Travis Cebula resides with his wife and trusty dog in Colorado, where he founded Shadow Mountain Press in 2009. His poems, photographs, essays, and stories have appeared internationally in various print and on-line journals.
He has authored six chapbooks of poetry, including Blossoms from Nothing, available in 2014 from E·Ratio Editions, as well as three full-length collections. The most recent of which, One Year in a Paper Cinema, has just been released from BlazeVOX Books.
In 2011, Western Michigan University and Charles University in Prague awarded him the Pavel Srut Fellowship for Poetry. In addition to his other teaching, writing, publishing, and editing duties, he is a member of the creative writing faculty at the Left Bank Writer’s Retreat in Paris, France.
Derek Alger: You’re a true son of Colorado.
Travis Cebula: I was born and raised in Golden, Colorado. A few years ago my wife and I even moved back into the same house that I grew up in — I’m about as close to home as a person can get now. I drive past my old schools every day. My wife works as a physician in the hospital where we were both born. Sometimes, life has a way of circling back around on itself. It’s been rewarding to be back, both creatively and personally. I love it here, the mountains and the broad sky, and I think that building some history with a place allows a writer (or any artist) to develop a sense of scale and time that’s different from what one might create if one is in motion constantly. I know every stick on this property. I broke a lot of them loose myself. I know where there’s an old head of a rake rotting in the weeds. I remember when the trees were planted, and watched them grow grand and tall. There’s a pear tree outside the window right now, slowly dying. It’s been there as long as I can remember. The willows that I used to climb in as a kid are now all dead and gone, casualties of a local ditch company maintaining its right-of-way. I’m not sure I like the feeling of outliving trees.
This landscape is always changing — all of them do—but at a pace slow enough that you wouldn’t be able to tell if you weren’t there watching it for years on end. That level of observation requires some stillness. If you watch, I mean really pay attention, while the seasons roll past, I think you develop a sense for the moments that matter, those moments when courses shift a little, and you can train yourself to apply that skill, that judgment, that critical thinking in any environment. You can learn to pick out the important swerves much more quickly. I find this to be particularly important when traveling and visiting new places. In those instances it’s hard to piece together time for long observation.
I’ve been lucky a lot in life. I’ve gotten to see a fair amount of the world. I’ve known love.
DA: One should never underestimate luck.
TC: I’ve heard people say it’s better to be lucky than good (at least in the context of achievement). My parents worked from home, so I got plenty of attention and informal education when I was little. They both worked really hard to explain natural phenomena and share what they knew of the world with me, in detail — plants, creatures, light, life, art, interactions, etc. My mother is an artist and my father was trained as a wildlife biologist, so you can imagine the range of topics we covered. All of our little conversations reinforced the attentiveness that I mentioned before. Dad would crouch down, rummage through some pine needles, and find a little bug — then explain how it fit in the world around it. What did it eat? What ate it? Why does that matter? It’s good to build a little perspective. And their particular line of work didn’t hurt in that regard, either.
DA: What sort of work did they do?
TC: Not too long before I was born they started to take over the family business from my maternal grandparents who were preparing to retire. To shorten a long and interesting story a bit (one that’s probably going to come out in written form eventually) they converted the garage and basement of our house so they could manufacture glass eyes for taxidermy. The bottom floor of the home was, therefore, completely filled with thousands upon thousands of glass eyes for every animal imaginable, from lions to walruses to owls to fish. Before I was old enough to go to school I spent my days in the workshop with them, either painting, coloring, playing, or building things at a little workbench I inherited from our neighbors when their children got too big to enjoy it. Imagine the ball pit at a Chuck E. Cheese filled with eyes. I immersed myself in those eyes. I continued to do so during summers and holidays as I grew up.
One result of this constant exposure — which, I should be clear, was happening since I was an infant — was that the environment was totally mundane to me. I had no idea how weird it was. It was only when I brought friends over to the house that I was reminded that the situation was a tad odd. I imagine the moment of encountering that tableau of false eyes staring and glistening probably was more profound (and in some cases frightening) for them than it ever was for me. Their facial expressions were unequivocal on that score. I was blasé.
On the other hand, having a mindset wherein a roomful of dead eyes is normal, in no way noteworthy, sets one up for a completely different standard for approaching the strange. I feel like I engage oddities with a more neutral and evaluative stance than I would have otherwise. It’s kind of like meeting an old friend. That’s useful. And, from a content standpoint, I also can’t deny that eyes and sight, with all their attendant perils and potential for error, work their way into my poetry now. It tends to be pretty visual, on the whole.
DA: Do you remember when you first showed an interest in writing.
