The Bureau (Sundress Publications, 2015)
What does a writing day look like for you? Do you have any routines or rituals that get your creative juices flowing?
Honestly, I don’t have that many specific rituals. I think I’m a bit unusual in that respect. The only consistent habit is that I like to have coffee and, on occasion, tea close at hand. But my rituals are anything but consistent. Over the summer, for example, I started working on a non-fiction essay that has since turned into a book (or at least an attempted book). I wrote most of those 50,000 words in the morning after I’d had a little bit of coffee and checked Facebook. I would then move outside onto the front porch, where there’s this wonderful lightly stained pine porch swing. I’d sit on that swing all morning, drinking two or three cups of coffee, typing away on laptop, until I reached my word count for the day, which was typically something like 2,000 words, or, if it was a good writing day, when I felt like stopping. The three dogs who live with me slept through the morning, and I would be outside typing away, trying to reimagine Texas, where I’m from.
Clearly, those aren’t rituals that translate well to an Ohio winter, so I’m frequently changing my rituals—often simply in search of time to write. I’d prefer, for example, to write on my laptop, using Microsoft Word, pausing now and then for Facebook or for more coffee or to take care of the dogs, but for me, my rituals are very, very malleable. I’ve been known to stop writing for a month or more, to write on my cell phone while riding the bus home, and even, once upon a time, to write everything out in longhand.
For me, the key is, quite simply, to give my mind permission to wander and fail, if need be. More often than not, that probably means developing project-specific routines. The poems in The Bureau, for example, were very difficult for me to write. I had to wait for those poems to show up when they did, perhaps because the mode is so very disjunctive or perhaps because the “head-space” of world-spanning conspiracism is a really uncomfortable place to inhabit. So the poems would come as if inspired, and then I spent a very long time revising, connecting the narratives, arranging, and revising yet more.
In your Tinderbox interview, you talked about the best piece of writing/ publishing advice you’ve ever gotten. What was the worst?
Someone reviewing one of my manuscripts once called a poem a “solid filler poem” or something like that. I don’t think such poems exist anymore. If a poem is just a filler poem or poem solely for the sake of connecting to other poems, why bother?
Besides your chapbooks, have you written anything else (perhaps something that has not been published)? Have you written things besides poetry? Any fiction?
Well, I have two chapbooks published and a collaborative chapbook called Heart Radicals that will be published in 2016 by ELJ Publications. It’s a little book of love poems by four different poets: myself, Allie Marini, Sandra Marchetti, and Janeen Rastall. Though I may be a bit biased, I think the mingling of voices on such a topic makes for a fascinating book that I’m really honored to have contributed to and to have helped shape. In addition, Sundress Publications is going to publish my first full-length collection Home Front in 2016.
I’ve written enough failed and incomplete novels that I don’t count any more. I’ll try again at some point. I’m certain of this. I’ve also written scores of short stories over much of my life. Three of the smaller ones are about to be published. One in Hermeneutic Chaos and two in kadar koli.
Of course, as an academic, I’ve written scores of papers. I’ve also written much more mundane things, like e-learning targeted for pharmaceutical sales representatives. That corporate work experience probably has something or other to do with The Bureau, and I expect it to impact my writing in new, surprising ways in the future.
And, as I mention above, I’m currently working on a creative non-fiction piece that will juxtapose my last visit to Texas over the span of a few days with some more quotidian moments here at home in Ohio. I’d tell you more, but I’m absurdly superstitious about such things. I’d rather write than write about work that’s incomplete.
As a writer, I’m deeply fascinated by genre limitations and pushing against those limitations in search of that which is betwixt and between, so the idea, for example, of a long poem with e-learning as its form holds a certain appeal to me. So, I expect I’ll do that relatively soon.
What exactly is the Bureau (assuming you are talking about an organization or branch of government in your chapbook)?
A fiction. But within the context of the chapbook, I imagined it as a convergence of multinational corporations and the government. For me, the Bureau is an international organization. A potential future. A literalization of deeply disconcerting overlaps in governance and profit. It is what K Street might one day become. Or perhaps already has become.
The character Smithson piqued our curiosity. Can you tell us something about Smithson’s backstory? Does he go crazy in the chapbook? Why does Smithson report the narrator and the iguana to the Bureau in “Smithson in Love”? Is Smithson in love with the Bureau in a strange sort of romance or loyalty?
