The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with David Rivard about his new collection Standoff, writing as both a public and private act, the interiority of reading, and Pokémon GO.
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 join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So it’s the top of the hour. Let’s start with the title poem. How did you decide on that one to be the face of the book?
David Rivard: Good question. I had sent a version of the manuscript into Graywolf, to my editor Jeff Shotts, and he felt that the book need to be larger. I’d written probably about another twenty-five pages that I hadn’t sent him. One of the poems I hadn’t sent was “Standoff.” It had been a twenty-page poem that I boiled down to five. I hadn’t shown to anyone, and wasn’t sure I liked it. Jeff was incredibly enthused about it, and we began to shape the book around it.
Brian S: Twenty pages down to five. That’s some serious cutting.
Camille D: David, I met you AGES ago, when I was still in grad school at UNCG. Stuart Dischell brought you to read and teach some master classes. I still remember your visit with fondness. You were a generous visiting teacher. Thank you for that. I see a lot of that same generosity and empathetic attention in Standoff. So thank for that as well.
David Rivard: I wrote the original version in Italy in 2012, under the influence of a long Koch poem called “Memoir.” It’s like a lot of Koch: excessive. Sounds like I’m blaming him!
Camille D: As per your comment about Standoff, I was interested in your notes section/acknowledgments when you thank the people who had big hands in helping the book be the book it is. I think people are always interested in the communal aspect of something as personal as poetry. So I’d be happy if you were willing to discuss that some more.
David Rivard: Oh yes, I remember you so well, Camille. You’re very kind to say that.
Camille D: I know what you mean! I’m sitting here surrounded by copyeditor’s proofs of my next book of poems and I keep stumbling across friends on the pages. Sometimes directly named, sometimes not. It’s a nice feeling, being part of this community.
David Rivard: Oh yes, I don’t know how I’d live without that community. But say a bit more about what part of it you’re interested in because I think on the one hand writing is it’s a private act, and on the other you’re always dressing something or someone outside yourself. My sense is that I need these other readers as a part of my imagination, as much as I need them to help me with my poems.
Camille D: Well, this book certainly seems to toggle between both of those extremes. I think in this case, though, I’m interested in your discussing the editing process a bit. How you managed to cut so much, for instance. Were there craft decisions that drove your hand? Tone? A desire to make it more or less about something/place? It’s a big question. Tackle whatever part(s) you desire.
David Rivard: You know a funny thing is that the community of I have in mind, as I get older, it’s getting more crowded with people who are dead, but I’m continuing to have this conversation with them in my head.
Brian S: Just going to throw in as an aside—that poem to Dean Young struck a chord with me because we did his book that came out right around the time of his transplant, and in fact he still did the chat just a couple of days after the surgery. It was kind of amazing that it all came off like it did.
David Rivard: Oh I see, yes, the editing of that poem was so complicated. In a way I set out to write this ungainly poem on purpose, and I got exactly what I was looking for: ungainliness. As I edited it down, I had to find a problem that it revolved around, I think, and that problem had to do with this split between the life in my head and the life I live in the social world. I was troubled by it, though maybe troubled is too strong a word. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more and more aware of the intensity of both those lives, their simultaneity. Then at a certain point the problem became how to resolve the poem, without actually resolving the problem. Because the problem is unresolvable.
There were other problems in editing that piece that had to do with how much weight to give the pieces and how the pieces came together. You know, when I started it I had written it without punctuation, and then started to cast it into sentences as I edited, but it felt like it threw off the rhythm odd ways.
Camille D: This seems to me to be one of the keys of a really good poem: that it manages to be both resolved and unresolved at the same time. That it manages, in other words, to reflect the way we actually live.
David Rivard: So I had to find a “through line” both on the level of feeling/thinking and rhythm, one that was flexible.
Yeah, that’s so great! I would like the poem to reflect the way that we actually experience ourselves as we move through the world. That seems to me to have been the great project initiated by Modernism, and that we’re carrying on.
Camille D: And the line structure? That back and forth? When did that come into the poem?
David Rivard: That was an inheritance from the original Koch poem, that little bit of indenture. It stayed all the way through the editing but I never got it to work in the sort of collaged way that his lines work in that poem. His poem moves more quickly and suddenly.
Camille D: Speaking of inheritance. There seems to be so much Italy in this book. Can you estimate how many of the poems were drafted or significantly revised there? In that line of thought, what is the role of the artist colony to your writing versus writing in your “regular” life?
David Rivard: Yes, I was surprised by how much Italian stuff was in the book when I read the galleys! There are some poems in the book that were actually a part of that long original poem! I’m not somebody who goes to artists’ colonies actually; that was a sort of one-off, that summer at Civitella Ranieri. When I told Charlie Simic that I was going, he said, “I’ve never been to an art colony; I always thought I would lose my mind!” That’s what I felt, too, but it turned out to be very productive. Still, I think it’s a one-off, and I really need to be around ordinary life when I’m composing.
David Rivard: Do you guys go to colonies?
Brian S: Speaking of the way we experience ourselves as we move through the world, these lines from “Bookish” could have been taken from my memory:
while I stood startled in the department store
where husky boys shopped,
a wearer of clip-on Windsor knots
and black-framed eye glasses.
I was a walker on the outskirts
of the visible world
who lived in books.
David Rivard: Nice, you’re from nerdsville too!
I love the interiority of reading, that feeling of being lost in the world of the maker of the book. But it marked me as a kid, not in a horrible way, but it probably increased my natural self-consciousness. In a way, maybe, that’s my true subject?