TC: I remember saying when I was nine that I wanted to be a writer. It was the first non-fantastic thought I had about a career for myself. Which is to say I was old enough to realize I wasn’t going to be a fireman, an astronaut, or Batman (not that writing isn’t a fantastical way to make a living, in its own way). My parents instilled a desire in me to do something I loved from a very young age — love and happiness are more important than money, they would say. And, for better or worse, I took the advice to heart. It ended up affecting pretty much every career plan I’ve ever had.
DA: Your parents offered wise advice.
TC: It takes a little time to figure out what you love. Take reading books, for example. If you’ve ever wondered how to get a kid interested in reading, tell them they can stay up as late as they want as long as they’re reading a book. My parents did. Thus, by age eight I loved to read and have always firmly believed that stories and poems represent deep magic ever since. Or alchemy. So, it made perfect sense to me at that relatively young age that if somebody wanted to read then somebody should increase the amount of reading material in the world… that I might be able contribute to the cause.
DA: And so you did.
TC: That was only the first noteworthy instance of following my gut. I enjoyed playing with the English language and learning foreign languages, too, which led to an interest in international relations. An enjoyment of the outdoors led to a study of environmental ethics. A skill at arguing led to considering law school. Still later on, I used my love of eating to become a chef. But, in the end, I came back to writing and that’s where I think I will stay. When I’m writing I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever been at any other job.
My parents were supportive of my scribbling — my mother in particular, being a creative person herself — and they always praised the little poems I wrote for school projects or the surreal stories I would come up with for standardized writing tests (I had no idea that’s what I was doing at the time, but looking back on them they were surreal all right). I particularly enjoyed the constraint of Haiku English teachers assigned to me. It required concision, observation, and, in my case, often a twisted sense of humor.
DA: You had quite an eye opening experience when you were a young teen.
TC: My dedication to writing as a habit was tested when I was 13. In 1986 I sailed across the Atlantic with my aunt and uncle on their small boat (37 feet long). The duration of the trip necessitated missing two months of my 8th grade year. Somehow my parents convinced my school to let me go, with a few conditions. In order to pass the grade I was given two assignments to take with me: first, some algebra problems (which I wasn’t particularly diligent about), and second, to write. I had to keep a detailed journal of what I did and what I saw. I wrote every day — in Spain, in Gibraltar, around the Canary Islands, on Antigua, and yes, in the middle of the ocean. We went for three weeks without seeing land during the main crossing. Writing by hand on a pitching boat during a storm requires some fortitude and a strong stomach, at least. I discovered I had a bit of both, and that both are prerequisites for lasting in this gig. What I wrote that winter was by no means eloquent, but I was attentive and learned a few tricks — the basics of narrative, humor, imagery, and most of all what is a good trigger to build a wider scene. I had to learn how to describe a Barbary ape on a rough wall below a Moorish castle, the crimson silk banners in the wind, the ape in the wind, how the sun hit its tawny fur, the low sun, cold, the glint of it, how the ape’s small pink hand reached out as I walked by, how it hoped for candy, like a child, like me, like all of us, how its eyes dripped down a little in disappointment when no food was to be had, how I kept walking, how it disappeared into the dense brush, and how the world was green and shadowed there. How I never saw it again, nor ever would.
My journal needed to be evocative to share my experiences with my classmates. Thirteen-year-olds needed to be able to see what I saw, feel what I felt, or I wouldn’t get to move on to 9th grade. I got a feel for writing with something at stake. I still have that notebook on my bedside table. The glue is rotted and the pages are falling out.
DA: And an apprentice writer was born.
TC: By the time I was in high school I was mostly composing poems when I was composing anything on my own time. Poems always have felt more natural to me, more true to my core personality. I have to work pretty hard to type out prose, and I’m still fairly self-conscious about that, but when I’m working naturally what comes out is a poem. Those high school poems were what I think of as the standard romantic crap, big feelings and abstractions, darkness, and all. More or less what I’ve seen since from students who haven’t written too much poetry and have only a few notions of what poetry is really about. There weren’t a whole lot of concrete images in those poems; I guess is what I’m saying. And they rhymed, and had meter — both of which I frequently eschew now.
But there also was some joy in them, which must have come through for the few people I shared them with — because they told me I was going to be a poet. To be fair, that might have been partly because I was dressed all in black and spent my time brooding in a library. At the time I scoffed, but it seems that some of my friends were prescient. I just wasn’t that serious about it. However, luck played a part again. I had a fantastic AP English teacher, Rita Klemm, who instilled a sense of the deep honor and responsibility that authorship entailed. I remember my best friend and I helped her move one weekend, and her house was like the library labyrinth from The Name of the Rose. We lifted hundreds of boxes of books that weekend. Libraries are the curse of all movers, and now I’m doing my level best to contribute to the problem by bringing more books into the world. In any case, when I graduated from high school I’d already been thoroughly infected with our peculiar disease. I always did keep writing, regardless of whatever else I happened to be doing in my life.
