IN THE SEAM is an on-going interview series that focuses on talks with authors who are between their first and second books. In this interview, Poetry Editor, Ethan Cohen, sits down with Grant Souders, author of the book of poems Service, available at Tupelo Press.
Ethan Cohen (EC): When I was thinking about what to ask, I was thinking about coming off of an MFA, and the pressure to ride your MFA work immediately to publish. Did you feel that pressure?
Grant Souders (GS): Oh, absolutely. While I was doing my MFA I felt that pressure, and so I moved out to Solon, Iowa which is just north of Iowa City, this little farm town. I lived in a chicken coop and kind of wanted to be in isolation basically for the sole purpose of writing a book, and so eighty percent of my book was written in this chicken coop. The isolation was good but then, you know, I had to go back to town for workshop, to teach; that sort of stuff, so then I had these people around me who were great readers of my work. I still send my work to these people, and you know, one of the huge values of an MFA, more than what school you go to, or what teachers you have, is you form these bonds with peers who have made this same investment as you, which is great but it also does put you in this position of pressure where you kind of push each other into making a book. So I finished the first draft of a manuscript; I sent it to a few people including some of my undergrad professors—Sasha Steensen and Dan Beachy-Quick who are both a CSU, where I did my BFA—and they had some suggestions. Dan really helped me with the structure of the book as a sort of arc, and from there I felt like I needed to fill in some gaps in that arc, so I wrote maybe a dozen new poems, and then that was the first draft of the book. That first draft got accepted by Tupelo, and then I worked with the editor there, Jim Schley; he's one of the best readers of work I have ever worked with. I mean he edits Susan Howe's books—that caliber— so it was such a great opportunity for me and he had some great ideas, and all of a sudden I had a book published. Well, not all of a sudden. I had a book accepted by Tupelo Press, and then it was like two and a half years until it actually came out. So there was this huge gap of writing the poems. Some of the earliest ones I was 25 when I wrote them, and the book comes out and I'm 30, so that was a weird experience.
EC: When you were writing the first book, did it feel like an unloading of everything you had been wanting to say for your whole life, or were you able work in a more focused framework?
GS: Well, really, I didn't start writing poetry until my junior year of undergrad, so I was like 20 or 21, something like that, and I was a physics major, and I found creative writing. I took this class and I found that it let me talk about all the things I wanted to talk about, and it seemed sort of limitless, and that's what drew me to poetry specifically. So, yeah, it was a culmination of everything I had thought about. You know, I think a lot of it has to do with growing up, a lot of it has to to with my dad, and then I learned the craft of poetry both at CSU and at Iowa
EC: So now that you got some of that out of your system, what does a second book look like to you?
GS: You know, I've been struggling with that a lot because I don't like thinking of books as projects; that's a word that gets thrown around a lot. I kind of side with Dorothea Lasky, that a poem is this utterance, and not to say that projects and limitations and ideas of a structure doesn't produce great poetry—there's a number of books where that's the case—but for me that doesn't really work. So, the second book I've been kind of weaving together using narrative structures like location, and characters, but characters in an abstract sense. There are reoccurring animals that appear; a public pool is a common setting, so these certain narrative elements that help me think in terms of a book. For my first book, I was just writing a lot of poems hoping somehow it would become a book, so, I still have one foot in that. I write one poem a day, and if it works it works, and if it doesn't, it goes in a drawer, and then part of it is also, I guess, as a generative process, thinking about these structures, like, "okay, I'll write another poem that takes place at a public pool," and from there it blossoms into thinking about identity, especially social and class structure, class politics, and things like that. This communal space of the public pool has sort of fascinated me, and there’s an element of nostalgia. I spent a lot of my life in the heat of Texas, and the public pool was this place of freedom and wonder for me.
EC: So, is this foresight and consciousness something that can only be achieved after you've gotten that intensity and drive out with a first book?
GS: I think under different circumstances it's something I could have achieved with the first book. When I finished that first draft of the manuscript, I felt like I had written every poem I knew how to write, and then it was like, "where do I go from here?" and I took a break from writing poems. I gave myself some space from poetry. I got back into visual art; I worked on editing other people's work with Patient Presses, and kind of gave myself some space. I watched a lot of film, went to a lot of art museums, read a lot, and slowly the poems started coming back to me, and then the drive and the intensity became relevant and just manifested.
EC: When you think about the progression of your own writing over time, does progression mean simplification or complication?
