blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Through the Window of Someone Like Me
A Conversation with Steve Scafidi
Conducted January 21, 2023

M.A. Keller
In 2019 you were an invited reader and speaker at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond and presented to a small group of writing students about the genesis of your three Lincoln manuscripts. My memory is that you talked about a small notebook you typically stowed in a shirt pocket, and how lines—the fragment of a voice—came into your head one day when on a break from the cabinet shop where you work. I’m wondering if you could just tell again how the work on these poems all started and what the subsequent history is.

Steve Scafidi
It was one of those times that I think we, as writers, all have very regularly where it feels like writing poems at all is impossible. I think both of my children were very little and I had to work constantly just to keep up with bills—and just the notion of writing poems at all seemed so ridiculous at the time, and yet it was something crucial.

I needed to find a way to write something, and so I did. I bought a little notebook that would fit into my breast pocket. And the idea was, maybe by accident, in the course of the day, I could write something—anything at all. And that’s what happened.

I often write with phrases of nonsense or some kind of jibber-jabber that matters to me, something intriguing that I don’t understand but that I’ll follow the music of. And so that was the case one day.

Three modified pocket notebooks

Where I work as a cabinetmaker is in a barn. And there’s fifteen of us and we have workbenches. I went outside with this chiming in my head. And I sat next to the silos—an abandoned silo—a place where I would take a break sometimes. And so I wrote down the noise of this. That was lovely enough, if really faint—and I just followed the sense of it. And it was so teeny; it was something like twelve little lines. And it was simply a man and a woman speaking in the dark.

I didn’t know what was what or who was where or anything, but it intrigued me. And so I kept doing that as the days went on, I would listen—I would hear little things—and there would be snippets of conversation or little bits of context. And then after about five days, I had the revelation: you know what, this isn’t me. I’m writing a fiction. I’m listening to something that is not of my direct concern, but of an indirect concern, the way I imagined a novelist often works.

As a poet, as I function, it’s always a direct concern coming to me, it feels like, even though it’s in a strange music or a broken rhythm. But this was different in that I didn’t understand what was happening until I had the revelation of—oh, this isn’t me. And not only is it not me, I think maybe Abraham Lincoln is there.

I don’t know how he was on my mind, but this was before 2009, which would have been the bicentennial of his birth. So maybe people were talking about that. And so I got into my head that yes, I understand. Yes, that is what’s happening here. This is him.

It intrigued me suddenly that I had this musical little voice of a man who I didn’t know, but he wasn’t a historic person, he was a man; he was just a man standing at a window.

I thought these poems were a way to get into someone great through the window of someone like me who’s ordinary.

I remember one of the first ones I wrote too. I have a poem called “The Junebugs,” but the first draft was very different. Very early it was a man standing at a window and he has caught a junebug and he’s tied thread to its back leg and he’s let it fly. He has a long spool of thread, and the other end of the thread is tied to a bent nail on the windowsill. The insect just flies up like a kite and moves through the air a little bit.

What intrigued me, in the beginning, was a man standing at a window. But then it was always some element of the imagination mixed in, where suddenly there’s a junebug tied with his leg tethered to the window and it’s the man’s thoughts in a way; it’s like the mind at work somehow, but shown by something very—you can say silly or mundane—or something a child would do. I was interested in that aspect of a famous historic personage, something private, unknown, unlikely—and yet likely.

So much of poetry to me is about what happens below that line of decorum, where, in public, we walk down the street and we behave—for the most part. If you see someone in tears walking down the street, they’ve broken that decorum in a way. Someone may have died who we love. And you don’t walk down the street saying that. But someone in tears might. I think that’s the life of poetry—what’s going on below that line, where we are not in the public and it’s inappropriate, in fact, to say, I’m in love with someone, or I can’t believe it, or someone I love just died. Or I can’t believe—I can’t believe what just happened to me is happening.

And then you go into the details of that. That’s the world of friendships and family and of intimacy where we share these things. But I think for lyric poems it’s always been the case—and for novels, for a lot of writing—but I think lyric poems have always been able to speak of and through those private experiences that make us ordinary, but also there’s heroism in it.

