17 comments to Interview with Scott R. Welvaert, author of Pacific
Scott, welcome and congratulations on having Pacific selected as the initial title in Sol Books’ Poetry Series, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on our blog.
Could you start things off by giving our readers a brief introduction to your collection — it’s underlying themes and where you pulled your inspiration from?
Pacific chronicles the last days of a couple who meet in a therapy group for people dealing with AIDS. Knowing neither one of them have much longer to live, they make a pact to venture to the Pacific Ocean to die beneath its depths. It is a casserole filled with gooey nuggets from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Jonathan Larsen’s Broadway musical Rent. So thanks, Shakes, Kat, and Johnny.
As far as themes go, I suppose the main theme of the collection is that love exists everywhere — even in bodies brim with despair and disease. There is probably a smaller theme of commitment, maybe. I mean, you have to be pretty committed, or committable, I guess, to actually give the person you love their dying request to be drowned in the ocean.
On an imagery level, I stuck to fluidity or water as a core image. My characters seem to always be fluid and moving — striking out for that ultimate goal of the Pacific. Water shows up in one form another everywhere. I like the nice juxtaposition of life-giving water showing up everywhere in a story about facing death.
In your article “Recapturing Story in Poetry“, you actually referred to using ideas from Shakes, Kat, and Johnny as thievery, which reminded me of Picasso’s quote “good artist borrow, great artist steal.” They helped supply the inspiration behind the story of your collection, but what about individual poems? Did you also pull ideas from other literary works, or did you have other sources to “steal” from?
Oh, jeepers. I’ll have to remember. Feel free to prove me wrong on these — god knows my memory is three sandwiches short of a picnic. The poem “Ozone” has staggered lines largely because at the time I wrote that poem, I was reading a lot of Mary Oliver. She likes to stagger lines like that. “Group Therapy” has a particular word/sound in it I stole from Whitman I believe. We were reading Leaves of Grass and somewhere, I forget where, was the word “chuff.” I remember reading it and thinking, “The old bastard is babbling, but it sounds so perfect!”
Is it bad that I can only claim certain techniques and styles in certain poems as inspirationally stolen objects? I know there are a lot of poems with couplets. I didn’t steal that from any author or poem, but I remember taking a seminar with Rick Robbins and he said, “Couplets force you to write better lines.” Or something like that. If I misquoted you Rick, let me know. After that seminar I tried using couplets more and it took. I’ve yet to figure out if that was a good thing.
Some of my poems just started with musical inspiration. “Where Wyoming Roads Go” started with an infatuation with the song “Take Me” by the doors — thus the reference in the poem. Same goes for the Elvis reference in “Catching an Old Couple Showering In a Thunderstorm.” The one poem in the collection tightly tied to a song is “A Night in Idaho Woods.” I almost exclusively looped the song “Breakdown” by Guns N’ Roses while writing that one. It spoke to exactly what my characters seemed to be going through — trying to find themselves before dashing off into the dark beyond, warming themselves to each other’s fire and all that metaphorical stuff. The line that sticks with me from that song is “if you got no one, you better go back out and find her.” That line alone wrote the plot of that poem.
Boy the thumbprint of integrity I had just went out the window with that G’N'R reference, huh? Does that answer the question?
What about imagery? In Pacific, and even in this interview, I notice you use quite a few food metaphors. Is it common practice for you to use your environment: songs on the radio, a book you’re reading, last night’s dinner, etc . . . as fodder for your writing material?
Scott, let’s get back to your article “Recapturing Story in Poetry“. In it you discuss using a story thread to connect the poems in Pacific. What advantages do you see in having a story theme?
Well, if you would all direct your attention to the chart attached to this blog entry, you can clearly see that as story involvement increases in a poetry collection, so does the attention of the reader. This is called Ray Carver’s Algorithm . . .
Seriously, look at early poetry — the epics, even Shalespeare’s plays — all had primary roots in communicating a story. Then at some point this glorious medium began shrinking in scope, and some would say quality, to the drunken, streaking version of poetry we see today — where an ingredient list for Chips Ahoy cookies is considered quality poetry on some online poetry forums.
That isn’t a joke. That really happened.