GS: That's a good question. It's sort of somewhere in the middle. I think writing poems has become much more difficult for me. I guess it comes down to process. I'll write like three words, and I've started using my phone. I use the notes app and write just a few things and then I copy that into a document that I can manipulate and edit. So, the process of editing has become way more complicated and way more important in my work rather than having a vision for my poem and then making the words fit that vision.
EC: As you work on this second collection, are there topics themes and aesthetics that you can't escape?
GS: Absolutely. In some respects I think pastiche is such a part of our experience today and, in a way, I can't escape the poetry I've read, not only the poetry I've written, and I don't want to either. People like Susan Howe and George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker… in many ways I think I'm writing imitation poems of them, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Through these other poets I've found a voice of my own, but also ideas of socialism, and certain things that have become more important to me. I've been thinking a lot about Wittgenstein: ethics and aesthetics being one, and how I can incorporate that in my poetry. So, there's this certain amount of will to change, but there's also a complete release of will, and abandonment of will, and to a certain extent I believe in muses; something outside myself that I can only reach through poetry. I think that will always come through. It often feels like I have very little control over my own poems, like I'm a conduit of all the language I've ever heard, all the experiences I've ever had. The brain does what it does; words come together, and they get written down. Poems are a making; they're physical and non-physical. I like that poetry lives in these sort of dualities, not always paradoxes, but always numerous.
EC: So how do you reconcile the idea of the muse, the implication being that ideas just sort of come to you, with the nitty-gritty writing process. What is this relationship?
GS: It reminds me of this Tom Waits anecdote, of him stuck in traffic, and this great idea for a melody comes to him, and he has no way of recording it or writing it down, and he's sort of cursing the gods like “why would you do this to me now;” I think that expresses that reconciliation. Things come to you, and I don't know exactly how they come to me, but they do, so I try to put them down to the best of my ability, and you know, we have technology now that makes some of that nitty grittiness easier. I think it's equal parts. I mean the muse isn't easy, because it's not like it speaks directly to you. Somehow you hear it or feel it and you're inspired to put it to paper. And then the real work comes from what happens next.
EC: And knowing all of that, having published, and now being in the process of writing a second book, do you read other people's books with a different critical eye?
GS: No, I really don't think so. I think I read poetry the same as I ever have. I've read more now, so maybe I make relations between things more. Maybe I'm able to understand poems better, if you can understand poems better. I think I have really been more drawn to non-fiction and to fiction, and I get a lot of resourced material from various methods. I take screenshots of films and basically write what I see. I’ll read a book of Birds of Northern Colorado and a sentence structure sort of strikes me, the phrasing strikes me, so I do a sort of grammatical exchange where I replace their noun with a noun of my choosing. It's a generative process, but no, I don't think I really read poetry differently or more critically. I love poetry, and I read it for that reason.
EC: The inclination to project or compare your publication onto or with someone else's publication seems like it would be really strong?
GS: I pay attention to structural elements definitely, and, you know, there's a lot of prose poetry, and a lot of hybrid poetry being written and that's something that has interested me. I've started making these one minute films on my phone and then writing poems about them or to them, addressing them, and that might turn into a separate project. I've been working with a colleague of mine, Matthew Sage, on different methods of displaying poetry, interacting with poetry, although my love is really of the physical book.
EC: Do you have any specifics you want to mention about your upcoming work? have you chosen a publisher yet?
GS: There's a lot of mythology, structurally. There's a lot of fairy tale structure as well. I think it's more fun, there's some whimsy in it, and pleasure. I've been thinking a lot about Gertrude Stein and Tender Buttons, and how it's almost impossible to read any portion of that book without smiling or laughing. It's pleasure. Wallace Stevens, also one of my favorite poets said what else should a poem do, but be a thing of joy? As far as publishers, I'm not really sure yet. It's sort of like the music industry, how people become "label fans", which I think is sort of a shame in some ways, and great in other ways, because I know I can pick up something from The Song Cave or Letter Machine Editions and pretty much know it's gonna be good, but there are so many presses out there and so many books that I'm not too worried about who publishes it, I just want it to be out there so I can start on the next thing.
Grant Souders is a poet and visual artist based out of Denver, CO. His book, Service (Tupelo Press), came out in 2017. He runs Patient Presses, a small press and tape label with collaborator Matthew Sage, and is an instructor in creative writing and English at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His second book is due to be out sometime in the future.