The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Randall Mann about his new book Straight Razor, Fleet Week, Hart Crane, and Naked Poetry.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: This book feels a bit less anchored in a place than your last two. Florida and San Francisco make appearances, but don’t seem to have the same weight that they did in your earlier work. Was that intentional? How did it happen?
Randall: I don’t know that I intentionally pulled away from the place-centric approach of the first two books, but you’re right, it’s anchored more in an emotional landscape maybe, one of longing, and the perils of longing.
Camille D.: The lack of specific geographical placement allows you also, it seems to move through time as well as space.
Randall: I wrote it during a curious, almost loveless–or it seemed–time, one of too much work, too much low-wattage sex, too much political disappointment…
Brian S: It’s more a shift, I think, because your first two books had that longing as well. It’s like you’ve just changed focus a little.
Randall: Camille, yes I think that’s right, it allowed me to use memory as currency, to perhaps approach it more easily, and to let whatever place lurk in the background.
I think I have changed focus, been able to more carefully articulate the ambivalence toward love, sex, poetry, audience…
Brian S: Want to hear something funny? I only just noticed that I’m quoted on the back of this book.
Randall: You are very quotable, Brian–keep it up!
Brian S: What time span do these poems cover?
Randall: I wrote them between early 2008 and 2011, four years of hard work; I have a handful of poems written as early as 2002, but the bulk are written in a four-year period. I have never written so quickly, with such an eye on writing. It was, not to sound too grand or self-important, exhausting.
Jody Smiling: ‘straight razor’ was my introduction to your poetry…and as I returned to SF only yesterday, I read it in one fell swoop today … mostly at the Epicentre cafe … I was captivated … and … not sure how to articulate this … but there are so many ‘moments’ in words, references, images, that brought me back to my own adolescence … in the 70’s … there is a universal-ness yet very distinctly separateness … I was at once moved and confused …
Randall: Jody, I often feel moved and confused. One thing perhaps I share with my speakers is a desire to connect with the world, and an innate separateness that I cannot seem to shake.
Is it my imagination, or is this book a little more formally constrained than your earlier work? I’m thinking especially of the tight trimeter lines and the pantoums among others.
I don’t mean to say that you’ve not written in form before, just that it feels more apparent here.
Or maybe my memory is foggy.
Jody Smiling: One poem in particular I read several times over … ‘Stable’ … it has an intentional cognitive disruption — swap this word for that one, this image for that … for me, it set a tone for reading the whole … I have to take the time to feel it … truth is fluid … words are camouflage …
Randall: I think the book is about half strict forms, half free verse, like the other books–but I think the difference is that the free verse is tightened up a bit, the rhymes that come and go in, say, “My Subdivision” or “Teaser.”
Brian S: Is there something in particular that draws you to those forms?
Randall: Yes, I have always wanted to midcourse-correct (or undermine) in a poem, and let that be the turn. That poem is to do with displacement, with almosts–even the rhymes are intentionally off.
Camille D.: I was completely bowled over by “End Words.” It was one of the most stunning sestinas I’ve ever read. Both because of the mastery of the difficult form and because of the difficult subject.
Brian S: The displacement also throws the rhythm off in places, which makes for a different response to the poem.
Camille D.: If I have a question about that poem, I think it would be when and how you realized what form the poem would take.
Randall: I think every poem declares its form. I have a toolkit of possibilites, and once I get going on a poem, I, well, listen to it, and form content into form into content. My pantoum “September Elegies,” for instance. The turning back seemed like something appropriate for a poem about turning back to these dead youth, just as they are turning on themselves when they commit suicide.
Camille D.: September Elegies was the other poem that knocked me out.
Brian S: The pantoum in general is so good for remembrances, and you used it beautifully there.
Randall: Camille, thank you so much. I have had that idea since the tragedy of Rachel’s death. It was another case of words turning on themselves, but in this case, it was more a narrative, so a sestina seemed like the right form.