Here’s where I channel Terry Davis for a bit — Terry, feel free to club me over the melon if I’m doing this wrong. Story can save poetry. Look at all the entertainment mediums out there — novels, comic books, movies, and even commercials and professional sports — all use story to reach their audience. I think when you lose story, your creation becomes the heartless tripe like abstract art that has “meaning” rather than story.
Okay, I had to get that out of my system. Outside of the odd intrigue of cross-breeding a novel with a poetry collection, the main advantage of using a story thread to tie your collection together is to reach your audience better or to reach a much larger audience — at least outside of your graduate study peers and professors. Because let’s face it, more people would rather read a story than any 10 poems. But if your 10 poems are intricately tied together and share the same characters, settings, and struggles, then maybe, just maybe, more people will learn to enjoy poetry all over again.
On a craft level, integrating a story backbone into a collection of poetry is far more challenging and fulfilling when completed. You get the satisfaction of a novelist and the sense of artful pride of a poet all rolled into one. The disadvantage from a craft standpoint is that it is harder to write and may seem boring if you have not put together a good story to inspire you. I know with Pacific, once I had my story, I couldn’t stop writing about these people and their journey. To this day, I still feel the urge to write about those characters.
The blame is often put on T. S. Elliot, who threw readers neck deep into a mire of analogies with each poem, for making poetry too intellectual for all but the graduate students and professors you speak of. I like the idea that a story can make poetry more assessable. But there are several poets, Billy Collins and Lee Young Li, who write quality individual poems that are still easily understood without supporting poems.
What of the individual poems in a story-theme based collection? What purposed does it serve? Does it get lost, becoming just another piece of the story, as it supports the plot and the development of the characters? Does it need the surrounding cast of poems in the collection to be fully understood?
As far as the metaphors go, Iâ€™ve found that a good analogy or comparison can lead to understanding a lot faster than an explanation. As far as using food in many of my analogies, I think it is more dumb luck than anything. But I suppose there is an unconscious thread there â€“ as my characters are being consumed by a disease.
Regarding using my environment in my work, I think a writer couldn’t say that it’s not important. Our environment is what inspires us. Iâ€™ve been inspired to write poems from the simplest of things â€“ a wave crashing to shore on a lake, a night breeze after a thunderstorm, a splitting headache, a crow watching me take out the garbage. No matter how hard we try to fictionalize things in our writing, I believe every writer leaves behind fingerprints, hair, and other trace evidence to suggest they are really in there masquerading as the narrator or a character.
Damn, that T.S. Eliot!! Actually, when you think about it, Eliot was the Johnny Knoxville of his time. You have to think that out of the hundred people who might actually let a mousetrap snap on their nads, one of them is bound to get famous for it, and “revolutionize” something. Anyway . . .
The easy answer to this one is that story-themed poems can work in the collection and stand on their own — just ask Birmingham Poetry Review, Chiron Review, and Rosebud.
To get on point, each poem in a story-themed collection actually serves two purposes — to stand on its own and to be a piece of a greater whole. But the clincher is this — if the poem is kind of a stinker, it at least still works in the collective aesthetic. Now if a poem in an ordinary poetry collection is a stinker, then it’s shit out of luck as far as anything else is concerned.
Do poems that are part of a story-themed collection get lost? Not anymore than stinker poems in an ordinary “potluck” collection. The whole idea of losing poems in collections is moot anyway. When is the last time a poet had a collection of poetry that didn’t have the consistency and quality of a KISS album? I’d venture not since Leaves of Grass. And they wonder why poetry doesn’t sell anymore — if I bought a case of beer and opened it only to find one full bottle, I’d be pissed too.
So how did your writing process differ, working on a story-theme based collection versus a “potluck” collection? Did you merely plot the story out and then write a poem to fill the needed pieces of the story and character development?
Quite frankly it didn’t differ much outside of always having the story thread and characters in mind when I set out to write a poem. When inspiration struck me — say riding in a car at night, craning your head around the window to see the stars — I would simply write the poem for one of my characters, rather than for a random narrator or for myself. Having those characters predefined before writing allows you to transfer your inspirational energy into that character’s output.
So my process had some predefinition to it, but it wasn’t anally planned from the first syllable to the last. The collection can’t be a Paint-by-Number or your poems lose the freedom they need to work as individuals. The goal is to have natural occurring gaps in your story thread much like a photo album. You don’t take pictures of every moment, but there should be enough pictures to capture the arch of the story and allow the audience to fill in the gaps.
