In this interview, Ralph Sneeden traces his journey as a poet and essayist, avoiding the destructiveness of being pigeonholed, the inherent politicality of landscapes, and drawing from a pool of resources and poetic techniques to achieve a voice that is at once reflective, visceral, meditative, exploratory, and willing to uncover the veil of comfort and human complexity in an attempt to “testify, to lay bare the quirks, ironies and nuances of history in a way that suggests something new or different about them.”
PY: I’ve been thinking about what matters to us when we’re writing—what keeps that fire going, what guides us and keeps us afloat. Whether all we need is something small—a line, rhythm, a place—or whether it’s something less tangible, more vast, historical. You’ve been a poet for as long as I can remember; you’ve been at this craft for a long time. What matters to you these days when you’re building and wrestling with a poem? Or an entire book? Has what matters changed or evolved over the years?
RS: In 1992, I had a year-long fellowship at Columbia and was taking a poetry class with David Ignatow, who was in his early eighties, commuting into the city by train once a week from Long Island. I remember him turning to me during a conference one afternoon and saying something like, “You don’t have to be a political poet, but it’s every poet’s responsibility to write political poems.” It took thirty years for that germ to worm a few roots into my aesthetic, but it’s advice I’ve never forgotten. I’m sure at that point in his life Ignatow had been saying that to a lot of his students, especially as Clinton was about to be elected for the first time. We had a duty to step out of ourselves, our interior abstractions, childhood memories, or painterly evocations of landscape (in my case) and have a stake in or something to say about how people treated each other. Maybe confront some injustice in the world.
I confess that I resisted a little; activism and politics were not driving my best work. To impose those orientations on my impulses, to limit my art, felt contrived. You can’t force the compass needle. Sometimes you need someone, like Ignatow, to push you out of your comfort zone, but, ultimately, these assignments or designations, if they’re going to be authentic and compelling, need to be organic, part of your experience and hardwiring. I think it’s easy to protest, to demand (especially in the USA) but it’s harder to reveal or explore the complexity of human events, to testify, to lay bare the quirks, ironies and nuances of history in a way that suggests something new or different about them. Being didactic, adding your voice to a cause, or echoing the din of orthodoxies and rage out there might be necessary for social change, but with poetry, especially, the impetus might come from somewhere we can’t pin down, might be about something we don’t understand, or to which we don’t have answers. My favorite poems are compelling and persuasive in ways that don’t bully the reader.
The qualities I admire most in the poets who’ve blazed their own paths in the selva selvaggia of “political poetry” have a lot to do with voice. I don’t recognize that, but I’m smitten. Yes, I’ve seen this topic broached before but neither treated nor sung this way. Wanda Coleman comes to mind; I’m all in with her badass snark and edge, humor and playfulness, zero trace of sanctimoniousness in her best poems. I also think of Robert Hass’s poems about the layers of oppression, ghosts of historical violence abiding the California landscape. And, sure enough, in recent years, especially in the shaping of my new book (and the one to follow), I’ve found myself hesitating while writing something about the plight of civilians during war, or predatory priests, or about a picture of my mom dancing in blackface, or European incursions into the so-called “New World,” the occupation of indigenous people’s land in New England, and so on…And then I’m snickering, remembering Ignatow’s encouragement, his challenge. You old dog! I think. You’ve finally had your way.
As a reader, when landscape is evoked, I feel a door opening, or a bridge being created for me to cross—an emotional and historical one, one I may not always be able to put into words, but one I’m able to slip into and live in for a while. This is what I love and admire about your work. It isn’t just the place you are writing about. It isn’t just a body of water, a piece of land, a musician. Where is it that you start a poem? Is your platform the place, the water, the music?
I’ve always had a proclivity for writing about landscape, the natural world, the sea, and so on. That focus on place still runs pretty strongly through my work (and my reading: Matthiessen! Erpenbeck! Walcott! Montale! Bunting! Wordsworth! (Barry) Lopez! Winton!). But my treatment of it has evolved. For me, the fear of being described as a “nature poet” is right up there with being pigeonholed as a political poet. What I’ve come to understand in my recent projects is that landscape is political, or at least usually has some attendant human context that can’t be ignored. Whether writing about a WWI battlefield, the Adirondacks, Lake George, Plymouth and Duxbury Bay, I’ve found it possible to evoke these settings—to put the reader there—while enthusiastically probing or addressing the more fraught or elusive questions about human behavior over the centuries.
