William Stobb is the author of five poetry collections, including the National Poetry Series selection Nervous Systems (2007) and Absentia (2011), both from Penguin Books. Stobb works as associate editor of Conduit and assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. His poem “What Is Happening” can be found here. Another poem, “Earl of Rochester,” appears in the July/Aug 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “What Is Happening”? Did you begin with a line or phrase? With an image? With the poem’s overarching animating impulse?
Years ago, I had this great photo of a storm spiral over Antarctica. It was a full-page photo I ripped out of a magazine, probably a National Geographic, and which I eventually lost somewhere. But I think of it every once in a while—fairly regularly, actually. It’s weird. I’m interested in the random images, ideas, song snippets, phrases, etc. that consciousness throws back at me. What are they for? Why do I remember these things? (Footnote: another example of this is the song “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” from the movie Hustle & Flow, which I saw one time, more than a decade ago, but that song comes into my head probably once every other day. Why? Seriously.). I get that an image of a storm over a polar ice cap is an anxious image for our time—kind of like mushroom clouds back in the cold war era. And so the poem, to me, grounds its pursuit of consciousness with the gravity of that initial image (I think the idea of responsibility, which comes back late in the poem, is directly related to an anxiety of agency that I feel as a human of this era—that I have this incredible consciousness, which produces so much amazement (sex and ice cream?!) but which also tends toward catastrophic innovations—I think the poem’s trying to enter the storm spiral that is trying to think in a historical time period where thinking itself is hastening global crisis).
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Can I unload on you, a little? I’m a little bit of a depressive person. I think it’s genetic in my family. When I first started writing—for the first decade, solid—writing just felt so good to me that I wanted to constantly do it. I wanted to turn every episode of my life into something, and I was just kind of . . . maybe Duran Duran put it best when they sang, “hungry like the wolf.” Since that voracious time, I’ve become suspicious of the value of all that self-expression. I guess it’s like achieving social awareness—“no one wants to hear what you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them” (Built to Spill). It’s a deadly paradox, though, because I still do feel better when I’ve written, like “cleaning my brain” (Talking Heads) (Why are these song lyrics happening to me?), but I just don’t feel as unapologetically confident that what I’m saying matters in any way. I’ve heard that Basho tried to stop creating images late in his life—that he came to see it as a kind of weakness, and felt ashamed that he couldn’t stop. I can relate to that feeling in some ways. And so my feelings about the value of the work I do have just become more complicated—there was a naivety in my early desire to write that I just can’t sustain anymore, though I still do need to make these poems.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I have two teenage children with busy schedules, a partner with a demanding career, and an academic job of my own, so probably the most crucial factor in my writing life is my ability to work within a schedule that has a lot of demands. I loooove the days when I have an hour or two of alone-time. Even if there’s stuff I need to do during that time, I crave quiet. And sometimes I can compose during quiet periods like that. I write a lot in notebooks, which I didn’t do as much when I first started writing, and notebooking is a good way, for me, of staying responsive to experience on a moment-to-moment basis. I don’t know if I’m answering this question. Time management? I guess that’s what I’m saying. That’s a very practical thing to say, isn’t it? Very instructive, I’m sure.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I really loved my poetry teacher—the great poet, editor, teacher, friend, correspondent, Jay Meek, who passed away almost a decade ago now. His poems are still great teachers to me. One thing he said that sticks with me was something like “it’s the person behind the poem that matters.” He didn’t mean to say that one can’t ever like poems written by mean, nasty people. He just meant . . . there’s an interpersonal exchange that’s happening in a poem, and you feel that, and that matters. Later in my studies, I saw this idea in rhetorical narrative theory (in Wayne Booth, I think) as “the implied author.” The presence of the maker as evidenced by the text. It can be an almost mystical idea, or it can simply be a personable, conversational notion. But it’s a kind of warm idea, a soft idea, which I like to kind of dwell in as a reader and a writer. I know it’s deconstructible, and I know that there are a lot of stylistic distinctions that are significant in poetics, but I guess I just like to think of poetry as an affective thing, involving people.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I just recently finished a manuscript and am waiting for news about it. It’s called “You Are Still Alive,” and it includes these poems from Kenyon Review. I always feel a little bit at-loose-ends after finishing a collection and it’s summer now, too, when I can easily lose myself in reading novels. And I have dishes to clean up, a cooler of un-drunk beer to unpack from a baseball game that got rained out last night, and a son who wants me to take him and his buddy over the big blue bridge to the city beach on the Mississippi (yes, people swim in it, despite the occasional spike in fecal chloroform). Oh, and I was thinking of going to see that new Mad Max movie, too. Have you seen it? As much as I worry about all the remakes coming out of Hollywood, I just love desert imagery, and I’m curious if there’ll be any update on the Feral Boy. Probably not. I guess this just sounds like a lot of excuses.