A Conversation with Weston Cutter by KR managing editor Tyler Meier
Weston Cutter was born in Minnesota and educated both there and in Virginia, where he earned his MFA from Virginia Tech. He now makes his home in Indiana and teaches at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne. Cutter has a book of stories out from BlazeVOX called You’d Be A Stranger Here, Too and a chapbook of poems forthcoming from Greying Ghost Press entitled Plus or Minus. He blogs, reviews and interviews prolifically at Corduroy Books, and currently writes for the Kenyon Review blog. Two of his poems, “Way off the Water” and “Revelation” were published in the Fall 2011 issue of KR. We’ve reprinted them online to pair with this conversation.
Tyler Meier: What’s the story behind these KR pieces (“Way off the Water” and “Revelation”)? Can you tell us anything about their origins or how they were made?
Weston Cutter: “Water” I wrote at a hotel just across the state line from Louisville, KY—I was an AP test reader and I used Priceline.com to get the cheapest possible room, which ended up being across the river, in Indiana. This was last summer. I was engaged to my now wife but was spending the week solo in Louisville, and the walk across the river twice daily, literally from one state to another, was generative and stuck with me. That’s entirely where that poem came from. “Revelation” was weirder: I lived in far, far rural Iowa for my first two post-MFA years, and was teaching at a small college 20 miles from the South Dakota border. Not only was the town substantially religious, but living way way out like that forces a renegotiation with what us city folk consider pretty basic conveniences. For instance: On a drive back from Chicago to where I lived, I had to stay at a motel for 2 days in January because the road was just impossible—literally impossible. I watched semi trucks slide off the highway. The interstate closest to us shut for three days because of blowing snow. Weather out there is serious. The edge of town was oblivion: the depth of solitude there was to me overwhelming. There’s bunches more behind this—I’m Catholic, and the structure of prayer and spirituality fascinates me—but ultimately “Revelation” was part of a group of poems, all of which were trying to deal with matters of faith (and futility) in a place in which the experience of living is just infinitely more raw and less mediated than what those of us in cities typically experience.
TM: This makes me think in a way about what remains when need becomes basic. When you’ve been able to trust the road for the whole trip and all of a sudden there’s the circumstance that forces a suspension of trust, when you can’t trust the road. Or when the terms of convenience change. I feel that movement in these poems and in other poems of yours–there’s a quality to your writing where things go elemental, and the stakes ratchet up. But it also makes me think of loneliness, both an interior loneliness and an external one as a consequence of landscape. Are these a necessary part of your writing process, in a more regular way than just in these poems? Is geographic location a determinate force in your work?
WC: This is really good + hard. That first part, about the road and change: absolutely. I end up thinking about it in terms of repeated activity. Biking or running are good examples. One does these things, and some rides/runs end up being transformative and wild, some ho hum. But we can’t just stop running/riding because of the ho-hummery of the task: we recognize somehow that the amazement is luck, is rare, is worth working and doing the endless task endlessly for. I like how the practiced, repeated thing cracks and lets through the infinite and, in so doing, helps sort of burn away the activity. Right? There are rides or runs one returns from feeling as if it was not even a run or ride, it was this whole other metaphysical thing with a clickingly sure sense of the entirety of existence audible beneath footfalls…and but even as we’re hearing that, running along or whatever, we know that it’s temporary, and that it’s a matter of having run enough to be in that place to receive such transmission to begin with, and is amazing precisely because it’s temporary and fleeting. If that makes any sense.
Yes to the second part, on loneliness (and solitude), both interior and exterior, though this is the first I’m realizing it. (Your questions are making my see my own stuff differently, which is strange fun). I’m from the Midwest, which seems to me a markedly lonely/alone place, both culturally and geographically (big bluffs with skinny one-person deer trails along the Mississippi, forests and snow that almost insulate solitude). I can no longer now not be thoroughly from Minnesota, which, to me, does or says or means certain things in my work, and so geography’s a huge thing for my work. If nothing else, let’s use a real simple example: I love E.T., have had it in my life for however many years, have always wished if I’m riding at night that my bike would hover to the moon, etc. However: that movie is set in a geography I’ve never understood, and I felt this weird sorrow as a kid that our house wasn’t like that, our street not like that, etc. I’m sure there’s some kid who loves E.T. much more than I because it’s just like his house or street or town. That’s great. My stuff will have the backyards and scenery I know.
