The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Thorpe Moeckel about his new book Arcadia Road, the challenge of writing long poems, raising twins and camo thongs.
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.
Camille D: Easy question: Thinking in terms of the trilogy. When did that thinking start and how? I think of Hillman’s tetralogy of the elements and wonder how early you saw the connection between all these.
Thorpe Moeckel: Good question. “Venison” came out of nowhere. I hadn’t planned on a long poem but then it was happening, and it was very fun, satisfying, fit the lifestyle/rhythms. Then a while later I drafted into “Milk in a Pail,” and as that got going, I thought maybe a third. I sent “Milk in a Pail” to Philip Brady, wonderful poet, musician, and editor of Etruscan. He said write the third one and we’ll see about putting them all together. I really owe the trilogy to Phil. I was resistant to the word trilogy, felt too sci fi, or too grandiose, but threefer doesn’t really work. By the way, I like some sci fi.
Brian S: For what it’s worth, trilogy for me has come to mean “turning something into three movies when one would have done.”
Camille D: The long poem… it seems like a difficult thing, but you seem to pull it of with such ease. Can you tell us your secrets?
Brian S: Speaking of these long poems, once you got into them, did you worry at all about trying to publish them as anything other than a book? Or did publication even enter the equation? Not just the long poem, but those rambling sentences inside the poem. I kept hearing Faulkner, among others, in there.
Thorpe Moeckel: Yes, that too was rolling around in the noggin, the bit about movies. But as these came along, I liked the connection between meat and milk and dirt, also the organizing element of the chore in each section allowed me to focus on, in “Milk in a Pail,” Sophie and newborn twins, and then more on Kirsten and toddlers in “Dirt.”
Thorpe Moeckel: “Venison” came very fast, faster than many regular-sized poems, and I didn’t think about publication. I was reading Ammons’s Sphere, kind of in a duet with that poem. The poems owe a lot to Ammons, tons. Then I sent it out. It got some good feedback. Then Phil Brady wrote, said he loved it, and wanted to do it up as book. I was so happy.
Camille D: I am struck by the domestic in these poems, the interiority of so much of this book, even as so much happens outside and in a space of agrarian cultivation. Not sure what I’m asking. I’ll ask a different question: Much of contemporary ecopoetry has to do with thinking through this balance between how we live in the world and how we live in our bodies and in our interior spaces. I see this in this book and wonder if you consider yourself a new-nature poet or an ecopoet or a new-fangled agrarian poet or non of the above.
Dana: I haven’t read many longer poems, but “Venison” completely drew me in. I felt kind of out of time while reading it if that makes sense. Wonderful, satisfying feeling as a reader!
Brian S: Okay, this is going to sound weird, but I heard Faulkner in the sentences and Stephen Colbert in some of the word constructions. “Pudendulum” was one that really stuck out to me. Those semi-comic moments helped keep the energy up in the long poem.
Camille D: I agree, Brian. Like ending the whole of “Venison” by thinking about eating some popcorn.
Thorpe Moeckel: Camille, so much of making food doesn’t happen outside. With “Venison,” I sure as heck didn’t want to make it about hunting. There’s enough about hunting. I like the part about the transformation from field/garden/barn to the body, the domestic part.
Brian S: Or this bit from “Venison”:
“so I say to the cocaine-pasty sweetness
who works this place, “Do you have any sexy cotton
menstruation pads,” and she says before she knows,
“No.” And I say, “In purple?”
Cracked me up while reading it and I had to dog-ear the page so I could find it again.
Dana: The camo thong is what got to me! Unexpected, but great.
Thorpe Moeckel: Thanks Dana. Yes, Brian, the transformation of body/dirt to food, it was happening with words—recombinings—and often there is levity. The modern homesteader/local food movement can take itself way too seriously; that annoys me, the sanctimony.
Brian S: I hear that.
Thorpe Moeckel: That was a weird riff. But we live in Western Virginia, where camo is a big, big deal. The whole consumerism of the hunting life, it’s very bizarre, but there are people who make good livings on designing new patterns of camo, and I think that’s kind of beautiful.
Camille D: Thinking in terms of taking oneself seriously: What about the form of these poems? At what point did the couplets manifest? What did they allow for you? What other formal considerations were in your mind as you wrote/revised?