So it just seemed natural to explore something unknown about a person for whom there are so many books written. And we know the dude. We know Abraham Lincoln so well. And we’re convinced of it, in a way, who he was. And I also know there’s lots of ambiguity and mystery about who he was and what he believed still to this day, and that’s natural, but he’s someone who’s intrigued people for so much and for so long that I was interested in poetic license, something invented. But something that tells you something about ordinary people too, that there is this life of the mind that we often don’t share with one another.

I thought these poems were a way to get into someone great through the window of someone like me who’s ordinary. But who has an imagination that carries me and I’m not the only one. It’s also you, Michael, and the people reading this. It’s that kind of secret greatness of ordinary people that I think lyric poetry shows us constantly.

I want to go back to those very first lines. My memory of hearing you tell this before is that you had a sudden thought of Mary Todd speaking to Lincoln in that first poem—an indeterminate voice suddenly recognized in your imagination—and it was a love poem, right?

Pocket notebook open to first drafted lines of The Wine.

Yes. And it seems like, predictably, Mary Todd Lincoln is somehow portrayed as an awful person. She’s treated so unfairly in my mind when I read some of the histories and people who are, you know, “how patient Lincoln was to deal with his wife,” who was demanding and talkative and intelligent as hell, and spoke several languages. And who lost her children and was harmed by that, and so was he.

They were both changed by and traumatized by the death of their children.

When I started thinking, “this is Mary Lincoln,” I started reading more and more about her and her life, and him, and his life. And I just fell in love with her as an individual. I completely forgave any kind of awfulness in her—what other people would say was awfulness or selfishness or being loud or whatever. I just thought, what a great woman—the fact that she survived these things period and in the limelight of being the First Lady. Even in the 1860s, people paid so much attention; they slandered you, just like people do today. But she got a lot of grief back then in her lifetime.

Anyway, maybe I’m going off track, but the story of writing this was the most fun I ever had as a writer. A novelist I knew once told me that for him writing a novel was like having a map covered with sand. And little by little, he would uncover little bits of the map. Then he would realize, “oh, what country this is.” And then he would see different cities, see how they were connected, see the land, the layout of the land, the mountains, and the shorelines and stuff. And this is the only time I’ve written a project and I felt exactly like that.

That’s why I think I wrote so much, because I didn’t want to ever quit. I didn’t want to stop. And I wrote so much—I wrote three hundred—at least—or more of these little pieces, these little moments, because I kept wanting to uncover more and more.

I think the motor and the engine of a lot of my imagination for this project was that acknowledgement of my worst fear.

And really, I could have kept on going. But I felt like I had so much. It was like the writing life was so great and so fun and I did keep writing them. Eventually I found parameters, but it was really fun to have a sense of the humanity of people who are otherwise almost cartoons. And some of the people in the propaganda of American history, where it is said, “these people are great” or “these people are awful.” You know, you question it, and it’s interesting to peel back a little bit and have a sense of their humanity.

And you realize, “I never really thought of these people at all as people.” You think about what they did—the events—the great events. Especially the Civil War is full of great events, but I was interested in the great events of a private life. I was really interested in the deaths that they suffered. I think my children were very little, and I think my greatest fears were playing out in their lives—the deaths of their children.

Edward, their second born, died of tuberculosis at the age of three when they were still in Illinois. Then William died when they were in DC, and he died of typhoid fever. That’s the one, that death in the White House, that was just too much; it was too much for them and too much for Mary in particular. And yet they survived it somehow.

I find that heroic; the heroism of that is what really intrigued me about this whole book privately, unsaid even to myself. That is what was the core—the survival of what seemed unsurvivable, unsurmountable. But they did survive, not only as individuals, but as a couple, too. I find that beautiful.

And that’s the heart of their poetry for me somehow, like the first poem of all it seems is Gilgamesh. He loses his beloved friend and he goes to the underworld to find him. How old is that story? In my little book, no one goes to the underworld to bring them back directly. But that old, old story of “I must bring back someone I love . . . .”

I think what ultimately organized the book were those little moments where one survives. I had had loads of poems about the deaths of each of these people—the aftermath of it—sitting in a room—sitting with a dead child. I had loads of these; I really focused on it. I think the motor and the engine of a lot of my imagination for this project was that acknowledgement of my worst fear.