DA: Where did you go to college?
TC: Well, that’s a convoluted path. Lots of places? Maybe it will make a bit more sense if I start out by saying that I always thought of college as being about education rather than training. It’s a subtle but important distinction, and not everyone feels that way or is lucky enough to even consider between the alternatives. I started out at Claremont McKenna College in California simply because they let me in. I never thought they would, in a million years. They branded themselves as “The Harvard of the West.” In retrospect, they probably admitted me merely as a diversity candidate. The school was so privileged in general that a white kid in a leather jacket with part of his head shaved was probably considered a minority.
I spent one year there, majoring in PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, which I believe was a program they swiped from Oxford or Cambridge) and International Relations. It turned out that in addition to being privileged, the student body was politically hyper-conservative. That wasn’t a good fit for me, and wouldn’t have been for most of the other artists I know. On top of that, the education was extremely expensive, and not all that special as far as I could tell. It was mostly a four-year recommendation letter for a cushy job. My roommate spent his summers teaching tennis lessons on Nantucket, if that gives you some idea. He stole my car. I’m sure he works on Wall Street now. Add into that mix the Rodney King riots, not being able to see the mountains because of the smog, a lack of discernible seasons, the fact that it took five hours to drive to the beach on the weekend, and I was pretty much over living that part of California after a few months. It wasn’t a happy place. I knew when I drove away for summer break that I would never be coming back.
DA: Where did you finally land?
TC: I ended up home in Colorado, crashed a party a few days later with a friend and met the girl who would become my wife. I enrolled in a local community college to take core curriculum classes until she graduated from high school and I could figure out what to do next with my life.
DA: And that was?
TC: I’ve always been a contrarian by nature, so I swore I would never go to Colorado State University — purely because that’s where both of my parents went. But I was completely in love with Shannon, my future wife, and that’s where she was going. Romantic instinct trumped any misguided principles I might have had. Effectively, I started over academically when I got to Fort Collins. It took me four more years to graduate. Again, I was lucky enough to have a family who valued education and had put aside some money to support my efforts. Which meant that I could take courses that I was interested in rather than needing to choose only ones that led efficiently toward a degree. Thank you for that, family. I followed my gut and took courses in subjects I was curious about — Russian literature, biology, aesthetics, Existentialism, Eastern Philosophy, African politics, etc. Oddly enough, this added up to a PPE by the time I graduated, but with English replacing Economics for the E portion of things. Colorado State was a great experience, and I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much if I hadn’t started out where I did. There was a lot more value to the education than at Claremont or at community college.
My time in philosophy was focused largely on studying environmental ethics, which I supplemented with other courses in environmental policy and natural resource management. Lee Speer was my mentor on environmental topics. He was an irascible man who adored playing devil’s advocate just to get students to back up their views on the world. That spoke to me. I also got pretty close with Jane Kneller, who is quite accomplished and knowledgeable about the Enlightenment era (Kant, Hume, Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Locke, Leibniz, among others) and aesthetics. She was my de-facto advisor; since my official one was on sabbatical for three of the years I was there. Both Dr. Speer and Dr. Kneller were generous enough to allow me an open door policy, which is hazardous with undergraduates, and we had a lot of engaging conversations over lunch and outside of class. We mostly talked about ethics, which is always fun for a discussion and also seemed like the mostly likely sub-field of philosophy to have any bearing on real life, as far as I could tell. The rest was just messing around with critical thinking and logic games. It all had holes a mile wide in it, every bit. Not to mention the academic language and writing style were infuriatingly elitist and obstructive. I hated that and tried to avoid emulating it at every turn, despite much pressure being applied to the contrary.
DA: But all was not philosophy.
TC: When I wasn’t studying philosophy, I was working on civil liberties and comparative politics, my interest in travel still driving me to learn about other places. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was taking every creative writing workshop that was available. That was when I started getting serious about my poetry—mostly because I finally had some tools to work with and a really good excuse to use them. I didn’t write a ton outside of assignments, but I took to the exercises with relish, and put together a strong enough portfolio to win a little writing scholarship for my last year of school. In my poetry workshops I was taught by Bill Tremblay and Laura Mullen, two very different poets, but both wonderful and very supportive in their own ways. I’m still in touch with them, thankfully.
