The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with D.A. Powell about his poetry collection Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with D.A.Powell. 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 read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So who all do we have with us tonight? And where are you checking in from?
Julie Brooks Barbour: Julie, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
D. A. Powell: Hey, Julie.
Ben Loehnen: Ben, from NYC.
Brian S: Hi Julie! Great to meet you at AWP!
D. A. Powell: Hey, Ben.
Julie Brooks Barbour: Same to you, Brian!
Brian S: Hi Ben!
Ben Loehnen: Hello!
D. A. Powell: That typing sound is awesome.
Brian S: Anyone else still tragically behind in their lives right now?
Julie Brooks Barbour: Yes. Lucky to get caught up a little bit this week.
Mel B: Hey all, Melissa Barrett from Columbus, OH.
D. A. Powell: AWP is like kryptonite for writers. It’s a chunk of where they came from, yet it perilously saps their strength.
Brian S: Hi Melissa!
D. A. Powell: Hey, Melissa
Julie Brooks Barbour: D.A., I couldn’t agree more.
Brian S: Any particular color of kryptonite? Like I know the differences.
Ben Loehnen: A question for Tracy Smith.
D. A. Powell: Mine is usually green.
Brian S: So it’s 8 p.m., time to officially begin the chat. In my piece on the book, D.A., I wondered about the word “guide” in the title, whether it was meant to be guide as in guidebook or guide as in person who leads others through. Any ideas on that?
Brian S: And everyone else should jump in with questions or thoughts when they wish. Don’t hold back.
D. A. Powell: I meant it first as a handbook, a manual for how to live in the rural world on the verge of changing. (The world changing, but also oneself changing.)
But I also meant it as a Baedeker, a field guide to wildlife and wild life, both of which lurk in the bushes.
Brian S: Is that also where the “useless” part of the landscape comes in? That the landscape doesn’t communicate what it once might have?
Or even that it might be deceptive at this point?
D. A. Powell: I think of “useless” first as “not having any use,” which can be both positive (art for art’s sake, wilderness for wilderness’ sake) and second as “ruined.” I like for there to be a range of registers in my titles, since I come up with so few.
Julie Brooks Barbour: The first definition seemed to come up a lot for me throughout the book: the landscape that one sees that others don’t, which to others might be useless, but is another way of seeing the world outside the norm.
D. A. Powell: Everything’s deceptive. I read Ashbery in the middle of the night on the toilet last night. He proved to me the truth of deception at that moment. I was incredibly moved.
Brian S: Ha!
Ben Loehnen: Ha!
Brian S: You and me, Ben.
D. A. Powell: Yes, Julie… a “place of first permission” as Robert Duncan said.
Melissa Barrett: Interesting, Julie. I saw the second definition more. Lines like “I had a man that pressed me down into the soil,” “I wasn’t the first kid you raped” . . .
D. A. Powell: Ah, but in those instances, we—humanity—are also implicated as the assaulters. “I was that man. I was that town.”
Melissa Barrett: Right, right…
Brian S: I loved how your age came into the work—I’m guessing we’re of a similar generation, though I’m not sure just how old you are. I really enjoyed poems like “An Elegy for My Libido” in the sense that they were noting the decay of age, almost embracing it. I’m writing a bit about that these days too.
D. A. Powell: I don’t think poetry should let anyone off the hook. That’s what I loved about the Ashbery—the way in which all aspects of participation are alive at once in the poem.
Julie Brooks Barbour: I love the places where the poems become a guide, here and there. One of my favorite places: “As long as there is room, why not let all the people in? / There’d be no heartache then.”
Brian S: I think of that in terms of honesty. A poem can lie to you about facts but it has to be true to you on some important level or else it fails.
D. A. Powell: I think “Elegy for my Libido” was too silly an idea to pass up. Once I had thought of it, I had to write the poem.
Julie Brooks Barbour: There’s so much room for everyone in these poems.
Brian S: I have a poem like that in my “will I ever try to publish this” file, called “Ode to My Ear Hair.”