Camille D.: I think that because they were in close proximity, my knowledge of at least one of the people at the center of “End Words” and my knowledge of the way the youths in “September Elegies” died overlapped and made the grief even more profound. Can you talk a bit about your decisions about how to arrange the poems in the book so that the spoke to and with each other?
Randall: Thanks to you both. I rarely write poems where it is so deeply felt during the process because the losses are so keen, and seem so close; both “End Words” and “September Elegies” are thus.
Jody Smiling: me too Camille … and Memory … such a tribute to a father, a moment in history and … somehow what I suspect is a quintessentially American gaze (she’s says being Canadian eh?) I didn’t have time to google it … how does Idi Amin and his tanks connect …
Randall: My father was a silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles in Munich. The man who beat him, John Akii-Bua, was from Uganda. The tanks are re: the tragedy of the Israeli atheletes.
The first section of the book had so many poems of childhood or early adulthood, real or imagined. The second is, how to say it, a suite of dysfunctional relationships and encounters. The third section is I guess satire and self-laceration, especially re: art.
Brian S: Do you have a darling from this book?
Randall: If I had to pick one right now, maybe “Untoward Occurrence at Embassy Suites Poetry Reading.” Ha.
Brian S: I was secretly hoping for “To Mercury, in Retrograde.”
Randall: Oh I like “Mercury” too. I am experimenting with ending readings with both. I think, do I end with killing off the audience, or with a poem that has the line “my wife’s a dirty hole”? Yikes!
Camille D.: I was struck by that (for me) biographical revelation about your father in that poem. I wondered how much of your focus and training as an artist has been influenced by your father’s experience of focused training. I felt like I ended up reading that into the poems, into the attention to craft and detail, into the exercise of memory.
Jody Smiling: thanks Randall … 1972 was quite a year …September in particular .. the Summit Series … but I digress
Brian S: Do you ever have moments when you think “I can’t write that. No one will publish it”?
Randall: Yes, Brian. I often think, no one wants to read this. No one wants to hear this. My own work makes me cringe sometimes, cringe in a “there’s nothing I can do because it had to come out like this” kind of way.
Brian S: What are you working on presently?
Randall: My dad is a fantastic guy, but he did instill rigor and work ethic in me, a kind of no-nonsense approach to achievement. I ran 10Ks when I was eight. In the summer of 2011, I wrote four sestinas in six weeks. Welcome to my life.
Brian S: 10Ks? I don’t even run to the car when it’s raining.
Randall: I’m working on poems about work, I guess. Or related to work. Which sounds dull as drywall but I’m having great fun working the vernacular of work into poems. I’m also writing some poems about family. And I don’t know, just writing. Taking breaks. Writing some more.
Camille D.: By work do you mean the work of writing poems, or work like a dayjob, or work like the kind of work Levine talks about in “What Work Is”?
Brian S: Camille beat me to my question, only I wouldn’t have quoted Levine, which shows how much more awesome she is than I am.
Randall: Yes, more Levine, if Levine worked in global biotechnology. Camille is pretty damn awesome.
Camille D.: Detroit was the precursor to global biotech, no doubt.
Jody Smiling: Who are Susan Steinberg and George O. Kolombatovich?
Camille D.: Along the line of Jody’s question, you very frequently use real people, real names, but just as quickly leave seemingly very real people without names. What kinds of decisions go into deciding which way to go in your poems?
Randall: Susan Steinberg is a fantastic short fiction writer; I wrote much of this book across the table from her at a cafe in the Mission. George O. Kolombotovich is my besty, ex-boyfriend, guy who stays under my skin, person to whom I have dedicated three books now (someone get me more therapy).
Camille D.: FYI, Jody and anyone else interested: http://austinist.com/2013/04/08/what_makes_a_woman_susan.php
Jody Smiling: thanks Camille 🙂
Randall: I am probably going to pay for this at some point, but I think pretty much everyone I come into contact with is fair game. So I use real names sometimes if the poem says it happened like that. It feels right if I use the real person I reference. Of course the poem is all lies, even when it’s true, so I guess I can sleep at night.