As is always the case, when graduation approached I needed to make some serious decisions about what to do next. Following my previous pattern, I assessed my interests. My love of environmental study and my inherent argumentativeness pointed to a master’s degree in environmental ethics followed by law school and a career in environmental law. My love of poetry pointed to an MFA program. At the time, I felt very strongly that if I went straight into grad school in philosophy I would end up in the same boat as Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that I just wasn’t able to play that game with enough distance any more. And, as far as writing was concerned, I wasn’t at all convinced that I was any better than mediocre at that. I felt that there was already more than enough mediocre writing in the world without me adding my little bit to the slush pile.
DA: So what did you do?
TC: After preparing an elaborate meal for some friends (at least by college student standards, bouef bourgignon if remember correctly) somebody mentioned offhand that I could be a chef. Oh, really? I loved to eat, so I decided to cook. I went to my favorite restaurant in Fort Collins and asked them if they would teach me to cook. They said yes, and I apprenticed there for a year and a half. There has been a lot of conversation about cooking and restaurants over the last few years thanks to the rapid spread of cooking shows on television. A fair amount of that talk has surrounded the abrasive/acerbic personalities of chefs, with Gordon Ramsay carrying the banner of profanity into the airwaves. It’s fair to say that whatever happens on TV is nothing compared to what goes on in an actual kitchen.
That first restaurant I worked in had a walk-in cooler whose outside wall looked like a golf ball from the executive chef throwing sauté pans at his underlings. After that level of critique, any feedback I got in writing workshops was tame.
When I left Fort Collins I worked for a while as a surveyor (which, at my level, mostly consisted of walking around outside and hammering various objects into the ground) before starting culinary school. After going through an apprenticeship and a bachelor’s degree the associate’s level program in culinary arts was pretty easy. I already had my core knowledge courses taken care of with redundancy to spare, so I could focus exclusively on cooking. We learned about cuisine from all over the world, in all different styles, which fit well with my eclectic personality. The most interesting thing I observed was an inherent difference between people from the east coast and people from the west in terms of how they conceptualize space. The difference manifested itself when it came time to present dishes to professors for evaluation: inevitably, a student from the east coast would have all the elements of his or her dish packed as high as they possibly could in the middle of the plate, covering as little of an area as was structurally sound. On the other hand, westerners covered every available surface of the plate like a painting, flat and wide. It was a response to their known environment, I’m sure.
I helped open my first restaurant while I was in school, which won a few awards and accolades, and went on to open another with my brother-in-law, who went to culinary school with me, shortly thereafter. It was an Irish-themed spot called Limerick Irish Kitchen. And yes, we had a thick book of dirty limericks stashed behind the bar. Sadly, it didn’t last long.
DA: Another life change came your way?
TC: Not too long after Limerick closed my wife proceeded from medical school into her residency program here in Denver. The selection of residency for medical students is a Byzantine process unlike any I’ve ever encountered. It’s called “The Match,” and basically, every medical student in the country applies to the residencies they’d like to attend, they get interviewed, and then rank-order their list of preferences. The programs more or less do the same, and the lists are fed into a big computer that chews them through an algorithm of some sort. Then all the candidates across the country gather at parties on the same day, Match Day, to find out where they’ll be living for the next three to seven years. Up until Shannon’s Match Day we had no idea if we’d be in Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon, or get to stay home. It turned out that Denver was as excited about her as she was about it.
DA: A lucky break.
TC: We knew we could stay in our home, which at that time had a lush and happy pear tree with wood ducks waddling around under it in May and September. But medical residency brings other challenges with it, as well. Not the least of which is the schedule, which legally is supposed to be limited to 80 hours a week with mandatory time off, but which, in reality, ends up being more like 90-100 hours per week with several 36 hour shifts thrown in and months without a day off. If you match that up with a chef/restaurateur schedule of 60-80 hours per week on an offset schedule, you’ll see there’s not too much opportunity for a shared life. Which meant it was time for a change for me, and I felt like the change should be something with a bit more flexibility in it so I’d be able to flow with my wife’s schedule. She strongly suggested that I reconsider writing and MFA programs.
DA: You were fortunate to have a wise and supportive wife.
TC: I applied to Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, expecting that if I was accepted (which I considered an outside shot at best) I would start the program six months or a year later. About a month after I dropped off my application in the admissions office I received a phone call asking if I’d be interested in starting fall semester, a week and a half later. Just like that, after ten years of not being in a serious academic environment I was in a Master’s program. It was more than a little intimidating.
DA: How was Naropa?