Another critical component to this method is to choose a story arch that can be explored — meaning, leave the Mission Impossible plots to the movies and swing for something more Garden State or Cinderella Man. My second poetry collection is about a man trying to find love after losing his wife in a car accident. Finding a more common place story that your audience can relate to will work better and will give your story some freedom that will allow your individual poems to survive on their own.
Generally, there are two types of writers: those who wait for inspiration to strike before writing a poem and those who grind away at poetry by scheduling writing time each day. The later tend to be more prolific, but I wonder where you fit. You talk of searching out inspiration, yet you’re working on a second collection. You seem a little of both. Do you find it easier to come up with poem ideas when they’re focused on a story and main characters than when you just write random, less cohesive poems about whatever inspires you?
Like you said, I would probably classify myself as a tweener. I’ve found myself, at least since Pacific, not being inspired to write poetry until I’ve found that story. Before Pacific, I always felt it hard to write individual poems. They didn’t feel like they had any weight to them. They felt more like writing assignments or practice. But once I had that story, I felt the weight of it and was able to write about it and often. Those around me at the time can/could attest to seeing a fire lit under me once I had that story piping through me.
So as far as measuring my “tweenness,” it comes in generally 4 phases. The longest phase tends to be a nebulous time period that I have nothing to work with — no story, no inspiration, etc. This period generally is the longest at anywhere from 1-5 years of pure writing ineptitude. I mean I still try and write, but nothing sparks or catches flame. The next phase is the initial inspiration phase. This period is very brief — containing the moment the story or character hits me and I rough out a brief definition of potential story structures and so forth. After stewing on the idea for a few weeks and months, I enter the planning phase, which defines the story, characters, themes, symbols, and so forth that I will be writing around. Generally after this is done, I immediately fall into a secondary inspiration phase where every poem I start can be plugged into the backbone of the story.
Basically, I write the whole time — in one form or another — but I go through phases of concentrated inspiration between periods of uninspiration. It all seems to click better when I have a story to fuel the machine.
Not only does following a story thread make individual poems more accessible to readers, but a story arch provides you with a tool to channel your creative energies. Your writing process for poetry actually reminds me of how, when developing characters, fiction writers often just throw their characters into random situations to see what happens, and thus a story is born.
So what about your characters? Do you have any specific poems you’d like to share that capture the essences of Dave and Marty?
Well, at the beginning of the collection, there are numerous individual poems about both David and Marti. When it comes to capturing Marti’s essence, the poems “On Friday Nights,” “Marti’s Trailer House Living Room,” and “The Tire Swing” capture how she became what she is. “Postcard of Cannon Beach” cements her character and begins our journey to the Pacific. Her life was very different than David’s.
David’s early poems do the same for him. “If an Urn of Ashes was Allowed a Few More Words,” “David’s Mother,” and “What Made Him” illustrate his family life and his road to Marti.
As a pair, David and Marti have more intimate poems. These poems explore a growing relationship between two people that only have each other to live for. I like “Waking Up in A Barn” because it is playful and I think I really captured the twicthiness of sleeping in a hay-filled barn. Of course, “Waiting to Meet Harrison Ford at the End of His Driveway” holds a special place in my wife’s heart because of the Harrison Ford angle. It was really nice working with him, though. At first he said, “I would never steal sandwiches from anyone. You should rewrite that line.” Then I told him, “What would Indy do, man?” He could only crack a devilish smile and say, “Yeah. He’d steal them.” In all seriousness, I liked the idea of epitomizing Ford as everyone’s father figure. “Spying on Her Swim” also has the same kind of playfulness as “Barn.” I like creating those moments where characters are stealing secret glances at their beaus. I also liked the metaphor of a wet shirt being a china cabinet for the “cups” within. That series of lines is one of my favorites. “Catching an Old Couple Showering In a Thunderstorm” is kind of the last piece to the whole romance picture — the growing old with you idea.
Well, Scott, it was fun chatting with you and hearing your ideas on writing and poetry. With the long holiday weekend ahead, it’s probably a good time to let you get back to working on that next collection and doing some fishing – hope they’re biting.
Again, congratulations on having Pacific selected as the 2006 winning entry for Sol Books Poetry Series. I’m looking forward to seeing the published version of your collection, which is due to be published next spring.