While rereading The Bramble and the Briar, and reading for the first time, the first manuscript, The Magic Life, I was so aware of Lincoln at so many stages of his life—as a son, as a brother, as a young man leaving home  . . .

As a boy . . .

Because of the size of these little notebooks that had to fit in my breast pocket, from the very first poems I wrote, it was always like listening through a keyhole . . .

. . . as a boy coming into manhood, coming into another life as a professional. You really catch all that and the relationship, too, between Lincoln and his family, as a husband and later as a father, and as a grieving father—that’s all there.

The poem “The Fire” that’s in The Magic Life comes to mind as a marriage poem. Also, there were two poems on the loss of Edward in the manuscript that are still at work on me.

I think in the book the poem is called “The Wheelbarrow.”

He was ready
        at any moment

to go. He could
        see underneath
every blessing
        was a shadow.

I remember that one from the published book, but these were different poems from the manuscript . . . I’ll pull them up.

You know Lincoln’s brother, Thomas, died when he was very little. And then a few years later, his mother died. When he was nineteen, his sister, Sarah, died. This was very typical of nineteenth century lives; people died all around you. And if you lived at all, it felt like a miracle to the mothers and fathers who were seeing their children survive childhood. These folks—I just find them almost mythical, these people who we came from, our parents and grandparents and great grandparents—they survived, and so we’re here. But it seems so unreal to me that, you know, that your survival would involve so much grief. I understand that now as I get older, but maybe I don’t really understand the depth of it. That kind of intimate death was such a close part of everyday life. And then you add the war . . .

I’m looking now at the two poems I was thinking of from The Magic Life: “The Doctor” and “The Pause.”

“The Doctor” is one with very narrow couplets and many one-word lines, ending with:  

The doctor




   or bear it.

Ever since I read it, that ending has been at one shoulder and I felt both those Edward poems to be very powerful.

Yeah, me too.

Because of the size of these little notebooks that had to fit in my breast pocket, from the very first poems I wrote, it was always like listening through a keyhole, you know? I played around with changing my lines into long lines, and I did here and there and it worked better. But for the most part, it was these short little lines, which I’d never really written in. But it matched to me the notion of listening through a keyhole to something else, something that was not my business somehow.

I remember Dave Smith saying that sometimes when you really are getting somewhere as a writer, it can feel like you’re writing on a bruise, and you can feel the tenderness of that. I think that explains some of the form, especially in those early drafts of three different books I made, which ultimately became one slim book.

But they were all just small lines, like you said. I never wrote like that. So it’s almost like ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump—the very little parsing out of something larger. That really intrigued me. And I was always such a long-winded—loud, it feels like to me—one-sentence writer where everything felt like it was spinning in, speeding up, until it was about to fall apart.

So it was interesting to do the opposite—to make something by listening bit by bit. I love that.

 Steve Scafidi reads four unpublished poems from his Lincoln project: “The Pause” and “The
 Doctor” from The Magic LIfe; “The Mud” and “The Staircase” from And the Bloody Death.

You spoke of the materiality of the small notebooks. I know from your previous talks that these notebooks were not off the shelf; you manipulated them to better serve your situational need. And I’m fascinated by what you did.

I think especially poets can be really interested, intrigued, in that part of the writing. I often begin with a pencil. Do you begin with the pencil anymore or do you begin on the computer?

I’m almost always on the computer. I have a long history as a keyboarder, back to composing in high school on what was even then an antique mechanical typewriter.

I was so much the opposite. I was so intimidated by the keyboard that even today sometimes when I give someone my number, they want me to do by the phone and I am like, let me get a piece of paper and I’ll write down my number.

But here’s [holding up a notebook] an early notebook that I actually used, one of these little Inspira composition notebooks.

Pocket notebook showing binding reinforcement and tied on pencil.

So for it to fit in my breast pocket, I took it to the bandsaw at work and I cut off about a half inch. Then, because these things are made so cheaply and I knew I’m rough on things, I sewed it with string. I drilled holes in here. And I would just take some string—it’s upholsterer’s string from the shop—to reinforce it. Then I drilled a hole in a pencil and tied it to the notebook so I wouldn’t have the excuse. Because sometimes writers are wiley about not doing what they need to do. And so it’s like not having a pencil would not be my excuse.