You wrote generously in Poetry Daily about the title poem of my first book, Evidence of the Journey. This poem changed the game for me; it was my first foray into what you describe in your previous question as something “more vast, historical.” It was also the longest poem I’d written at the time. I like to think that “Surface Fugue” (the title poem of the new book) is carrying and expanding the DNA of “Evidence of the Journey” into new realms—the willingness to say something about people and history, while doing justice to the visceral, physical place.
Could you speak a little more about the poem-as-essay? Surface’s DNA—its architecture—is in large part a determination to explore the “other.” It points that lighthouse beam away from yourself; though of course in doing so, it sheds so much light on your own history and character. These poems leap, twist, turn, surprise. How much of this was an intent, a vision? And were there some surprises that came up as you were working on this book?
My favorite nonfiction writers, no matter how narrative their intentions, have a certain enviable confidence with disruption: pushing away from what seems like one subject to another in the same composition. They trust the reader’s intelligence and patience while getting the reader to trust the writer’s topical swerving. Nabokov, E. B. White, Sebald (his essays, mostly, though his “novels” do this too), Didion, Sanders, and Beard are a few. Teow Lim Goh’s piece, “Coastlines,” in this very magazine is a buoyantly compressed example of these authors who draw from multiple sources to understand more deeply whatever “personal” stake they have in the piece. “Surface Fugue” was an exercise in managing several elements—a place, an object, an image—and braiding them together into a single shape. (That’s what fugues do! Apologies to Johann).
While writing that poem, I realized that I was developing an argument, a point about predation at the murky interface of human and animal worlds. But I was doing it in a way that was familiar to me: with essay “strands.” I’ve been writing a lot of nonfiction—personal essays, some pretty expansive—during the last decade. The genres have cross-pollinated in ways that I hadn’t expected, such as writing poems that advance rhetorically like essays, or that might channel the lyric voice and have their own moments of music, but are also more comfortable burying lines, obscuring their stage with “blocks” of text rather than measured stanzas.
In “Surface Fugue,” however, I committed to blank verse. My go-to. That decision enabled devices that are not available to the prose essayist: deploying line breaks to enhance the inherent ambiguities in ideas and descriptions. Halving or fragmenting pentameter lines gives that poem a jumpy, staggered feel that might mirror the craziness of a feeding school of fish, the edginess of historical reckoning. I found myself taking more risks with enjambment in “Surface Fugue,” and this allowed me to contend visually with the dissonances and tensions I was addressing or evoking.
Which is why, I think, every time I experience this book, from the first poem to the last, I feel both the discipline of the entire world you’ve built here, but also the incredible freedom of the lines—that sense of being in the best dream. We flow from one corner of the world to another seamlessly.
Thanks. Our attentions are yanked all over the place, but it is my hope that any manipulation— like a good essay’s source of gravity—is neither smug nor annoyingly confusing, but, rather, an imperceptible current pulling the reader (as it did the writer) into some knowledge by the end. Something neither could have foreseen, though they sensed direction, volition, a subtle discussion between the poem’s vaguely connected realms.
A frequent contributor to The Common, Ralph Sneeden has received fellowships from MacDowell and the The American School in London. His poetry has been published in American Poetry Review, the Kenyon Review, and his essays have been published in The Surfer’s Journal. Author of Evidence of the Journey (Harmon Blunt, 2007), Sneeden’s most recent book Surface Fugue (EastOver Press, 2021) was published this month.
Paul Yoon is the author of four works of fiction: Once the Shore, which was a New York Times Notable Book; The Mountain, which was an NPR Best Book of the Year; Snow Hunters, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award; and Run Me to Earth, which was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He is currently a Guggenheim Fellow and lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.
Photo by D. Caldarone