Thursday, March 21, 2013

Interview with Poet Ryan Teitman

Every clock in our house
had unfinished business.
Every note my father
struck in the dark
before he left for work
was another life waiting

-from “Hard Light Through Hemlock,” by Ryan Teitman

Ryan Teitman, a 2004 graduate of Penn State’s English Department, is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City. This, his first book, won the A. Poulin Jr. Prize and is published by BOA Editions. Teitman, formerly the Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford, recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the recipient of an  AWP Intro Journal Award in poetry, the winner of the Mid-American Review’s Fineline Competition, and a finalist for a Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His poems have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Third Coast, and many other journals. Teitman worked as a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia before earning an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English at Indiana University. He currently works as the Emerging Writing Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

*   *   *

Ryan and I met in 2009 at Indiana University. He was a student in IU’s MFA program and I had the wonderful good fortune to read a few of his
early drafts, drafts so finely honed and beautiful that they were more like polished gems. I approached Ryan for this interview when I decided to review his debut book Litany for the City. (You can read the review here.) To give you a flavor of his poetry before we get into the interview, here’s a quick overview of the book: 

Litany for the City is a slim volume of richly-textured poems, full of exquisitely detailed and surprising images. As the title suggests, the theme of the city is a primary impulse in the book, be it a specific city such as Philadelphia or London, or the hazed impression of a generic city, or the repetition of the word “city.” Also weaving in and out to bind the collection together are religious elements, evident simply by glancing at the title of the book and the title of the poems in the table of contents, e.g., “Vespers,” “Cathedrals,” “A Sunday Box.” Litany for the City is an impressive debut with its thought-provoking, sensory-filled, and sometimes fascinatingly strange, details. Before continuing with the interview, I’ll leave you with an example of such detail, a snippet from a section of the prose-poem sequence "Metropolitan Suite":

Sunday morning in Jackson Heights, the street vendors cook their tamales—the ripe green smell of peppers roasting black on burners, the subway station rattling overhead like a misshapen music box. On Market, the Chinese food cart sells fresh cuttlefish; men and women wedge their briefcases under their arms and hold their order with both hands, letting the tentacles dangle loosely over the plate’s edge. (64)
—Nancy Chen Long 

(This interview was conducted via email in March 2013 and was first posted in Poetry Matters.)

Some say that one of the primary difficulties a poet may have with a first manuscript is shaping it into a book, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems. Litany for the City coheres strongly around place/physicality, the theme of city/body. Was that something that you set out to do, or something that unfolded as you went along, or perhaps a last minute epiphany? Please share how you shaped the manuscript.

RT: I believe that—consciously or subconsciously—we write about our obsessions. I was writing the book when I lived in Indiana, and most of the poems dealt with Philadelphia, the city I had just left. Slowly, as I continued writing, I realized I wasn’t just writing about one place, but the nature of place itself, especially the idea of cities. The final section, “Metropolitan Suite,” came to the book late. I thought it was a separate project, but I realized it was the idea that my manuscript had been leading to the whole time. Once I made that change, the book went from getting no interest from publishers to being a semi-finalist and finalist in several contests before winning the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions.

Religious references and allusions are woven throughout the book: the title of the book itself, titles of poems (e.g., “A Sunday Box, “Ephesians”), imagery and diction (e.g. “leaving / baskets of baby fish / at the doors of every church,” “wafers of host,” repeated references to hemlock, fish, chant, prayer.) How does religion/faith factor into your writing? 

RT: I was raised Catholic and it influenced the way I think about language. The poetic devices I tend to gravitate to (litany, anaphora, repetition) are the ones I heard on Sundays at Mass. As a poet, I believe that language has power, and the first place I learned that was in the church. In the Mass, the priest turns bread and wine into flesh and blood through prayer—through language. And one of the core beliefs of Catholicism is that the transformation is not metaphorical. It’s literal. Seeing words have that kind of power had a profound impact on me.

Have you been involved in promoting the book? If so, please tell us little about that process.

RT: I try to do as many readings as I can. It’s difficult since I teach full-time, but I believe that getting out there and giving readings is one of the best ways to spread the word about the book.

The poems in Litany for the City are beautifully detailed, imagistic. One of my favorites is “Ode to a Hawk with Wings Burning.” Can you tell us a little about how that poem came to be? When did you first draft it? How did it start? Was it heavily revised, or was it one of those born fully formed?

RT: “Ode to a Hawk with Wings Burning” came from two separate places. One was watching the hawks in the field across the street from my apartment in Indiana. The other was a story I heard about a boy trying to fill a water balloon with gasoline and having the balloon explode in his face. (The boy was okay.) Neither had anything to do with the other, but by some strange accident, the two images became conflated and I got the visual of a hawk on fire flying through the air. It stuck. The poem happened pretty quickly after that. I remember a particularly frustrating round of revision regarding the poem’s ending, but the rest came pretty fully formed.