I would be like, “All right, catch it. Even if you think it’s a dumb thing, catch it. You don’t have an excuse; you have what you need.” So yeah, the materiality—

I have a whole box of these notebooks that I used over the years. And I loved that material, that part of the writing of it—the real. Almost like you’re a potter and going to the river bed to get some clay is how it felt—so rudimentary.

That was the natural beginning for this whole thing, and for the very slim published book that has a secret larger life for me; it began with something like holding onto the cliffside with my fingernails. To make something like this notebook was like, either I do this or I’m in trouble. And so that’s just what I did, which looks so silly to me now, like something from My Side of the Mountain.


From my perspective, it’s brilliant. We should all be so lucky if we carry something we had trimmed and stitched and reinforced by our own hand for such a purpose. Your gathering of necessary materials, gathering of the clay, as you said, and to make sure that nothing goes by.

Those very first lines you wrote down, did they make it into a poem that made it into the To the Bramble and the Briar? Did the germ of the project become public, or is it still one of the poems that remains unpublished?

It did appear in the book. I think it was quite different in the beginning in my notebook, but it did. It’s this tiny little erotic poem called “The Wine” on page twenty-one and the first four lines are exactly as I wrote them. In the first four lines are just two little couplets, teeny things. Then they just say,

As the bloom
       of the crocus

cuts the noose
       of winter away

That was the first sound of things that I heard that intrigued me that I had no idea what I was saying. Maybe it’s a shame, but the only way now that I ever begin poems, it seems, is not to know what on earth I’m saying.


That is often how poems start. That’s how this project started for sure, but it’s almost like I begin with something . . . not necessarily with nonsense, because there’s a another, better word for it. But, you know, in the dark somehow where I don’t know where I am.

Have you ever walked through the woods at night and on a path? And the only way you can see the path is if you look up into the sky and you see the darker darkness of the trees and the lighter darkness of the sky. You can say, OK, I’m still on the path. That seems like a natural way—for me at least—to get somewhere in a poem.

The more time I spend with the first manuscript, and the more we talk about it now, the more I am thinking of the project’s scale, how huge an endeavor it was with three manuscripts of around one hundred poems each.

The manuscript that I’ve read, and that Blackbird will publish some unpublished poems from, is The Magic Life.

We know how you started it. We know that that first voice that ended up being a love poem. But then from there, where? How did it evolve into a larger project? What was your idea for that project? And then what ultimately happened?

At the beginning, I was heading into Lincon’s life and that’s all I cared about. And so I wrote about him. I wrote about Charles Darwin who was born the same year. I also have a poems about Frederick Douglass as a peer, as someone in a parallel life. And I wrote many poems about Douglass. So I was interested in not just Lincoln; what makes someone is the context of their lives and the people around them, especially their children.

Robert was the only one of Lincoln’s children who made it into the twentieth century. He was the Secretary of War under Presidents Arthur and Garfield and was present at the Lincoln Memorial consecration in 1922. There is a great photo of him, a candid photo where it’s still a marsh at the Lincoln Memorial. But the beautiful memorial is right there like a Greek temple. And in the marshland around it, they’ve set these temporary chairs, some early version of a folding chair from the nineteenth century. People are sitting there, but everyone is not there yet. But he’s there among the first.

And as a photograph: Robert is looking over his shoulder, back to something away from the hoopla of what’s about to happen. They just capture him looking over his shoulder at something. It’s a beautiful photo of an old man who looks like the two of us in a way; he has a gray beard—but it’s the boy of the man; it’s a very tender picture. So, I’m very interested in Robert as someone who went forward.

Then I thought, well maybe I can keep writing into the present. I couldn’t. I could, but I didn’t like anything. Everything stopped with Robert for me. The whole thing ended up going from dumbfounded writing page by page into the story of a man’s life to three separate manuscripts. The first one was called The Magic Life. The second one was called And the Bloody Death. And the third one Of Abraham Lincoln. So those titles as one sentence covered the whole.

I took many of the stories from the lives of friends who I worked with, along with stories from my life, and put them in Lincoln’s life as part of the invention.