TC: Naropa was fantastic for me, but I could see how it might not be for everyone. It was a place where you got out of it what you put in. There was plenty of opportunity to learn, but there was also space to skate along, if that was what you were looking for. I’m very much a self-starter, which is clearly one of the core components of the program. I was able to get a lot out of it. It’s also very craft-based, as opposed to teaching or publishing focused (which is a double-edged sword, insofar as there also weren’t a whole lot of funding opportunities available). That was important to me, as I take the “F” in MFA very seriously. I only ever intended to be a writer, with publishing or teaching taking a back seat to the art.
My class was an outlier, I’ve discovered, in that it was packed with incredibly talented writers who were also generous, supportive, loving, and community-oriented. There was no competitive element poisoning the mix, no stabbing fellow students in the bathroom and taking their manuscripts, which means I came out of the program with a community of good friends all over the country. People went out and started journals, presses, taught, opened bookstores, and did all sorts of amazing things that were about more than just their own writing. Look up Marie Larson, JenMarie Macdonald, Jennifer Phelps, Rebecca George, Daniel Dissinger, Kristi Kagy, Richard Schwass, or Adrienne Dodt. They’re all doing exciting things, and most of them have books available so you can read more. It was and is a group of true artists and advocates, and I’m overjoyed to be a part of it.
DA: You had some amazing, caring teachers at Naropa.
TC: I was privileged to work with some amazing professors. My first workshop was with Anselm Hollo, who in addition to being witness to some great pieces of poetic history (Black Mountain among them) had a very wry sense of humor and a great ear for poetry. That was my introduction to graduate-level workshops, which I most often describe to non-initiates as a Promethean experience — imagine being chained to a rock and having your liver torn out by giant eagles on a daily basis. You get used to it.
The most important relationship I formed was with my thesis advisor, Elizabeth Robinson. Elizabeth has an uncanny ability to come to writers on their own terms, to interpret their goals in projects, and help guide them to excellence. She’s probably the most generous person with her time and energy that I’ve ever met, a generosity that often gets put to the test with recommendation letter requests, blurbs, and reviews. Occupational hazard. She was also the only professor at Naropa that made an effort to prepare her students for the life of a poet beyond the act of creating poetry. The lucky students who were able to work with her gave a reading, we structured manuscripts, we submitted work to journals, we taught classes, and we wrote reviews of fellow student’s manuscripts. Elizabeth’s poetry workshop was my first exposure to any of those things, and I wouldn’t have had that if not for her. She insisted that we participate in the larger conversation, which has been rewarding ever since.
Last, but not least, I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. The chapbook I put together in Elizabeth’s workshop became my first little book of poetry in 2009, Some Exits. The creative manuscript portion of my thesis ended up being my first full-length collection of poetry, Under the Sky They Lit Cities. Commence, a chapbook of haiku I put together to give to my friends at graduation, was the starting point of Shadow Mountain Press. I’ve published books by eight other authors under the imprint since. I also started writing Ithaca while I was there. It was a productive time.
DA: Tell us about the Left Bank Paris Retreat.
TC: The Left Bank Writers Retreat was started in 2010 by Darla Worden and Sarah Suzor. They ran two sessions that summer in Paris, France. I attended the first one, and then came back during the second one to present a short lecture on the importance of food in writing, particularly with regard to Hemingway. The Retreat itself consists of a writing workshop in the morning with exercises and discussion, followed by lunch at a café with a literary connection, and visits in the afternoon to inspiring local sites, including places like Montmartre, Luxembourg Gardens, and the Musee D’orsay. Paris has no shortage of things to look at. We finished out the week with a visit to Versailles, which I spent bicycling around the extensive gardens behind the palace itself.
I honestly didn’t know that much about the Retreat before I went, since it hadn’t been held before. I received an email from Sarah saying it would be a great time… I believe Paris, if attainable, is an invaluable stop for an aspiring writer. If you can’t find something to write about while you’re in that environment, you need to find a new vocation. I had very romantic, and vague, notions about what Paris was like based on a few movies and a few books like A Moveable Feast and Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The mythology of the Lost Generation and the garret Bohemians got its hooks into me, and I made plans to live there for a month in a small apartment. The reality was more than I ever imagined.
I write quite a bit under normal circumstances now, but if you give me an excuse, an exercise, or extra motivation that level increases dramatically. In that month I think I produced well over a hundred poems, took a thousand photographs (conservatively), and added another 150 pages of travel journaling. The only book of poetry I had with me was an old Penguin edition of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, so that proved to be my lyrical guide through the city. Everywhere I turned there was something to write about; Paris is devoid of “dead air,” as far as I can tell. I spent my days just walking around the city, stopping on bridges and street corners—anywhere there was an object I could lean against — to write. Because I was there for an extended period of time I also had the luxury of sitting down and observing the city happening around me, of getting a real feel for the place, its people, and their attitude towards life. It’s also validating to be in a place that venerates writers so much, that builds monuments to them.