Brian S: That sanctimony bugs me I think because it’s related to a nostalgic and false view of the past and also because it ignores the fact that many many people would not be able to eat regularly if not for big agriculture. Big Ag has many problems, but they do help keep people alive.
Thorpe Moeckel: I tried to resist the couplets but I couldn’t. I think the sentence length necessitated some breathing room for the eyes/mind. Also these were all handwritten in notebooks, and couplets allowed space to revise as I went, and to revise later. Also: Ammons/couplets.
Brian S: I was very happy with the couplets. My eyes would have broken if the white space hadn’t been there.
Thorpe Moeckel: Couplets are intimate. Couplets, possibly, as visual metaphor for cuts of meat, strips of milk, having twins.
Camille D: Speaking also about taking oneself seriously: Can you speak a little to your title? Arcadia. I mean, there’s a lot going on there!
Brian S: I’ve mentioned a couple of people whose influences I think I heard, and you’ve mentioned Ammons already, but who else crept into your writing here?
Dana: I was just about to ask the same question, Brian. 🙂
Camille D: Yes! I thank you for mentioning some of those metaphors, because I was thinking they were there but didn’t know if I was overstepping the imaginative/professorial line.
Thorpe Moeckel: Many, many writers crept in. Voices stick to me, and I read a lot, and widely. I’m afraid to start naming writers because, really, there are hundreds of poets, living and gone, even students of mine over the years these were written, that are sampled in here.
Brian S: How old are your twins, if you don’t mind my asking? Mine are twenty months old tomorrow, and every bit a pair of maniacs.
Thorpe Moeckel: William and Ola are five; their big sister is Sophie seventeen.
There seem to be more poetry books coming out where the author provides in the back a bibliography of influences. That’s nice but I’m too disorganized a reader for that; also voices/syntaxes from music and conversation, maybe even animal/bug/wind/etc. noise creep in to the lines
Brian S: How long did you work on this project? Hell, how long did you work on any one of the poems?
Thorpe Moeckel: “Venison” started at the end of deer season in ’07 and came, as said, much faster than anything I’d done. I sent it out maybe in ’08, Etruscan published it alone in 2010. “Milk in a Pail” took longer—longer to find a way in—and the twins had arrived and you know about that. Once I was in to all of these, the drafts came fast—six to nine months or so.
Thorpe Moeckel: Total time ’07–’13—six years.
Brian S: I’m so glad you said that about the twins. I’m in my third year on my current project and it’s gotten real slow for the last eighteen months of that.
Thorpe Moeckel: I just saw a question from Camille earlier that I missed: secrets to long poem—a good notebook, a container (for these, each is bound by a chore—working up a deer, milking the goats, tilling a bed). It helps that these chores happen often, so as they’re being done, I can work on the poem a bit in the head.
Brian S: Have you moved on to a new project yet?
Thorpe Moeckel: Not a project: revising some poems, drafting some. Working on nonfiction as well, and some fiction. Reading lots.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Anything coming out we should be aware of?
Camille D: Thorpe, the other thing I mentioned earlier was your overarching title, Arcadia. Can you speak to that? There is so much potential resonance, and I’m wondering what is most important to you.
Thorpe Moeckel: This morning I read some Citizen (Rankine), poked around in Salter‘s Light Years, Williams’s Stoner, Roth’s I Married a Communist. Also Lesley Wheeler sent me her new book of poems, Radioland, through which I’ve been browsing. I was sharing Lara Glenum’s work with a student on Friday, which is a kind of reading. Also we read real close in class a Saeed Jones poem this week. Brian Teare was on the table this week. Kleinzahler. Henry Taylor. Pessoa. Curious George.
Camille D: I should add to my question about the title the fact that it’s not just Arcadia, but Arcadia ROAD, which is even more interesting in many ways, but which sounds sort of middle American, too.
Thorpe Moeckel: Arcadia is the name of the road where we live, and it’s an exit on 81. I tried to read Sidney’s Arcadia but couldn’t do it, just was too hard for me; I hope someday. I like the sound of the word. It’s lovely, and the heavier sound of Road. Also, the distance between Virginia’s 21st century Arcadia Road—the monster trucks, the beer cans, the fast food wrappers (these get tangled in my mower), the camo, the Harleys—and the ideal of Arkady, a region of pastoral plenty, shepherds at peace in the fields, etc. interests me. The idea of a road between these is appealing. Or roads.