Leslie Shiel—the great poet of Richmond, Virginia—she was my companion as I wrote this in many ways. She was someone who encouraged me. You know, you have lots of questions like, “What am I doing? I’m not sure what I’m doing with myself.” And she’s like, “just keep going, keep going, keep going.” Then she would help me shape things.

And then I think of the people who would read the entire thing—and Leslie Shiel did, and Dave Smith, my editor at LSU, did—these two people read all three; they read the whole damn thing. And that’s a lot to ask from someone, in my opinion, because there were these lots of little things and some things worked, some things didn’t work. And these two poets, these two readers, were instrumental in encouraging me to find what matters most.

But as I was working with Dave Smith, he was saying, “It’s too long; this is way too long. You’ve got to deal with this.”

And I didn’t like it, and I fought it and I fought it and I just didn’t have the sense. And so at the time I was in conversation with the poet Ilya Kaminsky. We’re not in touch anymore, but we were in touch back then about writing poems and I told him, “I have too much. I don’t know how to do it.” I kept wanting to hand the whole thing over to someone and say “You do it. I can’t do it.”

And so I brought it down to one hundred poems. I think ultimately my book here is forty poems or forty-five at the most, but it’s brief. And I got it down to one hundred, but then I couldn’t do it. And I had sensed that Ilya could. Like he could hold the knife and he could just cut away. And he did. And he encouraged me again.

He said, “No, one hundred is too much; this is a really brief book.” It confirmed what people were saying to me. “Bring it down to something shorter!”

I don’t mean this comparison, but I kept thinking about the story of Raymond Carver and what’s the editor who cut down his short stories? . . . Gordon Lish. It broke Raymond Carver’s heart to do that at the time. This guy cut the hell out of his stories, but made great stories and created his style in many ways.

I think as to editors, I’ve always been someone who has needed someone else. I think all writers do. We need readers to inform us of what’s working and what isn’t, and then ultimately, an editor who can help you argue with the conclusion. And so I think Ilya was finally someone who, with a knife in his hand, just kept saying, “No, it’s shorter than this; it’s shorter than this; its shorter than this.” And that was interesting to me. I don’t think I’ve ever understood that, but I think I’m grateful to it.

I think he was right to make a book of interests rather than a thing that would keep going on. I had lots of poems about things that were just ordinary, trivial moments that intrigued me.

I finally got to something that I submitted to the Miller Williams Prize. The editor there at the time was adamantly against the fictional notes I had written. I had, for all three of these manuscripts, these fictional notes; I would write a poem, and it would be largely invention about a historical man’s life. And then I would write notes to create the legitimacy of what I invented.

So I don’t know—that tickled me so much to do that. It was great fun. But my editor in Arkansas was adamantly against that: “No, it’s not gonna happen under any circumstances that we are we going to have lies in our notes.”

I could have put up a fight, when I think about it, but I think it would have been over. I wasn’t sure. I was like, “Well, the poems are more important than the notes.” But I felt like I lost something of the essence of what I was up to in a way, but I may be wrong about that. There’s a trickster element to the book that I like.

I took many of the stories from the lives of friends who I worked with, along with stories from my life, and put them in Lincoln’s life as part of the invention. Of course, I didn’t know the man, but he had a life. He had an intriguing and beautiful one that I didn’t know about. And maybe no one knew about all those little stories.

But I was surrounded by guys who tell me stories. For example, my friend Todd at work, who fixes our Victrolas, grew up in Lovettsville and spent a lot of time with his grandma. At his grandma’s house, the snakes would come out in the summer and they would sun themselves on the concrete patio outside her house. And she hated them. So she would go out there with a shovel. And he told me the story of her killing the snakes: clang! clang! clang! Killing the snakes that were sunning themselves on her patio. And so I wrote a thing about that, about killing and about the sound of the clang! clang!