DA: Sounds like an amazing experience
TC: I could go on and on about the place, but some of those poems will inevitably be available to read someday, and they speak for themselves. I structured a lot of them as epistolary pieces to Shannon, because that was the first time we’d been apart for an extended period of time since we were married.
“The endless cycle of idea and action”
you asked me to explain
myself, to explain why
I am here. perhaps,
why the streets are
so empty and the buildings are
so uniformly grey. perhaps
you do not remember.
there are eight stories
to every one, and every one
begins, “it is Sunday.”
for now it is Sunday and
the cafés are closed.
four men in chartreuse coveralls
hose down sidewalks.
cigarettes and stones shine in June almost
as if it were cold. and it is.
for once a fireplace makes sense—
from this cracked leather chair I look back
and forth between the soot on bricks
and the ink — both feel warmer
than clouds. or water that plummets
piece by piece. the movement
of hands over paper provides a bit of
relief, like rubbing tombstones
in winter, but a less eloquent form
of friction. less true than a thousand twisted
scarves. all blue. Angel, I am here to write
this perfect cerulean, yes, and to speak
only to you of this and these.
these clouds and these leaden roofs
and geese and their river sliding by the Ile
Saint Louis like photosynthetic oil.
no one else swims here, and could I
blame them? even their ghosts would
freeze, perhaps sink, clean
of such slimy bodies. weeks
later the bouquinistes along the quays
would wipe some residue of splashing
rain from their plywood stalls.
and it would also be green,
written that way just for you.
DA: And a Left Bank Writers Retreat guy arrived.
TC: In 2012 Darla invited me back ostensibly as a participant, but what turned out to be an extended informal interview for a position as an instructor. I’ve been an enthusiastic part of the team ever since. I really believe in the program — what students have accomplished there in a short time is really mind-blowing, even people who have never written seriously before. We’ve had people attend who run the gambit from writing professors to stay-at-home moms, and everything in between. Darla is currently working on a book that lays out some of her exercises and anthologizes a lot of the great stories, poems, and vignettes that have come out of the Retreat over the years.
DA: Was your trip to Paris the inspiration for . . . but for a Brief Interlude at Versailles?
TC: …but for a Brief Interlude at Versailles is a chapbook I wrote during that first visit to Versailles. I was sitting in the grass next to the big cross-shaped lagoon in the gardens, surrounded by sculpted hedges, fountains, gilded palaces, a storybook village, etc. The contemporary reality of an exclusive paradise becoming a beautiful park for anyone and everyone felt surreal to me, and I started thinking about surrealism as a whole — specifically where surrealism really got started. It occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t Breton and Apollinaire or the usual suspects that get credited for the origins of the Surrealist movement, and that maybe it wasn’t even Alfred Jarry or Rimbaud or Verlaine or the Symbolists who really got the ball rolling, or even the Romantics before them. The true origins might have come a lot earlier… Specifically, I found myself sitting in a place where Louis XIV could go to bed one night, dream, and then wake up the next morning with the resources and the will to make whatever bizarre dream he had that night a physical reality. That was surrealism made concrete, without any conceptual superstructure around it.
I wanted to put a human face to that, so I chose a child (albeit a royal one) who was thrust into that strange environment to be my mouthpiece: Marie Antoinette. From that decision point on, the manuscript flowed. It was fun imagining conversations she might have had with her husband, Louis XVI up to and including the French Revolution. I’m still a little baffled by the decision, but I’m glad I made it.
I’ve also always been interested in finding ways to incorporate visual art with poetry. In Some Exits I included several black and white photographs I took of that landscape. I had a lot of pictures of Versailles and ended up modifying them into illustrations that put literal images in conversation with the poetic ones I was employing. I thought the results were successful, and sent the manuscript to Sarah Suzor, who obviously shares my feelings about Paris (and who I also shared some of the more amusing lines with as I was writing them), and who apparently also spit coffee all over her computer when she read the first page and decided to publish the book on the spot, through her press, Highway 101. I’m grateful for it.
DA: Your early published poetry has been described as “exquisitely spare as the landscapes they contain.”