Christine: Hi Doug! Can you tell us if you think of the Whatzits dying in the development as useless definition one, or useless definition two?
Thelma: Thelma checking in here from the northern Sacto Valley (foothills above it, actually). This landscape was exceedingly familiar to me, I must say: Bidwell Park, Thermalito, Paradise, etc. I saw it in a whole new way.
Brian S: Hi Christine! Hi Thelma!
D. A. Powell: I think the Whatzits are beautiful people, even if we can’t remember their names.
Doug Paul Case: Speaking of silly ideas, I was hoping you could talk a bit about “Pupil.” I can’t stay for long, but I’m wondering about the last lines: are they what’s being recited or the speaker’s admission? [I love ambiguity as much as the next guy, but I’m dying to know.]
D. A. Powell: Hey, Doug, good to see you. I meant nothing of which you can’t conceive.
Doug Paul Case: Oh, Doug, I’m sure. 🙂 I’m just going to imagine it’s how I feel about one of my own.
Brian S: That is an interesting poem, especially the way “The Word” is capitalized in the fourth-to-last line. Very Biblical, it seems to me.
D. A. Powell: Hi Thelma. The foothills and the valley are truly spectacular. And at the same time, they are in transition, and we worry about their future, yes? I worry.
Thelma: Yes, amen to that, D.A. Were you born up here?
D. A. Powell: No, I was born in Albany, GA. Part of the book is also about the idea of nativity. I was always aware of when I was using a non-native or a native species in any particular field of action.
Christine: I did think that poem in particular made them more beautiful because of their lack of purpose. As with the many other objects and plants that were just “there.”
Brian S: That’s interesting, given that humans are pretty much the epitome of invasive species.
Thelma: You cite so many of the flowers here—those of the flannel bush, for instance.
D. A. Powell: Yes, we are. Invasive, I mean.
The flannelbush is a native. Frementodendron. I love its yellow flowers
Melissa Barrett: Doug, whenever I see you read there’s always quite a bit of laughter from the audience. But then I read the books by myself in my tiny apartment I often feel the longing and heartache. What response are you really going for? All of it? How would you describe your work?
Gaby Calvocoressi: Hi from Texas! Sorry to be late!
Brian S: Hi Gaby!
I think those two things are impossible to separate, Melissa. At least for me. There’s no humor without longing.
Doug Paul Case: I have a similar experience, Melissa. For me, I think the difference lies somewhere in the pacing. The voice in my head is often slower than when read aloud.
But I agree with Brian, they only work because they’re both present.
Brian S: I think also that when I’m listening to a poem, it’s easier for me to be taken by surprise, which is part of the humor. I linger over poems more on the page, so that modifies the effect.
D. A. Powell: I think I want people to laugh at life more than anything.
Melissa Barrett: Yeah, kind of an impossible effect. Yes—I live for the surprise. Best surprise of the book? Possibly “I play on the football team, too. I just don’t play on all of them at once.”
D. A. Powell: Well, there, I was just being dirty.
Doug Paul Case: IT WAS GREAT.
Melissa Barrett: Ha. Well done.
D. A. Powell: But also I guess I was trying to say, “everyone is native, everyone belongs.”
Julie Brooks Barbour: Yes. I love the humor in this book.
Brian S: And then there are the poems which sort of let you know right from the beginning, like “Backdrop with Splashes of Cum On It.” Which has that great first line “Often I get stuck to the bottom of someone’s shoe.”
D. A. Powell: I had to have one canvas that was very pomo homo.
Brian S: Just one?
Ben Loehnen: Or “The Fluffer Talks of Eternity,” which is ostensibly a funny title to a sad poem.
D. A. Powell: Well, in terms of the poems I was thinking of as “landscapes.” In terms of the guide poems, I probably had a little touch of blue.
Thelma: I’ll be returning to your definition of hell as “the most miraculous invention of love, …” Another kind of landscape. But longing pervades every bit of geography in this book.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Hi Doug! Your book (and you) are gorgeous!