These stories that were intriguing gems that I would hear every day about people’s lives permeated the book. Who would know these little details about growing up in the country? Like running into the woods with your cousins and uncle and your uncle showing you three dead possums dressed up in baby doll clothes, which is what happened to Todd. His uncle was messing with his own kids and his visiting nephews and nieces and dragging them into the woods and saying, “You can’t believe what I found! You got to look, you guys. You’ve got to see this. Come on. You got to explain it to me.” They run off into the woods and they go a twisty, turny way and they don’t know where they are. These little kids are getting lost. And they come to this little clearing; then there are these possums lying there in baby doll clothes. He describes it as one of the freakiest things he ever saw, but in the metric of a child’s imagination, of course, this scene is true; my books tell me, right? Someone murdered the family of possums.

Anyway, these stories became part of the whole thing; it was a place to put some of these the way I guess a novelist would use stories. So the notes were full of that kind of detail.

This black notebook was part of my second draft of everything. The literal cut and paste of my later notebooks was important to me to provide a document of my revisions that I could physically carry around at work and elsewhere to read and study. This was well before phones, so the physicality of my drafts was essential as I moved through my day, far removed from my laptop.
      —Steve Scafidi
 A draft of “The Wine” from the journal pictured above.

In the manuscript, you have a dedication for Elijah Luther and Clifton Hardy before two epigraphs.

Clifton Hardy is my friend Todd.

OK. Clifton Hardy is also cited in some of the notes.

What is the epigraph? I don’t remember.

You have a quote presumably from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

[laughing] I don’t think it is.

I was unable to verify it and didn’t think so either. So when I read the note, and it had the phrase “a magic life” at the end, I thought, this is fictionalized Emerson, right? As that dawned on me, I all the more wanted to present it with the selection of poems, and to restore your fictionalized footnotes to those poems as a way to illustrate your original intent for the project.

The text attributed to Emerson reads:

The formation of a Man from Childhood is like the honing of a knife; the steel and stone and skill of the hand make a fine sharpness where the mind is revealed. One grows dull and makes a botch of all he tries. One makes a refined shape. Another carves through Time a peculiar thing: individual, never guessed at, a monument to Genius and Labor and yet ordinary as Light. A secret turning in the World—a magic life.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The American”

So, really, that’s another poem, a prose poem posing as the voice of Ralph Waldo Emerson; that’s a kind of a beauty in and of itself.

Then the Clifton Hardy:

Abraham liked to fool and mess. We all did. I saw him drag a coin from his sister’s ear. I saw him make half a pig and a bowl of greens in a twinkling disappear. He said he’d been to the moon once and it was only a mile up if you could jump. I believed him. We were children. I think his Momma pulled him from a hat.

I love that; I forgot I did that.

It’s funny, Clifton Hardy is the name of my friend Todd who told me all these stories, but I placed him—I had forgotten the epigraph—I placed him as a friend of Lincoln. I wanted to acknowledge the sources of my stories.

So who is the second name in the dedication? Elijah Luther.

My son.

That’s what I thought, but given the blurring between historical fact and invention, I needed to confirm for myself and our readers.

I’ve read the To the Bramble and the Briar, and I was much taken with reading The Magic Life as I saw some of poems from the book in a different context, and among poems I mostly didn’t know, except for having heard you read some of them years ago at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

You were saying you had mixed feelings about the surgery to bring the three manuscripts down to one.

I hated it.

I get it. From my perspective, I’m thinking, “Nobody got to read those poems about the death of Edward. Nobody got to read “The Fire,” or “The Circus,” or “The Tuba.”

So whatever Blackbird can do to bring some of these forward, right, is a service to readers. And now I’m fretting over all the ones I haven’t seen here as my work as an editor with the journal ends.

I’m obsessed, especially as I get older, with all the things that don’t make the light of day. Whether it’s details of a life, whether it’s a piece of individual work, or a project only partially completed. I’m fascinated right now by a nearly unknown Philadelphia journalist, literary editor, and poet named James E. Richardson who wrote and published poems in journals for a span of twenty or so years and who self-published three books of poetry before dying in the prime of his life. So I’m thinking of writers like him even as I learn of the the larger whole of your project and hoping that somehow it can see the light of day while you have agency in it.

It’s dreamy, it’s lovely in places, it’s dark, it’s strange, and it’s brief, and it’s like a tricky night’s sleep . . .

What you’ve just said about Richardson, and about what you’ve just discovered about some of the stuff that no one else knows about in my manuscript, is so kind. That you read the manuscript. And that you’ve told me. It means a lot to me.

