The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Tom Sleigh about his new book, Station Zed, what makes a prose poem a poem, how reportage and the surreal can combine inside a poem, and secularizing the mysteries of death, redemption, and resurrection.
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.
Ellen: Hope and I were just talking about how we were struck by the contrast between the tone of the war poems and then the regular life ones. I’m very curious about his selection process.
Hope: Hello. I’d like to start with “Homage to Basho.” It took a minute and then I realized that it is a haibun. The prose with the poems took me to Iraq—gorgeous, haunting, harrowing, and mystical.
Brian S: Yeah, there are some tonal and structural similarities—the long, digressive sentences, for example—and yet the effect is so different depending on the subject matter.
Ellen: Very much so.
Brian S: What was it about “Homage to Basho” that struck you so, Hope?
Ellen: Hope, I’m so impressed you knew to recognized the haibun. I want to go back and re-read with that in mind. I need to learn more forms so that I’ll recognize them. I suppose it doesn’t make a huge difference in enjoyment but it is interesting to see the techniques at work.
Brian S: One of my great joys is discovering a poem fits a formal style after I’ve read it a handful of times.
Ellen: I like that attitude! Always something new to discover.
Hope: Thank you, Ellen. It took a couple reads and then I saw it. Japanese poetry is a love of mine—Basho and Issa.
Brian S: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it took me years to realize that Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is in rhyming couplets.
Ellen: I recently did the Mod Po class on coursera with Al Filreis. I was constantly missing out on obvious form questions!
Brian S: I signed up for the first one of those but couldn’t keep up. Wish I’d had the time.
Ellen: I highly encourage you to try again next time around. You can really go at your own pace. I loved every minute I was able to put into it. Didn’t do homework but loved listening to the discussions.
Brian S: How did you all react to the Iraq poems? Not just the way he structured them, but the poems themselves. I’ve never been to Iraq, but a number of people I went to college with (younger than I am) did, with the military. It seems so long ago and yet so immediate all at the same time.
Ellen: As for war poems, I had trouble getting into them because topic was not sitting right because of holidays, etc…. But once I dug in I was transfixed. Especially the one about the student.
Brian S: Oh yeah, that poem just destroyed me.
Hope: Songs for the Cold War—”3/Bomb Shelter There was a Bay, there was a Pig, there was a Missile.”—Wow, A great sentence
Ellen: Isn’t that great! Talk about paring it down.
Brian S: I discovered that here in my neighborhood, just a couple of blocks away, there’s a bomb shelter, complete with nuclear sign.
Ellen: Wow. That really brings it home.
Brian S: Sleigh is, I suspect, a bit older than I am, but I still remember the Cold War, doing air raid drills in 2nd grade, all that.
Hope: I was in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. I didn’t go to Iraq but I was doing support on my base. I heard stories from those returning and this book took me back to the moment when my base commander said to us “we are at war.”
Ellen: Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he combined the war poems with the regular life ones—the reality is that there isn’t much separation between the two, no matter how some people, like me, prefer to keep war out of mind.
Brian S: I was selling TVs at a Sears, married, and a Jehovah’s Witness. That was a whole other lifetime ago.
Ellen: I was working in a library while in law school and somebody came in to announce it and we were all wondering if that meant we would get out of class the next day. I’m still ashamed of myself about that.
Brian S: That’s a good point, Ellen. I didn’t really notice that personally until the second Gulf War, when there were people I knew who were over there. They all came back, fortunately. One is on his 6th tour right now.
Ellen: Hope, I had forgotten you were in the military. Did you write much about your service during the war?
Hope: Not much. I recently wrote some things in my journal about that time.
Ellen: The other thing that I was curious about with these poems is how many were prose. I have tried writing some prose poems and they always feel like short stories or mini-narratives. I’m still struggling to see the difference sometimes. Do you all have any experience with that?
Brian S: When I was in grad school, I asked a friend of mine what made a prose poem a poem, and she didn’t really have a good answer for me. I still haven’t found one, even though I’ve written them myself. But I do think I have a feel for it, for language that wants to be poetic but for whatever reason is just not appropriate for the subject.
Does that make any sense?
Ellen: It does. I feel like I know it when I see it in somebody else’s work but then when I try to do it myself I am missing some special sauce that takes the words to that next level. Sometimes I wonder if I’m trying too hard to create a prose poem when I ought to be focusing on the story and letting it tell itself in whatever form it happens to be.
Brian S: I always go back to Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” which is about this dinner with a Latin American dictator. The poem is, in a lot of ways, flat, even journalistic, but interspersed with these moments of vivid imagery, like comparing the moon to a bare light bulb hanging in the middle of a room, or severed human ears to dried peach halves. If you tried to lineate that poem, it wouldn’t have the power that it does as prose.