Not really. He’s an everyman. I know much of the backstory, but I’ve made promises that it wouldn’t be revealed.
I can tell you that the redacted text from the Bureau suggest that he has lost his mind. And that his madsong is, indeed, his. But, given the context, I think it’s difficult to gauge whether or not he’s more insane than any of the other characters. Or, I guess, anyone.
I think, as far as love goes, that seems to me an entirely predictable behavior for a kind of everyman when that everyman is foisted into a management position. If you think about the ways in which organizations (like Bureau) so often function, we do find ourselves loving them in peculiar ways. Our nation, for example, breaks our heart regularly, yet still we love it. Companies convince us to hum their jingles, recite their slogans, and recognize their logos instantaneously. If that’s not love, what is it?
PS: Is this the iguana of The Bureau?
If you’d like. A friend took this picture of his iguana on Facebook. I liked it so much that I reused it with his permission. When writing, I imagined an actual iguana rather than a toy.
Is the red text used in The Bureau significant to the meaning of the chapbook, or is it simply a design choice used for emphasis?
Credit for that, and the design generally speaking, should go to T.A. Noonan, the editor and designer of the book. She suggested red in lieu of italics, which was how the lines were presented in the manuscript.
I, personally, think the red is extremely suggestive as it’s used to signify a shift in speech as italics might. I’ll leave to readers, however, whatever that significance may be.
We’re really curious about the collie that crops up throughout the chapbook, in multiple poems. Is it a metaphor for something else? Or a real collie? We feel stupid. Help us out.
I suppose the collie could be a metaphor, but this chapbook really emerged from my own fascination and love of fiction. I’d not seen—when I started the collection—any Magical Real poems. So one of my goals was to bring Magical Realism into poetry. I love Angela Carter, for example, and her Nights at the Circus includes all manner of human-animal relationships in service to broader revolutionary and feminists goals. I simply thought, once upon a time, that poetry could and should use those techniques as well.
In the world of the Bureau, the relationships between animals and people are quite different than we (particularly American readers) tend to think of relationships between people and animals. I wanted the book to be disruptive like the work of Angela Carter, and the collie (as well as the iguana and the South African rabbit) was a means to do that. To point towards power.
We are very pleased to have added the word “prodromal” (featured in “Integration and Incense”) to our vocabularies. This isn’t a question. We just wanted to let you know.
Is it cliché to ask about your inspiration for The Bureau? We ask shamelessly: how on earth did you come up with this idea?
It’s a good question. And in many ways, it’s a flattering question; it suggests that The Bureau is different from what’s “expected” of poetry. So even if it is a cliché, I’m quite happy to answer the question.
I started working on the poems in the late 1990’s. At the time, I was reading a lot of fiction that was uneasy, often conspiracy-tinged and bristling with paranoia, including Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, etc. I was struck by the capacity of fiction to convey such uncomfortable mental states, and how English-language poetry, with a few notable exceptions like John Ashbery, had—at least to my thinking at the time—left such an expanse of human experience unexplored. As a (novice) poet, I simply wanted to figure out how to represent that affect. That’s the genesis of the collection and how very early drafts of poems like “Taste Ferments” and “The File Cabinet” were written. I was, quite simply, drawing on much of the fiction that I loved and the influence of John Ashbery, or perhaps, the influence of the attempt to understand John Ashbery’s poems.
For a long time, the poems were just a batch of random experiments. The Bureau hadn’t been invented yet. The narratives hadn’t been envisioned. There were no characters, per se. Just experiments. Fractured little dreamscapes.
Then, in the early 2000’s, I was working as a copy editor and then as an instructional designer at a small start-up in San Francisco with offices just off Market Street. It was, in many ways, precisely what you’d imagine work would be like during the tech bubble: absurdly long hours on occasion, excellent pay, a strong and palpable sense of corp d’esprit, and occasional nagging doubts about what you, as an individual, were doing to the world. So any given week, you might see a show at the Fillmore, march in an anti-war protest, drop far too much money on books and CDs, but during the day, you would be writing, chunking, and organizing sales training for pharmaceutical representatives or proprietary software training for loan officers. And you would (errantly it now seems) imagine your own wealth—as a creative cog, but a cog nonetheless—within this process as something of a given as you stood on an apartment balcony considering how long it might be until you could afford one of the quarter-million-dollar two-bedroom bungalows nearby.