TM: Both poems track the agency of desire–the ability of desire to be a cause or effect in a world where bigger forces romp: In “Way off the Water,” nature threads narrative, and in “Revelation,” the gods cannot “cast or smite” so they make creatures out of words. But in both poems, there’s the deep want of a sort of joinery–the stitching gesture of a line (both poetic and textile) in “Water,” the desire to be audience, to be told narrative in the closing gesture of “Revelation”. There’s an aspect in both poems where desire morphs into the substance of belief: how a line carries through to whatever “you think / you should be stitched to” or how the story the speaker asks the gods to tell us is how “everyone’s / a moon + this stormlife is just / a matter of finding what / to orbit.” Can you talk a little about the relationship between desire and belief in your poems?
WC: This is a really good + hard question, again. The answer’s about the meeting points of twin things in/for me. First: I’m a sucker for lovey-dovey stuff, always. I love sweet melodies, I love songs/poems/books about wanting/desire/longing. I love sucker stuff. It’s just wiring, I think. But I think desire itself ends up being pretty bad for you after awhile: the nutritionless sugar of want doesn’t really satisfy, emotionally, over the long term. Which is where the other interest comes in. Systems fascinate me far more than individual components of things—the context of want is for me more lasting and interesting to think and write about than the individual wants. I don’t know how to be much more concrete about it. I know I learned my way regarding these aspects principally by studying Jorie Graham and Wallace Stevens, both of whom I learned from and through Tom Gardner at Virginia Tech.
TM: The poems use white space and enjambment to great effect. Can you talk a little bit about shape in your work? What becomes the determining factor for how these poems ultimately look on the page?
WC: Jorie Graham’s Never knocked me sideways and I’ve never looked at lines the same way since reading that. All her work, but especially that, and especially the last handful of poems in that book. I don’t have any systematic way of thinking or talking about structure or line: it’s a matter of enabling a heightened sensitivity for how things could move best. The first writer I interviewed was Bob Hicok and he talked (and still talks) about his work in terms of exhaustion with what he’s been doing. I know I’m tired of the (relatively) inert block-o-poem form that’s dominant at present. I know things end up taking the shape they do on the page because of some hope on my part for movement—both overtly, on the page, but then (hopefully) among the ideas in the poem too.
TM: I really like your explanation of how structure works for you, that sense of enabling a heightened sensitivity for how things could move best. It suggests that even in the most lyric and abstract writing, there’s still a narrative quality—you start somewhere, and you end somewhere else.
I also want to think about creating out of a sense of exhaustion, or out of a desire for making something different. Am I reading this right? Can we talk more about the block-o-poem? Do you feel yourself writing against or toward certain styles intentionally?
WC: About the narrative aspect: this seems huge to me. All things have story, if only in dim, far-off ways (we recognize the necessity of loving maximally because time is short, but time is short, of course, because of narrative: because time is passing, even if we’re taking a celebratory moment in a poem). There should be more talking about this. One of the reason the lyric folks who get read get read is because their work stands with its back to narrative, indivisible and mutually involved in a feel-up, even if the moving pieces that are visible to the reader are lyric.
About form: on some level it is about me writing against styles of poetry, but far more often I’m writing toward a poetic style I’ve seen and thought: that’s cool. I reviewed Nick Lantz’s two books when they were published and his structures are great—mathematically satisfying, structurally sound for the meanings involved, interesting to see zag on the page. C.D. Wright and her speech-length lines with lots of space and the feeling of worked-up-to statements, D.A. Powell and his turn-the-book-sideways-the-lines-are-so-long poetry, Jorie Graham in Sea Change with the poems branching off seemingly from this unified vertical spine (and in all of Graham’s work, how structure so awesomely, amazingly works with content): I love this stuff. So: yes. Writing toward.
I write away from or against the block-o-poetry thing because it’s become (I think) something of a default. We all get that certain forms have been invented to accommodate certain aesthetic shifts or moves. That’s great. But it seems to me that, though block-o-poetry’s been dominant for who even knows how long now—certainly as a massively common default mode it’s been at least 40-50 years if not longer—the aesthetic moves or shifts it was made dominant to accommodate or allow have been used up. I don’t hate the form, necessarily: I hate that we use the same form over and over, as if our poetry hasn’t changed since Ashbery started.
You see more of this in fiction, I think: Infinite Jestis a lot of awesome things, not least of which a book that attempts in good faith to mimic the split feeling of being alive and having one’s attention divided (hence footnotes). I know that’s an easy example, but I think fiction has more examples of structural shake-up (Mark Danielewski alone has exploded form over and over). I don’t see much in poetry that leads me to believe this is something we’re really thinking about, and that seems ignorant and precious: to think that lofty, polished sentiment and idea is enough, regardless of how we structure it. We’re living in some full-scale vividity and stretch at present; it would be nice to see poetry trying, structurally, to at least acknowledge that.