D. A. Powell: Desire is a kind of hell. Look at poor Blanche Dubois, when she got on the streetcar by that name.
Brian S: Thelma, I see that as a very Dante-esque definition of hell, probably because I’ve been reading a lot of and about him lately.
Thelma: Yes, definitely.
Ken Taylor: “fluffer” refers to soufflés right?
Ben Loehnen: Ha!
D. A. Powell: I like the Virgilian version of the underworld. A place where all souls exist together.
I can’t make a soufflé with EggBeaters.
Brian S: That’s certainly the kind of hell I’d prefer, if one indeed exists. Since in Dante’s version I’d be having something horrible happening to me for all eternity.
D. A. Powell: I’d have done the whole circuit of Dante’s circles and gone twice round the long way, too.
Brian S: Do you have a religious background, DA? I saw all these references suggesting at least a familiarity. (Not asking you about current belief.)
D. A. Powell: I like the Hindu idea of all roads leading to the same God. That was something I was trying to work out in the mind of the book as well.
Brian S: I was looking at “Lessons in Woodworking” in particular just now.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I’m just catching up but I’d love to know if Donne is a ghost in the book, specifically “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” and “Death’s Duel” (I may be nuts here. But I’ve been wondering).
D. A. Powell: I was born in the Bible Belt. My father’s family were all Bible belters. They belted us with the Bible. But despite their abuse of it, it’s a Good Book.
Julie Brooks Barbour: Ha!
Brian S: So we’re like cousins, spiritually speaking. (South Louisiana Jehovah’s Witnesses for me).
Julie Brooks Barbour: I grew up there too, D.A. Geez did I get belted. That Baptist guilt never goes away.
D. A. Powell: I think if you’re hearing Donne, it’s because we’re both steeped in the language of King James edition of some old, old texts.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Indeed.
Thelma: I’m guessing you ran away at an early age?
All of you!
Brian S: Not me. I stayed until I was twenty-six. Been in recovery ever since.
Ken Taylor: I did.
D. A. Powell: The landscape of the rural south and the landscape of the Central Valley are similar in some ways. I often have used ideas from one to describe another. A kind of cultural synesthesia.
Julie Brooks Barbour: I was about the same as Brian. 🙂
Thelma: No kudzu up this way. Yet.
Brian S: Since I’ve moved to Iowa, I’ve seen some real similarities as well. Makes me think that in some ways, rural is rural the world over. The plants change, but the underlying landscape has echoes at least.
Julie Brooks Barbour: It is. Michigan’s UP is much like the rural south.
Ken Taylor: It’s interesting DA. I’ve discovered a similar rural quality outside of most big cities. Folks is folks.
D. A. Powell: I only use images that can truly be transplanted from one to the next. I try to stay “true” in that way.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I’m seeing that in Texas right now. It’s like someone took Williamsburg and Silver Lake and put them in the tiny rural town I grew up in.
Ken Taylor: do they put peanuts in their co-colas in the central valley?
Brian S: But cities don’t quite translate the same way. At least not for me.
D. A. Powell: Ken, you live in one of the most beautiful states east of Tennessee.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I went running our first week here and realized I was going to remember whose yard had a dog that could get out. It’s been a long time since that was a main concern.
Ken Taylor: Go east till you smell it and south till you step in it.
Thelma: Yep, we hillbillies like our dogs slavering and jaundice-eyed.
D. A. Powell: I’m a Pepper. But yes, peanuts, sunflower seeds or CornNuts.
Gaby Calvocoressi: We like them that way in little northern towns too. 🙂
D. A. Powell: I have a salt tooth, not a sweet tooth.
Brian S: I really liked the ways you worked with what’s disappearing without getting nostalgic for it. That’s a fine line to walk.
Mine’s tart—I eat lemons.
Ken Taylor: good night darling people. it’s late on this side of the country. congrats on all the love for your new book DA. well deserved.
D. A. Powell: Yes, it’s hard because I feel I have to risk sentimentality in order to get someplace dangerous to me emotionally.
Thanks, Ken. Goodnite, friend.
Brian S: And if you get nostalgic about it, then you slip into dishonesty as well.