Ellen: Thanks, will check that out.
Brian S: I’ve taught that poem a few times, in case you can’t tell. 🙂
Hope: Oh, “The Colonel” is an excellent example. I was studying it a few months ago.
Brian S: When I write them, I aim for the same density of language as I do in my lined poems, for that same tautness and vigor, and if they succeed, I think that’s why.
Ellen: I was reading a New Yorker poem online on my phone and it made look like the words were in a paragraph. I was like—what the heck—this is terrible. And then I realized it was a computer formatting error. Made so much more sense when was reloaded in the correct verse format. It was a good example of how some things just don’t work in one form or another. Is so interesting to me.
Brian S: Sleigh isn’t as tight—he rambles a bit to me, which I think is great if you can pull it off—so his prose poems, like “Detectives,” follow that same stylistic tic. But it’s still a poem, I think.
Ellen: Funny you mentioned “Detectives.” I had a question mark by that one on the very question—of what point does it cross over into poem? But then “Stairway” just seemed perfect to me in terms of the prose form. I saw it immediately as a poem.
Brian S: Well okay, here’s where I get a little loosey-goosey with it. I tend to fall into the line of “if the author says it’s a poem, I’ll go along with it.” I’m not willing to be a genre policeman most of the time.
I just glanced at “Stairway” and I get what you mean—there’s a different intensity to it.
Ellen: I do the same. I just can’t help wondering how the decisions are made. I was wanting to ask him if he ever struggles with the choice or whether it is always immediately apparent to him.
Hope: I’ve seen these prose poems more and more, especially in Poetry magazine.
Brian S: Like in the last year or so? Because that might be due to the new editor, Don Share.
Ellen: That would be interesting in terms of timing. I only recently started subscribing but will keep my eye out for that.
Hope: Yes, in the past year also in The Sun magazine. in “KM4,” it reads like a journalist reporting the bombing but it also reads as a poem. I like this long poem.
Brian S: Because of the stuff I do for The Rumpus, I almost never read journals anymore. I’m so neck deep in collections that that’s how I experience most poetry these days. There or online.
That poem was such a kick in the teeth. And it felt like a poem that had to be sectioned, because how else do you get those varied points of view?
Ellen: I flagged this one to go back and re-read. I really liked how he broke it up into pieces. It may be simplistic to some more sophisticated readers, but I felt it worked perfectly for exactly the reason Brian says.
“syllables of smoke never heard before” !!!
Was he a journalist during the war?
Hope: Yes, good line. Also, “The AK wants to tell a different truth—”
Brian S: After the first 20 pages or so of the book, I thought there was going to be a lot of religious stuff going on, and it largely faded away. Anyone else notice that?
I think he’s been a journalist recently, but he also teaches at Hunter College in NY.
Ellen: The religion thing didn’t pop out at me.
Brian S: Not so much religion, which might have rankled me—Jesus, though, is in a number of the early poems. And then just past midway through, he mentions that his speaker doesn’t believe in God. That resonated with me because that’s about where I am—well-versed in the Bible because of my upbringing, but no longer a believer.
Hope: After “Detectives,” the religion does fade away. It would seem that the Muslim faith would have had some role but it didn’t.
Ellen: It’s interesting what you said about how you read mostly collections because of your work with Rumpus. I am just now realized that it’s a different skill set reading collections—I’ve always just read poems before joining the club. This has been a great experience for me reading entire volumes and thinking through how they were brought together and organized and thinking about themes (e.g. religious) that carry throughout or maybe don’t. It is a very different process.
[Due to an Internet outage in his area, Tom Sleigh was unable to join the chat until the hour was almost up, so he went through the above conversation and emailed these comments as a response. – Ed.]
Tom Sleigh: The first comment was from you, Ellen—you noted the contrast in tone between the war poems and the poems that are based more on day to day life. I guess I’m the kind of writer who can’t go forward unless I change my spots. So if I write in a certain register of experience for a while, I have to find a new register before I can continue writing. I’m not at all worried about having a “signature” style, or finding my voice, or sounding like “Tom Sleigh.” That will happen of its own accord. So when I put a book together, I like to think of it as polyvocal: that is, there are many different voices and styles and tones that inhabit the poems, and my job is to represent those various ways of speaking with as much fidelity as I can.
As to the haibun, Graywolf Press, my publisher, asked me to write something for their craft feature on the Graywolf website. That little essay will go up around January 5th or 6th, which is Station Zed‘s official publication date. But to summarize briefly what I say in the essay, I was drawn to haibun because I realized that in writing about this kind of material, I needed a way to counterpoint the subjective nature of the poems with something that would give a much more objective presentation of the poem’s circumstances. And Basho seemed like the perfect formal model. Also, I was deeply aware of the cultural differences, and the difficulties that arise from those differences. One of the first things you have to do in dealing with material of this kind is to admit the limits of what you can actually know. And the interplay between prose and poetry gives you the opportunity to establish a balance between subjective and objective elements.