Brian S: I never have gone to a colony, though I think I’d like to try it at some point. Not until the twins are older though. They’re too much to leave with just my wife.
And not just a nerd, but a Jehovah’s Witness nerd to boot. You know how some people wish to go back to their teenage years? Not on a bet. Not for Warren Buffett money.
Camille D: I used to go to colonies all the time. I’d spend whole summers in colonies. Then I got married and had my daughter. Patterns change in life, don’t they?
Brian S: It marked me when I was a kid in south Louisiana, but I also had a habit of shooting off my mouth as a kid, mostly to bullies, which made more of a mark. I spent a lot of my recesses and lunch breaks in the library because it was safer there.
David Rivard: They do change, and having a kid for me meant a huge alteration in the way that I wrote: I started composing from notebooks that I kept, when I could get to them, which was a very broken-up sort of time. And then I would start poems and run them out in initial drafts very quickly, then revise super slowly. But they were always composed out of fragments, and that’s been true for twenty years now. I feel, though, that it may be shifting again.
Camille D: I was drawn to “Said.” That relationship with the father was so touchingly rendered. Speaking of changes.
Brian S: Oh yes. It reminded my of my (very different) last conversation with my own father shortly before he died just over two years ago.
David Rivard: Oh, thank you. That was the last poem I wrote for the book. I wrote three long fragments around the time that my dad was dying two years ago, then months later started putting them together. But that moment in the poem, where there’s a series of ellipses, came at the last minute, that “He said….I said” thing. It was so intuitive, and true to the experience, but I was worried about what it would do to the poem’s momentum.
Brian S: It struck me because in my own experience, my dad had pretty bad late stage dementia, which meant we didn’t have one conversation so much as we had the same conversation three times in fifteen minutes. I know that wasn’t happening in the poem, but those ellipses reminded me of the grasping I could hear him doing over the phone.
David Rivard: I realized when I put it into the book that I had been writing the book while my dad had been failing, and that somehow the whole book embodies this unconscious recognition of his death. Like the language was aware of it before I was. I don’t mean that the whole book is about his death, exactly. I mean my awareness of life in general was being affected and directed by this unconscious knowledge.
Camille D: It felt like the whole book is also about the coming to an awareness of a kind of fragility we can’t always allow ourselves to see. Is this something you were reaching toward?
David Rivard: Yes, I think so. There’s something that I feel has happened as I’ve gotten older, a sense that vulnerability is a good thing to be in contact with. I’m not sure, given the working class background that I came from, that I had ever allowed myself to make make real contact with that vulnerability.
Some of this seems to have to do with a version of maleness that I was taught? Maybe. So it was particularly important to face my father’s death in that moment, since he was the one who had given me most of my sense of being a man, for better or worse.
Brian S: I didn’t know any of your biography before I picked up this book, but the more you talk about your background, the more I realize why I identify with it so strongly.
Brian S: Next you’re going to tell me you just started playing Pokémon GO and I’m going to lose it completely. 🙂
David Rivard: I don’t think of myself as a particularly biographical writer, and a lot of my background is transformed in the poems, or it has been since my first book. Yes, and I am completely lost in the world of Pokémon GO!
Brian S: AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
David Rivard: Actually, I have studiously avoided the world of Pokémon GO, and have been a gigantic success at that avoidance.
Brian S: You are better off, I promise you.
David Rivard: But it’s funny that you mention that because I’m reading The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, which is about a world so rarefied that it’s hard to believe it exists—it is so far from the world that most of us live. It’s beautiful. Have your read it?
Camille D: That little pink guy hangs out in front of my house, Brian. Lately I’ve been seeing people walking by and catching Pokémon when I’m in my study looking out the window… I mean when I’m up there working…
David Rivard: Don’t look, Camille, don’t…
Brian S: I haven’t, David, but I’ll put it on my list. My very, very, very long list.
David Rivard: The vast bummer of the unread, as Mark Halliday once put it.
Camille D: If I don’t say a proper goodbye at the end of the hour it’s because it’s bedtime for my little one, and I might have been called away. I am interested, though, in hearing you speak to how long this book took you. How old is the oldest poem? Our club is often interested in this question of the duration of attention a poet gives a particular book.
Brian S: I have whole bookshelves filled with books I’ll probably never get to.
Camille D: There’s a word for that in Japanese. Tsundoku. The pile of unread book. It’s a word that shows me the limits of English.
David Rivard: The book took five years to write, though much of it was written in three big jumps, over the course of three summers. I write a lot of first drafts at once, then work on them for a very long period of time. Sometimes the material floats from one poem to another, or the original draft undergoes some mutation that is so unexpected. I love that process. My poems often takes years to completely unfold. I love the increase in patience it’s called forth. Creeley has lovely things to say about the patience required. Like you should never demand that the poem take on some meaning that it isn’t ready to give you.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Anything new we should be on the lookout for? Any genre.
David Rivard: Well, I love two very divergent sort of things these days. I love big expressionistic poems by people like Jamaal May and Olena Kalytiak Davis and David Tomas Martinez and David Blair. And I love highly compressed poems that have a lot of silence in them and are extremely image based: folks like Fanny Howe and Michael O’Brien and Jean Valentine. I’m also reading a lot of poetry in translation: Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World and also a French prose poet named Pierre Albert Jourdan, a book called The Straw Sandals.
Brian S: Those are some great recommendations. Thanks for joining us this evening and for writing such a terrific book.
David Rivard: Oh, thank you so much for having me!