TC: Yeah. Sara Nolan, a dear friend and fellow graduate said that about Some Exits, if I remember correctly. I suppose that comes from a synthesis of my sense of place (Colorado and the American southwest are pretty spare and barren places, for the most part) and my strongest poetic influences at the time, which happened to be imagists and objectivists along the order of William Carlos Williams and Lorine Niedecker. I think of Ezra Pounds classic short poem about people in the Metro in Paris. I also found a lot of kinship with the short lines of Robert Creeley. I liked the idea of giving poems a lot of space to breathe on the page. The pacing mirrored my experiences of moving through that environment — both walking and road trips. Under the Sky They Lit Cities, some of my observations from growing up in Colorado, is similarly sparse. There are a lot of open spaces in this part of the world. I wonder if she would consider my current work, which moves deeper into cities, quite as spare as those earlier pieces.
DA: Your most recently released collection, One Year in a Paper Cinema, has a unique premise behind it.
TC: This is by far the most conceptual and procedural book I’ve ever attempted. The title refers to 365 separate poems that I wrote over the course of a calendar year, all of them relating to films. I reconstructed one poem each day from the language contained in the primetime movie titles listed in the TV guide of my local newspaper. I decided to organize it by the astronomical calendar rather than Gregorian, just for fun, which means it starts with the summer solstice and proceeds season by season through the year.
To contextualize the project a bit, I guess I should start by saying that I believe humans are essentially narrative creatures — that is to say, our consciousness works in a narrative way. It’s how we view, conceptualize, learn about, and organize our world. And by narrative I mean simply that our minds work in terms of a sequence of events, one thing happens after another, be that thing a thought, a perception, or whatever. What else is a story, when you get right down to it, other than sequentiality? To me, that’s the most rudimentary form of narrative: one thing just happening after another. I look at a tree; I look at a cloud; then… It all ends up being a function of “next.” I can’t really focus on everything at once, as much as Picasso or Stein might have wanted me to. And I can’t help but assume that other people operate in more or less the same way. Language follows the same rules. One word event happens after another until a sentence, a line, a paragraph, a novel, or a poem forms. So language, at core, is essentially narrative. It might be good narrative, or bad narrative, or strange narrative. But it’s still just a sequence of events. So is science, for that matter. So is film. Some poets I know might take umbrage with my stance, poets who are opposed to the supremacy of narrative, but I mean no offense. I just take a very broad view of what narrative is.
DA: You obviously have a love and thorough knowledge of films.
TC: I’ve always watched a lot of films, and happen to be very close friends with a film critic who I’ve been going to movies with for the last 30 years or so. He and I have had a lot of conversations over the years about how movies are a peculiarly important part of our society, and how they and other pop-culture reflect the overall mood, values, and concerns of America. Films are one of the most vital vehicles for American mythology. I’ve always seen titles as being elemental frames for narratives — thus, movie titles would in some way be the elemental frames for our culture’s mythology and narrative. The language in movies titles has been hallowed, to a degree, as a designator of what a lot of folks care about. The language gets further refined when movies are selected for re-broadcast on television, and even more refined by being popular (reaching enough of a consensus approval) to be rebroadcast during prime time. I thought it would be interesting to track that language over the course of a year and see what the pure language had to say when removed from its original context. What stories are we telling ourselves over and over without really knowing we’re doing it? The poems were of mixed quality, from my perspective. But then, so were the movies I was working from. The poems are sketches of our stories, for good or ill.
The timing of the project proved fortuitous, though. Shortly after I finished the manuscript, the newspaper discontinued the little TV guide insert they provided every week, and the material was no longer available. I guess it’s now a little piece of time, too. Lots of people I know remember looking through that thing all the time. Now it’s gone, and as such has a little ephemeral beauty it never had while it was here. I’m a bit conflicted about feeling nostalgia for something that banal, but there it is.
DA: Your poetry collection, Ithaca: A Life in Four Fragments, was an ambitious undertaking.
TC: I have always had a tendency to think of the creative act in terms of parenting, and thus to think of my manuscripts and poems as children. They represent independent lives with rights of their own. You try to raise them well, but eventually you have to stop messing with them and send them out into the world.
At one point in graduate school I was simultaneously reading Ulysses and a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges. I came across Borges’ short story, The Circular Ruins, which chronicles the efforts of a magician to dream a son into existence by dreaming of him in detail night after night. I couldn’t help thinking this was a much more elegant way of describing how I felt about the process of writing. At the same time, Ulysses and what Joyce does with language in that book fascinated me deeply. I also wondered a lot about the distantly loved and absent character of Milly, Leopold Bloom’s daughter. An idea started to coalesce in my mind that combined the two books. I wondered what would happen if bits of language from Ulysses were used to dream a daughter (or a country, or a religion, because I saw parallels there). Joyce compresses an entire life (the life of a book, anyway) into a single day. I wanted to let the day breathe back out into an entire lifetime. The result was Ithaca, the fictionalized verse biography of the resulting entity, broken into four fragments. I chose Ithaca both for its reference to Odysseus’ home and its ambiguity. Is it a person or a nation-state? I’m still not completely sure myself. However, it is most emotionally compelling for me when I read the book and Ithaca is a person, particularly when she becomes a lonely old woman. I usually tear up a bit when I’m reading from the Confinement section.