As to the poems about the Cold War, obviously I was a child of that war. And not only a child of it, but my father worked on the Minuteman Missile program for Thiokol Chemical Corporation in a tiny town in Utah. He was what they called a solid propellant man, because prior to solid propellant, missiles had been using liquid propellant, which was highly volatile. This accounts for the spectacular explosions on take-off during the early part of the space program. Solid propellant was much more stable as a fuel.
So when the Bay of Pigs occurred, everyone in our town was quite certain that we’d be a target of the Soviet Union’s ICBMs. I remember sitting next to my mother and watching the showdown between Castro and Kennedy on TV. Absolutely terrifying. And also strangely like a fairy tale: A bay full of pigs? What in the world could that be? At least that’s what I thought as a very young child.
So much of it was beyond my comprehension: all but the terror, and the feeling that we would shortly be blown up by a nuclear explosion. So the threat of Armageddon was as familiar to me as firing off the toy rocket that I attached to the garden hose behind our house. I would turn the water on full blast, and the water pressure would send the rocket high into the air above the schoolyard playground.
One of the things that our family did on weekends was to witness test firings of rocket boosters. We’d drive out in the country to the test site at dawn, and we’d sit in our car about 50 yards away from the deep pit where the rocket motor had been placed. The rocket motor would ignite, the ground would start to shake, the rim of snow around the hole would melt, and a huge plaque of heat would radiate up from the hole. The firing would last about 45 seconds. If all went well, there’d be pancakes afterward. And if not, then my father had to go back to work on a Saturday. All of it very familiar, but shot through with the eerie sense that the world could literally come to an end.
Hope, I wish I’d been online with you, because I’d have liked to ask you about the Air Force. My father, who fought in the Second World War in China, wanted very much to be a pilot. But he washed out because he kept getting air sick. So he was in the infantry.
Because of the foreign journalism I’ve been doing over the past 8 years, I’ve met many soldiers, and spent a lot of time around military personnel, private contractors, and security teams.
As to prose poems, I remember talking to Phil Levine (he’s a very good friend of mine—I’ve known him for almost 30 years, so I’m not name dropping—or if I am, then at least that’s the context for my name dropping) about some prose poems he’d written, and he said to me, “You know, Tom, my prose poems really are prose.”
And when I heard that I thought, You know, Phil’s right: the prose poems I admire aren’t trying too hard to sound like poetry. The idiom can afford to be a little more relaxed, though never slack. It’s a little bit like my experience of reading Coleridge’s conversation poems. As to the talky element in “Detectives,” I think it has to do with an element of self-satire. Something too taut in the sentence would make it all a little too serious. Again, I think it all has to do with getting the vocal intonations right.
In speaking about lineation, I think writing in lines is all about finding ways to more accurately dramatize shifting vocal tonalities. The sentence itself needs to be an unfolding drama.
“KM4” is a mixture of reportage and the surreal, in which the more surreal element is often the reportage. The short sections seem to be faithful to shifting states of mood—the poem has an element of dream time in it, even as it’s based on a young man who turned out to be a suicide bomber.
And as I said earlier in this email, yes, I’ve been doing journalism for the past 8 years, mainly long form essays about refugee issues: I’ve been in Lebanon and Syria to report on the lives of Palestinian refugees, in Kenya and Somalia to write on Somali refugees, and of course in Iraq. And last March, I was in Libya just before the country fell apart.
The figure of Jesus that Brian picked up on points to my interest in Christian myth, St. Augustine, the Gospels, and Christ as a paradigm for a certain attitude toward suffering. Jesus as a bridge between the human and divine has always interested me. At the same time, I have almost no feeling for a certain kind of religious piety, not matter what tradition it comes from. It’s not that I’m against it—but I suppose poetry compensates for that, though it’s a poor compensation. I guess I’m interested in secularizing the mysteries of death, redemption, and resurrection.
As to putting together whole collections, I find every book is different in what it asks for. Some books announce what it is they need as you write them. Other books are far more intuitive.
This book kept changing until I wrote the Iraq poem. And then I suddenly saw the shape: each section starts with an homage to an outsider—either a political or social or poetic outsider; someone like Zidane, the French soccer player, who headbutted one of the Italian players in the World Cup because that player supposedly taunted him about being an ethnic Algerian (as well as insulting his sister). Or Vallejo, who spent time in prison for his political views. Or Mary Hamilton, who was condemned to death because she drowned her illegitimate baby: of course, nothing happened to the King of Scotland who impregnated her. And in “Homage to Basho,” Basho’s Buddhist piety is offset by his alertness to other people’s suffering.