Camille D.: I don’t have a ready link for Randall’s “besty, ex-boyfriend, guy who stays under my skin.”
Jody Smiling: sometimes being linkless is a good thing
Randall: Camille I’m laughing into my laptop
Brian S: The question I always ask after the “what are you writing” one is who are you reading. So, who? 🙂
Randall: Right now I am reading Lawrence Wright’s book on Hollywood and Scientology, as well as this swingin’ anthology I found on the street (oh SF) called NAKED POETRY, which came out in 1969, poetry in open forms
Camille D.: I LOVE Naked Poetry. I read that in high school and it might be one of the books that decided the course of my life.
Pleased to be the pretty damn awesome Camille who makes you laugh into your laptop and materializes (or dematerializes) your links. I’ll add those skills to my list of super powers.
Randall: It’s so much fun! Those pics of those poets, I mean. And the little craft essays. Snyder: “The poet must have total sensitivity to the inner potentials of his own language…” !!!
A long list, I’ll venture to say!
Camille D.: Where’s Thelma? Isn’t this this point of the conversation where she would ask about the book design and/or the editing experience? I love those questions.
Brian S: Well, everyone I’ve known who’s worked with Persea raves about Gabe as an editor, so I’m assuming that still stands.
Randall: Well, I can say that my editor, the dapper Gabe Fried, is, yes, the best in the business. Professional, succinct. He gave me brilliant line edits but honored the vision of the book; he didn’t try to make me into anything other than the poet you read on the page. Just a better poet, thanks to Gabe.
Jody Smiling: I have a question — what is your connection to Hart Crane? The death without a ditch question that infuses the poem Elegy … I love Aunt Nancy … I am in many ways, Aunt Nancy …
Randall: I mean I love Hart Crane, some of Crane, love the idea of Crane, really love his letters, love that he had a weakness for sailors. Myth.
Brian S: What about the cover design? Did you have any input there?
Randall: I had lots of input on the cover; Gabe was very conscientious. We settled on this pervy feather. I like its simplicity, its suggestion.
Brian S: I like the way the first t in the title has this saucy little flip to it.
Randall: I know that it is hella gay, And pink.
Camille D.: Myth that he had a weakness for sailors? Or fact that he had a weakness for myth? Either is a lovely idea.
Jody Smiling: So how did you come to connect Hart Crane with Aunt Nancy?
Camille D.: What did you do for Fleet Week this year? (“My Major Prize”)
Jody Smiling: Isn’t Fleet Week a sequestration fallout?
Randall: I would like to say that I helped out our men in uniform, but the truth is I probably just grumbled at the noise…
Camille D.: Or, more to the point, how much do you revel in making yourself larger than life in your poems than you are in life. If that is, indeed the case. You are, of course, pretty large in life.
Randall: I hadn’t thought about it that way, Camille. I think I’m comfortable making myself, or my speaker, larger than life if I can then cut myself off at the ankles. The way, in “My Major Prize,” the speaker does this drippy performance of sadness and poetry for some unnamed prize committee, only he lets us know that it’s all a wry game.
Camille D.: It’s true. It’s one of the things I admire most about this book. The bigness of our ideas about ourselves, our dreams for ourselves and also our sexy ambitions, but also the deflation of it all when things turn out the way they usually do.
Brian S: Will there be any sort of reading tour?
Randall: I have a couple readings planned in Berkeley and the Mission. It’s a tour of the Bay!
Brian S: And then we’ll see you in Seattle, presumably.
Randall: Yes a signing at AWP Seattle!
Camille D.: Thanks for this book, Randall. It was a delight to read, and I immediately shared several of my poems with students because there’s lots to learn here about how to write and what to write about.
Randall: Thanks so much Camille. Some reviewers have read this as cynicism but I don’t see it that way. When I say “I am so sick / of pretending to be me,” it’s exhaustion at the everyday performance, in life, in art, even in our most intimate encounters.