This is not to say that experience was a model for the Bureau or that the company had done anything unethical, but that’s the milieu from which The Bureau emerged. That’s when I started thinking of those little paranoid poems as part of a whole and whether or not I could write about globalization, sort of, and when Smithson appeared, echoing those dystopian fictions and, apparently, much more. I think I wrote early drafts of key poems like “Smithson in Love” and “The Stranger” at that time. That’s when I began fleshing out the overarching narrative, and thinking of The Bureau as a series. A book someday.
From there, it only took me a decade to write and edit the remaining poems. I imagined the poems, almost, as their own genre, a very specific mode, so that space wasn’t one I could inhabit every day or at will. I had to wait for poems that fit that mode to arrive—often unannounced—in the normal course of my writing, for a particular kind of imagistic movement to show up in a poem, and then I had to work with the poem shaping it to fit as a kind of fragment within the whole of The Bureau. Even when I had the skeletons of all the poems that would comprise the chapbook, I had to visit and revisit that world to figure out how the connections were working, where a character might reappear or vanish, which of the chorus of voices was in play. So, in retrospect, there was a significant amount of collage-like work that had to be done so that a reader would catch glimpses from within this thing that would speak to the conspiracies and the idea of resistance as well as, perhaps, the difficulty of resistance.
More than that, however, it took me a very long time to just trust the poems. The book was, at the time, very different from my other work, and of course, it’s a patently absurd premise. I only had this vague sense of how it might work, and when I first sent out the poems for individual publication, they fared rather poorly. I suppose, though, that the patent absurdity of the world around us caught up with the “vision” in The Bureau, and all that seemed far-fetched in the 1990’s didn’t seem so far-fetched by the time the chapbook was sent to Sundress Publications.
What is your editing process? How do you revise your poems? How much do you involve other people in the process of editing your poems?
Typically, I’ll write a first draft rather quickly trusting in the fact that it’s probably lousy. Then, I’ll show that draft to my wife, Michelle, who is almost always my first reader. I’ll then make changes she suggests and go on to tomorrow’s writing. If a poem really strikes me for some reason, I’ll edit the poem (for sense, for sound, for imagery) until I can’t face the poem any longer, and then set the poem aside.
I like to let poems sit a long time. A very long time if possible. Then, I’ll revise, as appropriate, trying to make the poem better. I tend, also, to group these early drafts into manuscripts that don’t really matter or work as manuscripts and then poke around in those manuscripts. Every once in a while, I’ll return to really old work, try to see the poem again, and rewrite it entirely. I mainly have intermittent and quite long revising sessions where I work on poems I’ve drafted over the years.
So, typically, it takes a very long time for me to get a poem to a place where I think it can be sent out. And sometimes, if a poem is sent out and it fares very badly, I’ll look at the poem the next time it goes out and perhaps revise. Typically, I’d guess a poem takes 20-30 revisions at least. But, sometimes there are gifts.
Any tips for vocabulary expansion/ word choosing? [Laura was very impressed.]
Read, read, read, read. Read broadly and deeply. That’s really the only answer. It’s also why my wife probably has a stronger vocabulary than I do.
As for word choice, that’s a much more complicated issue. I don’t think, for example, I’ve written anything other than The Bureau where the word “prodromal” would fit. So in those terms, I’d simply encourage others to create contexts that enable a sense of play and possibility and then to strive, as the Imagists once suggested, for precision in the variety of connotations and denotations in any single word. And edit out any note that strikes your ear as false.
On the other hand, if you’re studying for the GRE or something similar, I recommend freerice.com.
We were wondering about the redacted portions of the last few poems in The Bureau — do they actually say anything?
Yes. I wrote the poems, and then they were redacted. Some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever written were redacted.
Les Kay is the author of Home Front (Sundress Publications, forthcoming 2016), Badass (Lucky Bastard Press, 2015), and The Bureau (Sundress Publications, 2015). He is also a coauthor (with Allie Marini, Sandra Marchetti, and Janeen Rastall) of the collaborative chapbook Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, forthcoming 2016). His poems have appeared in a variety of literary journals such as PANK, Southern Humanities Review, The McNeese Review, The White Review, Superstition Review, and Ghost Town. He teaches writing in Cincinnati, where he makes his home in a post-war Tudor with his wife, Michelle, and three very small dogs.