The undertaking was ambitious enough to make me uncomfortable now. At the time I was writing the book I was too absorbed in the process to address the issue of “who the hell are you to be messing around with Joyce or Borges, let alone both at the same time?” Certainly, neither one of them needs any help from the likes of me. It’s done now, though. The child is effectively launched and in the world.
DA: You have a co-written book, After the Fox, due out next year.
TC: After the Fox is the most fun I’ve had writing a book, without question. The collaborative process, or at least the way we work it, is like having Christmas presents show up in your email box every day. Sarah Suzor and I did call and response back and forth over the course of a year and a half. One epistolary page responded, turned, and returned to another. Later we remixed the pieces into the sequenced book that’s coming out next summer. Working with Sarah is particularly rewarding because we have similar enough poetic sensibilities to maintain a conversation, but disparate enough ones to keep the voices distinct and interesting.
The book follows the pseudo-mythic stories of night and day (in the personae of Nocturnal and Morning) as they chase each other around the world. It started with a simple phrase, “Tally Ho!” which morphed into “after the fox.” It seemed like a great metaphor for the grander chase most people find themselves in at one point or another, in one form or another. On the surface the book deals with universal issues of romantic yearning, but under that are a lot of deeper currents about communities, language, life, gender roles, and the fundamental nature of human relationships. What is the importance of a shared history? Is it enough to keep people together? Is wanting enough? What does together mean?
If I had to pick one word to describe the book, it would be “vibrant.” Sarah writes the part of Morning, and I inhabit Nocturnal for the purposes of the book. But, in the absence of the names, a reader should be able tell who wrote which parts pretty easily, I think. Sarah’s are way better than mine. Her lines are infectious. Her first book, The Principle Agent, is still one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read. As we were composing the book, I knew I had no hope of competing with the lines she was coming up with, so I felt liberated to not even try. For my part, that removed any notion that we were working in any way other than cooperatively. I suspect she might say the same thing in reverse, if asked. That level of mutual respect is a great place to start from if you’re collaborating with someone, I guess. It’s been working so far for us, and we’re still going.
Sarah and I met originally through Elizabeth Robinson, who we share as a mentor. While were both in graduate school and half a country apart, Elizabeth suggested I submit some work to a journal Sarah was editing in California at OTIS College of Art and Design. She accepted a poem and my cover letter for publication, and we came in contact via email. A few months later she attended a couple of classes at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program, where we met in person for the first time. Our paths crossed at some readings in Denver after that, but we didn’t really get a chance to spend serious time together until that first year in Paris. We had a lot of great conversations in cafés all over the city, and during the walks to and from them. We just clicked. After that she invited me to read with her at Poet’s House in New York, and had the great idea that we should write a little collaborative piece to read together at the event. Those first few pages, set in New York, became After the Fox. We’ve been meeting up to teach, collaborate, and read all over the world ever since. With no end in sight.
DA: What’s next on the agenda.
TC: I work best (or at least most) without a set agenda, so I have several projects in various states of completion. On any given day one will call out to me. Sarah and I have a new collaboration in the works about where the world is headed, called Last Call. My individual manuscripts are figuratively and literally scattered across the map from New York to Paris and beyond. One was born out of the first man to ever jump off the Empire State Building. Another was born out of three pages of Tender Buttons that was boiled in borax for six hours and given to me by fellow poet Julia Cohen. That one’s about mothers. Another one’s about the future predicting past dreams. They’re all quite different from one another, and quite different from any other books I’ve done before. Creeley’s old adage about form being an extension of content is very much at play in my work, and probably always will be. I hate getting in a rut.
I’ll keep moving. I’ll keep teaching every year in Paris and in Denver when I can, as long as I can. I’ll keep stitching chapbooks in between writing poems. I may even try my hand at stories, see where the narratives lead in more depth.
I’ve learned that if I just keep thousands of glass eyes peeled the world is bound to present something of value. I’ll keep making my own glass eyes, my own little poems. They’re like the eyes. They’re not really alive, I know. But I’ll keep trying to dream them as close to life as possible, so that if a person looks at them they’ll be able to imagine the life inside.