Derek Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books, 2011) and the poetry editor at Mantis. The recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Louisville, and Missouri Review, he is currently finishing his doctorate in American literature at Stanford. An excerpt from his essay “Ten New Ways to Read Ronald Johnson’s Radi os” can be found here. The full story appears in the July/Aug 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Ten New Ways to Read Ronald Johnson’s Radi os“?
Besides the obvious—love for the poem, belief that I’d something new and smart to say about it—I took a graduate seminar at Stanford in the spring of 2012: “Milton and Blake.” I’d already tried (without success) to convince a professor that Radi os would be a relevant paper topic in a course on Milton. The addition of Blake helped my cause. As I hope is clear from my essay, Radi os would not exist without William Blake. It’s not simply that Johnson credits Blake with his erasure method—“[t]o etch” is “to cut away,” he notes—but that the two poets share a playful heresy. Blake thought the Devil was the true hero of Paradise Lost. Johnson, I imagine, thought it was the immensity of the language itself.
And so I wrote the paper, though I never pretended it would wind up as scholarship in the traditional sense, and—as anyone familiar with contemporary poetics can attest—it surely didn’t. The voice is too familiar, the form too free-ranging. I default to the personal too frequently and with too much delight. But the arguments in this essay will hold up under real scholastic scrutiny. Peter O’Leary, I’m proud to say, gave the piece a thumbs up. (He also caught a few mistakes!) And so the impetus for “Ten New Ways” is broader, in a sense, than the great American poem that is Radi os. For me it represents a style of critical writing that we sorely lack: smart, historically engaged essays that are written for well-read (if not necessarily credentialed) audiences. It’s the kind of work that most scholars eschew and most poets don’t attempt, mostly on account of institutional factors. So-called “belletristic” criticism won’t often make tenure; MFAs teach us to read our peers, not our past. Still, these institutions can change . . . and should.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
It has fluctuated widely, depending on genre, time constraints, and motivation. As a poet, translator, and essayist, I jump between projects, sometimes within a single day. Robinson Jeffers wrote poems in the morning, ate a hearty lunch, and then lugged boulders from the beach to build his Hawk Tower. I’ve always liked the certainty of that routine, its balance of poetry and physical exertion. My own process had never been so exact. I used to wait out my lyric poems, spending long, seemingly fruitless hours at the computer until I scraped together a few useable lines. The process felt constipated, but worked. Now I shuffle back and forth between poems. I try to keep a long one in the wings. My essays come more steadily. Give me enough hours—too many, I’m afraid—and I’ll wind my way to a final sentence. Translation is similarly dependable. More of this work, whatever the genre, now happens in the margins of my day than it used to: a spare hour before bedtime, a quiet moment while my son plays. It took me a long time to realize how useful those intervals could be.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Two answers: language study and fatherhood. In the summer of 2002, I enrolled in Cal-Berkeley’s intensive summer Latin program. In six weeks I learned the language; by the tenth, I could read Vergil and Catullus. The program took its toll—for a brief period, I knew what it meant to crave a cigarette—but it changed everything from my prosody to my political outlook. I concocted a hendecasyllabic line with frequent “cracks” (mid-line enjambments) that just might be unique. I saw the scare tactics of Cicero in the Bush-era White House. I began to consider the White House itself as one more classical loan—not unlike our democracy—showing its own structural cracks. I’ve discussed this at length with Dean Rader at Boxcar Poetry Review, but it all came to a head in my first book Other Romes (Saturnalia, 2011).
And, of course, Latin introduced me to translation. As an undergraduate I began adapting Neo-Latin poets into English; this summer my wife, Anne O. Fisher, and I will finish The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, a collaborative translation of a contemporary Russian poet. (Amelin has won Russia’s prestigious Solzhenitsyn Prize.) Translation is a marvelous thing: it removes the problem of invention, heightens our relationship with other literatures, and makes us less dependent on the self. This is real boon for someone like me: a poet and Whitman scholar with deep Romantic roots.
Nothing, however, changed my writing like the birth of my son. Like translation, it forced me to look beyond myself. And, again like translation, I had to learn to tune into another voice. It would be nice to say that my child—almost five now, lawyerly and inventive—has taught me how to hear, but I can’t say yet whether that’s entirely true. He does, however, provide a depth to my poetry, serving as both interlocutor and subject matter. He’s also great at gobbling up free time! But even that has its advantages. Children remind us of our mortality, which—at least in my case—spurs me toward writing. I have fewer hours, but I think I use them better. As the late James Salter once wrote, “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.” I believe that heartily, though I suppose it also passes into our kids.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Writing advice is like that collection of microbes growing in your stomach. Everybody’s got some, but do you really want to share? Isn’t method one of the few things you can claim as your own? I’ve heard people talk about writing everyday. That’s useful until it’s not. At the high points of my dissertation, I did nothing but write my dissertation: no poems, no translations, no essays from 10 AM to 5 PM. That was, I suppose, a form of daily writing, and it had its advantages. I wrote four chapters and an intro—my project’s on marriage in the lives and afterlives of Dickinson and Whitman—in less than 24 months. And yet that never felt like the sort of daily writing I wanted, in large part because it was divorced from a wider audience. So I’d try to split the day between scholarship and poetry, but whatever I wrote first progressed forward, while the afternoon work languished.
William Stafford would famously wake up earlier than his children so he could write. I wrote some of “Ten New Ways to Read Ronald Johnson’s Radi os” like that, fleeing twice a week to coffee shops and public parks. For each new book, Louise Glück forbids herself from doing whatever she did best in her last one. I like that too. But I don’t know if anyone’s ever told me the following: be adaptable. That’s the writing advice that strikes me as the likeliest to last. That and trust momentum.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
Too many, I’m afraid. I recently finished my second book of poems, The Identity Thief. It considers questions of fatherhood, translation, and digital living. At its heart is a long poem, “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt,” that is a bookish seduction, a saint’s life (rewritten), a civic portrait (of San Francisco), and a walk home. It’s also indebted to Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, though my muse is a sixth century desert ascetic who spent thirty-seven years undisturbed. I’ve mentioned The Joyous Science. Amelin has a mock epic about an alchemist and military attaché to Peter the Great, Jacob Bruce (1669 – 1735). I’m rendering the first part of that poem into ballad meter. Even with my wife’s exquisite crib, it’s equal parts frustration and fun. And then there are the essays. “Ten New Ways to Read Radi os” will eventually join “Walt Whitman’s iPad” (Poetry Northwest), “To Help My Son Live Easily: Notes on the Dead in American Poetry” (forthcoming, Gettysburg Review), and “Nude Dude Poets” (forthcoming Michigan Quarterly Review) in a miscellany collection. I love writing about American poetry. I’m honored, in fact, to join the roster of poet-critics at the Gettysburg Review—Floyd Collins and Dorothy Barresi—where I’ll soon start contributing those essay-reviews for which they’re known.