We’re all heading to oblivion so fast that even while we’re alive, I can feel it. I can feel the feeling of being forgotten happening, even as I forget my own priority sometimes as a writer. But I don’t know how you resist that. It feels like Shakespeare is going be reduced to something so tiny. And I don’t know what’s going to preserve us.

Can you imagine a possible life of the project in future? Will you ever send some of these other upublished poems out for publicaton?

I’ll never do that. The only way I would do it is if someone showed interest. Like, if they know that there’s more—I mean, people don’t know there’s more.

Well, hopefully they’ll know now because of this conversation.

To me, when you first contacted me about the work, diving back into it was like being plunked into the ocean. I felt completely overwhelmed to be honest, and not by you, but by me stepping into things. There are so many drafts and there’s so many different things in there. I would do it if someone was certain they wanted to make a chapbook or a book. I could do that. I could do that, but it would take some time and I would have to be committed to it, but I don’t think there’s an interest in it and maybe it’s lost and maybe it should be lost.

But if it’s not and people want to do something, I would do something with it. But I’m not going to initiate it. I have to keep moving forward.

Is going back to something that had a kind of closure a misery because of feeling that thing is done?

There is the closure of the book, so maybe you’re right, maybe it is done, but to me there was always the sense of how much was unseen and was lost. To be honest, I felt like I failed the project entirely, even though I made a book, and I’m honored to have a book and to have made something that perhaps interests some people. But I felt like the whole thing was larger, and I didn’t do it properly. I always had a feeling that I fucked up.

[Writers] have this great thing we’re engaged in, each of us, and no one’s going to know much about it, but it’s lovely.

I don’t know how to control that because I felt like I did the best I could and I had loads of intelligent people helping me. I think they were right that I needed to be succinct and to get at something. It’s dreamy, it’s lovely in places, it’s dark, it’s strange, and it’s brief, and it’s like a tricky night’s sleep—the book is to me when I look at it. But when it first came out, I thought, “Oh, this is a complete failure; I can’t believe I did this.”

I often have that feeling when I publish something. I’ve been overcome with shame every time I’ve ever published a book. All I can see are the flaws that I sense are there, and the mistakes I perhaps have made, and things that could have done better if I knew better.

But then you get over that feeling. All right. I’ve gotten over it. But I am haunted by it.

I hear you on this, but it’s interesting that you felt such responsibility for the outcome. Part of this is about materiality and the market and a publisher, right? I don’t know, if you were living in an age or time where poetry was more celebrated, maybe somebody would be like, “you’ve only got three? Can you can you do a fourth?”

But that’s not the reality. And basically, you had advisors who anticipated the limitations of the market, what a press would be more likely to publish. And you have to fit in into the economics of that production and distribution. So it’s all larger than your agency, your responsibility. You aren’t alone responsible for whether or not there were three as there are other forces at work.

Well, I’ll tell you this, Michael. I think that there’s something really beautiful about writers. I think that we do what we do and we do it despite whatever, but we do it. And it has this incredible power for us. The writing life is very real, even though maybe the literary life is not. But we have these little glimmers in the literary aspects of things where people might know what you’re up to. For the most part, you know, writers are up to a lot. We have this great thing we’re engaged in, each of us, and no one’s going to know much about it, but it’s lovely. It’s a practice that often just goes untold and unseen and is secret and yet is something that we thrive on. That motors us along and keeps us going.

I’m sure all the writers who might be reading this have written so much that mattered to them that no one’s ever seen. And I think that’s OK. I do. Making your peace with oblivion in a way is part of the deal. Maybe others see it as a war with oblivion.

But things get lost. Houses burn down, manuscripts are lost. Knowing no one gives a shit about what you’re up to is the natural course of events for a writer. And if nothing comes of it, that’s fine. I’ve been lucky beyond my dreams to have a glimmer of it. I don’t mean to sound pretentious by saying that because of course, I’ve already said I’d love for larger things. But it’s OK. If it doesn’t happen, it’s OK. I think that the only way for me to keep going as a writer is to say, OK to the moment and go ahead into what is forward and saying everything that is behind me may die. And just write the next poem.  

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