TM: You’ve got a book of stories out from BlazeVOX called You’d Be a Stranger, Too and a chapbook of poems coming out from Greying Ghost Press called Plus or Minus. I’m wondering how the narrative impulse of story cohabitates with a more lyric impulse for you. Do you toggle back and forth between each mode of writing? Or is it more feast or famine–all stories for a time, then all poems? Does the writing of each inform the other?
WC: They don’t inform each other, or at least haven’t. Stories were my first love and are way, way harder for me. I love them more for that, even if I can’t make them with the ease I can poetry. The difference ultimately is about language versus scene: the poems come from verbal considerations (I see the evidence of autumn here in Indiana and think the words leaves and snow and equinox), the stories from scene (imagining, say, a windstorm in which the gloves from fingers are blowing around). I write fiction to ease or cure loneliness and write poetry out of something more like joy or celebration (for the facts of breathing and thinking about breath). There’s also this: my poetry’s ultimately in or from me: I’ve done some persona poems, but I’m mostly just me, writing. With fiction, that’s less true. I don’t write one or the other all the time: there’s always some of both going, at some level.
TM: In an earlier KR blog interview with Alex Lemon, you asked Alex about a first really sexy or suckering line of poetry that made him want to write. Do you have lines that stick with you, or that goad you to the nearest pen?
WC: Lines stick with me, though I’m not sure they push me to write. E. E. Cummings’ line “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” really blew my mind in 9th grade, and still does. Lots of Bob Hicok lines in his first few books floor me: “I’m not good at waiting which means I’m not good at being alive” from “Waiting for the UPS” (which was originally in KR), Dean Young’s “And Because her Face” in First Course in Turbulence killed me with “because the heart is a fearless / seething”—just the grammar of that still revs me. Fiction’s farther afield: the end of Invisible Man made me cry the summer before senior year in high school and I’ve never been the same. The last pages of Richard Powers’ Gold Bug Variations enraptured. Pages 199-203 or so in Infinite Jest (hard or soft cover) make me just about collapse. That’s probably enough said about that (though there’s also C.D. Wright and Jennifer Boyden and Jorie Graham).
TM: You are a prolific reviewer/interviewer (extensive evidence over at http://corduroybooks.wordpress.com/)! What’s the role of conversation in your creative process or reading process? How does conversation figure in how you a.) think about and process things and b.) create?
WC: I got into interviewing and reviewing because I’m cheap. I started reviewing literally just because I’m greedy and read fast and want to not pay for books. That sounds awful but it’s true. I started interviewing people just because people said yes—that’s it, honestly. I pitched an interview to Rain Taxi, they said yes—that was like 7 years ago, and here I am. I know this isn’t answering your question at all. I don’t think the individual conversations I have with artists or authors has much to do with my own work—I just wanted to interview people because I thought there was some magic trick involved in writing and thought if I asked enough people I could crack the code. I should say, too, that I think having the conversations I’ve had has made me…this sounds stupid, but here: I think having conversations with other folks offers one the chance to better understand and appreciate one’s own stupidities. Let’s say I’m talking to some novelist I’ve loved forever, and I ask a question about how his lead characters almost always are described opening doors in certain ways, or making entrances in general, and this author says: you know, I didn’t think about that. And for a second I’m tempted to think—I see something amazing! I tracked something deeper than even the author can see! But what ends up being useful about the exchange, for me, is that I’ve just had made more clear to me that I’ve got a tendency to maybe track certain things and not others. This seems obvious, but I think, especially for readers, this is critical to realize and note: we take what we want. The book or poem or story may be a whole meal, but we all just eat the parts we like. Infinite Jest is useful again: there’s probably twenty valid ways/reasons to love that book. I’ve met folks who not only didn’t care about the aspects of the book that I did, but literally didn’t get the aspect I’m describing—and I didn’t understand what they got, either. There’s an old proverb that says I know what I’ve given you; I don’t know what you’ve received. Conversation makes that come really, really alive.
This is a hell of a question, in terms of the other part—the larger conversation that all creative writing creates/takes part in. I’m really aware of it, and I care a lot about it, both critically and personally. This has mostly to do with intellectual loneliness—the emotional charge from feeling intellectually engaged in reading and writing is one of the best feelings there is. It’s the realization one is not alone, that the things one thinks or feels in writing are felt by others. It seems impossible not to write with that in mind: I read new work by whomever and am led to new places in my own work where I wouldn’t otherwise be. The sort of classic idea of a writer all alone doing her/his thing seems false to me, though too much consideration of the larger conversation is obviously toxic as well. I think whatever danger is present in being aware of the conversation is more than balanced by magic: writing and publishing is this incredible, incredibly democratic thing—we literally get to take part in a culture and conversation that’s been going for thousands of years, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from standing right next to his/her hero, doing her/his own thing. That will always be amazing to me.