Julie Brooks Barbour: I admire the bravery of these poems. It makes me want to risk more with my own work.
D. A. Powell: Well, everything about art is dishonest.
Thelma: Would you please say a little bit about your process? Do you write many drafts, revise much?
Melissa Barrett: Doug, I’d love to hear about your switch in this book from sprawling, spaced out poems to tighter poems with more typical capitalization and punctuation.
D. A. Powell: I switched because I wanted to do something new. I had avoided traditional sentences. But I decided I’d use the form that most terrified me.
I think sentences are little deaths. They all come to the same end. Silence.
But I realized that avoidance had a poetic purpose for me at one time.
Brian S: Funny how we do that—sense a need to switch up, lest we become predictable.
Melissa Barrett: What form terrifies you the most?
Brian S: The heroic couplet.
Seriously, that thing can go die in a corner.
Melissa Barrett: Lol Brian 🙂
Gaby Calvocoressi: It’s actually the single stanza poem for me.
Brian S: Are you into a new project yet, DA?
D. A. Powell: I might be. Right now I’m just jotting in my notebook. And working on something silly on the side.
Brian S: How does the Iowa landscape compare to the California ones you wrote about in this book?
D. A. Powell: How do you fare with just a single-line poem?
Brian S: I’ve never been able to get that small. I have problems keeping it under 20 lines these days. I blather.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Now that’s a different animal altogether. I love it. I think that’s why I loved Twitter and I why I had to leave… I spent all my time on it.
I’m not saying I’m good at it but I do love the muscle of it and possibility.
Brian S: Even then, I don’t write poems in that space. I collect them together and make a single poem out of them.
And use the hashtag as the title.
Thelma: Blather you can cut back later, Brian. Easier than having to stretch, methinks.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Every time I hear hashtag I think of a jaunty hat and British food.
D. A. Powell: Why not try writing a single-stanza poem built out of single-line poems? It’d be rugged, like hewn brick.
Julie Brooks Barbour: Yes, Thelma. I”m a stretcher and have always admired poets who can write more in a first draft and then scale back. I always have to add on.
Gaby Calvocoressi: You know what? that’s going to be my exercise tomorrow. I’ve been in the worst rough. That will be the attempt and key for tomorrow.
D. A. Powell: Yes, Pound cautions against choosing a form and filling it up with fluff.
Brian S: We only have a minute left, so are there any final questions?
D. A. Powell: Anyone else eating Chinese food right now?
Gaby Calvocoressi: Pizza.
D. A. Powell: Pizza is also good.
Brian S: Had chicken breast with rice and citrus sour cream, carrots boiled in balsamic vinegar and a cucumber salad just before we came on.
And an Australian rosé.
Gaby Calvocoressi: On a rainy night Every Good Pizza Does Fine. Or something like that. 🙂
Brian S: Best I’ve eaten in a month.
D. A. Powell: We find our sustenance where we can
Thelma: Thanks for the chat—you guys are making me hungry. Gonna go shoot me a boar and roast him. 🙂
Brian S: Thanks for chatting with us, and for such terrific answers DA.
Melissa Barrett: Pizza here, too—and a four-shot latte.
Gaby Calvocoressi: !
D. A. Powell: Hog Roast at Thelma’s!
Brian S: And to everyone who joined in as well—thanks for coming.
Thelma: C’mon down! Or up.
D. A. Powell: Thank you, Brian! Thanks everyone.
Melissa Barrett: Thanks, Doug!
Gaby Calvocoressi: Thanks so much, Doug. What a great way to spend Friday night
D. A. Powell: It’s Friday?
Gaby Calvocoressi: All over the world
Brian S: Except where it’s already Saturday.
D. A. Powell: I was in anaethesia today.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Spoken like a man who ate chicken and rose
D. A. Powell: Good nite! xoxo
Gaby Calvocoressi: Really? I hope all’s okay. That funny loss of time. xoxo!
Julie Brooks Barbour: Great chat. Goodnight!
Brian S: Good night everyone. See you next month!