took so long.

Rumpus: Thematically they’re different, but “Out Past the Dead End Sign,” the long marriage poem at the end of Curses and Wishes. Together the two seem to serve as anchors.

Adamshick: When I was constructing the book, that poem (“Out Past the Dead End Sign”) was just a bonus. There’s a book, and then in my mind, the book ends. Then you get this other poem.

Rumpus: Really?

Adamshick: That’s just in my… No one would ever know.

“The Emptiness,” the poem about war, is right in the middle. It’s definitely the keystone.

Rumpus: It’s funny because “Out Past the Dead End Sign” that’s a poem people often comment on. Its character is a huge part of the book.

Adamshick: That, too, took a long time to write.

Rumpus What does “a long time” mean to you?

Adamshick: I’d say it took eight months or a year to write… obviously I’m not working it every day. But definitely on a weekly basis I’d be working on it on some level.

That’s the other thing about MFAs. Maybe you have some teaching you have to do, but basically you’re going to a small amount of classes where your homework is to write, and you’re freed up to do it. If you’re not in those programs you have to figure out how you’re going to pay rent and read and write. It’s always been fine with me because I’ve somehow managed to work part time. But I go without a lot. I don’t have a car, I don’t have a house. Poetry always satisfied certain hungers, and that was enough.

Rumpus: I think I have a phobia of acquiring comfort items for that reason. I’m afraid once I have them I won’t want to go without them. I got a car a year ago and I’m completely hooked.

Adamshick: If I had a car I don’t think I’d want to not have one again. But my life seems to be fine without one.

Rumpus: If you keep abstaining you’ll be fine. So, if you learned about poems by reading them, were you also reading books on craft?

Adamshick: Oh no, I never read those. I still don’t read those.

Rumpus: So “enjambment,” all this stuff they learn in school, you absorbed by reading.

Adamshick: When it comes to words like “enjambment,” and “strophe” and “stanzas,” I think I learned about those in the dictionary. I read the definitions and matched them up with poems I was reading…books on craft weren’t of interest. And the lives of poets, for the most part, I don’t care.

Rumpus: You don’t care about the bio?

Adamshick: Not really. I mean there are some poets that you have a special connection to and you kind of want to know about their lives. But I read Norman Dubie poems, I’ve read a lot of his books, and it’s never occurred to me to figure out where he teaches and where he went to school or if he’s married or not. I just like the poems.

Is that different?

Rumpus: Um…Yes. You seem to be living on a Spartan island. It’s awesome. I’m guilty of paying attention to those things. I don’t think they’re very important to the poetry, but nowadays we’re trained on ‘reality,’ celebrity.’ You can make a celebrity of anyone, even poets! Then stuff comes out in interviews, like this one, “Dorianne Laux is the den mother of these four youngish and successful dudes,” before you know it you have a legend on your hands.

Adamshick: I don’t understand that.

When I read a history of poets and they’re lumped into a group, the Black Mountain Writers, the New York Poets, or whatever, there are always people in the group who don’t want to be associated. Think of William Bronk and everyone obsessing about him, “He’s a Black Mountain Writer, he’s in there with Creeley, and Cid Corman and Neidecker,” and he’s like “Yeeaahh … I like those guys. Some of our books are on the same press, but I’ve never considered myself a ‘Black Mountain writer,’ I wouldn’t even know what the mission statement is.” You know? There’s no mission statement! The four of us, our frugal family, if that’s what people think it is, we don’t have a mission statement. Write some poems, read some poems. Talk about poems. We just like poems and we stick together. Those groups seem to come after the fact. A way for people to understand, to define where these writers came from, who they are, what they accomplished, but it’s all after the fact.

Rumpus: Do you have the sense, living in your skin right now, that the future’s looking back and assigning the movement?

Adamshick: No.

No, I don’t think so.

I mean, no.

I just write poems. It seems there are certain people who pay a peculiar attention to the fact that we all have books. Like there are collectors who want to collect everything that the four of us were ever associated with. And that’s really weird … I’m not writing on a piece of paper thinking, “This is something for the archives.” I think that’s pretty vain.

Rumpus: And creepy.

Adamshick: I have found poetry and trying to get it published nothing but humbling. There are way more nos than yeses. The yeses are often clouded with, “It’s because you knew this person.” A lot of the time you can’t even take faith in the fact that someone chose or published your poem because they like it.

So it’s actually just really humbling. I come home from work and sit in a room by myself and I write. When I write something that seems almost done, I call up McGriff or I call up Dorianne and I read them the poem and they say “That’s good, you should just change this and that, and maybe work on the title.” I don’t know if I’m answering the question.

Rumpus: It’s fine. This is the good stuff. So, who is your contemporary or younger that you like right now? Is anyone exciting you?

Adamshick: I have to think about that for a minute. I buy a lot of older books and a lot of books in translation. I don’t know how closely I pay attention to the latest thing that’s coming out. I might be sort of bad at that.

Rumpus: Are you hot on particular eras or regions?

Adamshick: I have a real love for Polish poets, especially the generation right after the war, and after, I think ’68, is that what they say? “The generation of ’68.” But the generation before … and Szymborska, Julia Hartwig… I love all of them. I will buy the books wherever and whenever and …

Rumpus: That’s an answer. “Polish poets.”

Adamshick: Love the polish poets.

Rumpus: Are you Polish?

Adamshick: No. Mostly Hungarian. My mother’s maiden name is Zabo.

Rumpus: Where is she?

Adamshick: She lives in Illinois.

Rumpus: That’s where you grew up?

Adamshick: Yeah. She’s still there.

Rumpus: Is this the town reflected in the book?

Adamshick: Yeah. The poem about Harvard, Illinois.

Rumpus: “Snow falling in a barrel of engine parts?”

Adamshick: Yes. My notion of that town is that it’s bankrupt. It’s poor and it’s tiny.

Rumpus: It’s an industrial town?

Adamshick: Growing up I always thought it was a farming town but nobody really farms there. There were probably four farmers that had thousands and thousands of acres and the rest of the people worked in factories.

Rumpus: Do you maintain ties with any of the people you grew up with?

Adamshick: No, I…

Rumpus: You just got the hell out.

Adamshick: Yeah. I got the hell out.

Rumpus: Do you have siblings?

Adamshick: I have two older brothers; a brother that lives here in town and a brother that lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

Rumpus: What do they think of your conversion from non-reader to poet?

Adamshick: Now that the book has come out they have a different attitude about the seriousness of my endeavor. I don’t know what they thought before. Before it was just something I did, now it’s different. Everything about it is different. The book has gotten me a job teaching. A book has a way of doing that.

Rumpus: You were saying yours was the longer road. What do you tell a young poet who is on the fence about fighting it out in the real world?

Adamshick: Nobody should ever ask me for advice.

Photos by Jaclyn Campanaro

Read “The Mathematician,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Carl Adamshick.


Lisa Wells is the author of Beast, a collection of poems, and Yeah. No. Totally., a book of essays. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon she currently lives in Iowa City. More from this author →