The poems in the book lean toward the lyric. Do you write narrative poetry?

RT: The poems in Litany for the City were mostly lyric, but the poems in my new manuscript have a much stronger tendency toward narrative, which I’m interested in exploring—especially the stories from my family.

Tell us a little about your writing process, e.g. do you write daily? do you prefer to write in silence, or while walking? What inspires you?

RT: I wish I wrote daily. But I’m just not like that—I go through spurts; I’ll write furiously for a few weeks, then not write anything for a month. I tend to write better in the mornings. I’m useless, creatively, after about 8 p.m.

When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

RT: It sounds incredibly self-centered, but my ideal reader is me. Let me explain that: I love reading and I love poetry. I know the feeling of reading a poem that you absolutely love, a poem that makes you want to tell someone about it. I once stopped a conversation and made an entire room listen to a poem I had read in a literary journal. That’s the kind of poem that I strive to write—a poem that I, as a reader, would want to share with others.

Generally speaking, how do you approach revision? Do you use a checklist or have any tried-and-true practices?

RT: I peck away at poems for a long time. I seem to do my best revising when I walk away and let the poem sit in the back of my brain for a while. I get ideas for revision in the shower or while I’m doing something completely unrelated to writing. When I let my mind wander, I’ll find I’ve rewritten a line or image in my head. One thing that’s always important is reading a poem out loud. If my poem doesn’t sound right out loud, that means it’s not right on the page.

When do you remember first being interested in poetry. Was there a mentor who encouraged you? How did you decide pursue poetry academically?

RT: My first poetry teacher was Jeffrey Morgan, a terrific poet who was teaching at Penn State when I was an undergraduate there. He turned me on to so many good poets: Thomas Lux, D.A. Powell, Matthea Harvey.

In graduate school I had many terrific teachers, but my mentor was the poet Ross Gay. He taught me how to write poems out of love. Even a poem of anger should come, fundamentally, out of a place of love. He taught me how to organize a collection of poems. And he taught me a few moves on the basketball court too.

You teach creative writing. There are those who would argue that creative writing can’t be taught. And there are those who say that MFA programs squash creativity and result in cookie-cutter writing. What are your thoughts on these issues?

RT: I live in a house that shares a wall with my neighbors. Their son is learning to play the trumpet. I can hear him playing “Jingle Bells” now. He’s getting better, week by week. I’m sure he has a teacher. I was taught creative writing. I teach creative writing. I see my students become better writers by the end of the semester. So I can see that it’s possible to teach writing. And poetry today is anything but cookie-cutter. It’s all over the place, which is a beautiful thing. But I also think there are worthwhile discussions to be had about how writing is taught. I worry that we focus too much on craft and not enough on play, imagination, and creativity, which are equally important to great writing. An MFA program may not be right for everyone, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of all of them. An MFA was certainly the right choice for me.

Some poets eschew writing prompts, while others consider them useful. What do you think of writing prompts? Do you use them in your own work?

RT: I’m a huge fan of imitation. When I read a poem that I love, I try to write my own version of it. I wrote “The City That Swallowed the Sea” after reading the long, winding, one-sentence poems of Steve Scafidi’s terrific For Love of Common Words. Creating my own voice as a poet has been a long process of incorporating little bits of the writers I love into something my own.

Who are you reading now? Do you have a favorite poet or poets?

RT: I’ve been writing book reviews lately so I’m reading a lot of contemporary work. Right now I’m reading L. Annette Binder’s short story collection, Rise; Natalie Diaz’s debut poetry book, When My Brother Was an Aztec; and Amy Leach’s book of essays, Things That Are. My first instinct is to name a string of favorite poets instead of just one but I’m going to be bold instead. Favorite poet: Adam Zagajewski.

What are you working on now?

RT: I’m working on my second collection of poems, tentatively titled The Dream Protects the Dreamer.

Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

RT: Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Be generous. Carry a pen at all times. My pen of choice is the Uniball Vision Rollerball: Fine Point.

A sampling of Ryan’s poems on-line:

Nancy Chen Long lives with her woodsman husband and blue-eyed dog in a small cedar cabin in the forested hills of south-central Indiana. She volunteers with the local Writers Guild, offering free poetry workshops, facilitating creative writing and feedback groups, and assisting with two reading series’—one for prose writers and another for poets. You'll find her recent and forthcoming work in RHINO, The Louisville Review, Roanoke Review, Found Poetry Review, and Adanna Literary Journal.

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